“Black as Coal” by Xabier Montoia

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Gernika, the Basque spelling of Guernica, might be the most internationally recognizable part of contemporary Basque history because of Pablo Picasso’s painting, inspired by the German Luftwaffe’s “Condor Legion” bombing raid of the market town, killing anywhere from 126 to 1,654.  The current population of the city is a little over 16,000.  It was never a center of industry, but it did house the regional Basque Government and was therefore was a significant target for Franco.

“Black as Coal” presents this event from a much different angle.  The story is about a young Basque boy who has an affair with a German pilot named Hans Schwarz.  It is told in retrospect with the speaker setting the stage in the opening paragraph by stating that he lost his virginity the day after the bombing of Gernika.  Here Montoia ties together the protagonist’s personal life with the Basque history.  What makes it so interesting is the story’s perversity: a Basque boy sleeping with a German pilot.  World War II films are often filled with French and Dutch women having love affairs with Nazis, women who after the war were shunned from society.  Yet this is a story of a secret affair and feels confessional.

The beginning of the story sets up the narrator’s sexual frustration.  “At first I thought I was the only sick one (144),” the narrator tells the reader.  The sickness he’s alluding to is homosexuality, which he refuses to clearly state right away.  On the third page of the story the reader begins to see the world through the protagonists eyes, “My eyes weren’t drawn to these girls he [Teo] admired so much, but to the stocky young workers who grabbed them boldly around the waist (145).”  In the next paragraph the narrator tells the reader, “Death was my only way out.”  Here the author creates tension between the protagonist and the world.  Therefore when the German pilot seduces the boy, we, the readers, are torn in two.  The audience knows that this pilot will be a part of the bombing raid but one some level the reader is empathetic to the protagonist’s situation.

In a comedic moment the narrator again shows the reader what he sees in the Germans: “I liked the Germans [….] They said please whenever they asked for anything and, once they had it, never failed to say thank you.  They were so different from the arrogant Falangists or the Italians who spent all day perfuming themselves and preening their mustaches.”  First we realize that the narrator is fighting against the Communists and with the Spanish and Italian Fascists.  I won’t even begin to get into the complexities of what was at stake, but on a simple level Spain was split between Communist/Socialist against Madrid’s Catholic/military/centralist forces.  It wasn’t simply Basque against Spanish.  There were Catholic Basques who fought against the God-hating Communists.  [For a heady read that really lays out the complexity of the war please read Hugh Thomas’ Spanish Civil War, a book I’m just starting.]  But the portrayal of the Italians is stereotypical and humorous.  And for a moment there is a weightlessness of young love in the story.

The reader follows the hidden love affair and how the narrator’s best friend, Teo, notices the marked change in protagonist’s mood.  The story’s climax comes in a moment of marked optimism.  The narrator gushes about how he loves his job and how he’s fantasizing about his lover.  Then he sees a plane with a trail of smoke, but instead of running away from the Heinkel 51, he runs toward it.  He’s convinced that Hans is in that plane.  A policeman keeps him from running into the arcade where the narrator would’ve died.  The city was under attack with an “inferno of the explosion: the whine of munitions, broken glass from the shop windows, shrapnel, ashes, and smoke [….] the policeman’s face was bloody and I could feel blood on my own cheeks as well.  I panicked then, worried about the pilot (155).”  I won’t go through the whole climax of the story.  Some things are better read, to be enjoyed by experiencing them the way that they were meant to be.  Tales should be read.

What I love about this story is how Montoia layered the text so that I would feel sympathy for this boy whose first love affair was tied in with his town being destroyed.  There are so many different ways the story could be told.  The narrator could’ve been a little girl instead of a boy.  But there would be less tension resulting from the secret love affair.  The pilot could’ve been a foot soldier from Italy (or Spain) but that wouldn’t have provided such a dramatic ending, one so intricately tied in with the historical event surrounding Gernika.

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