70 years ago, in August 1944, the French General Jacques Philippe Leclerc (the wartime pseudonym of Philippe François Marie de Hautecloque) entered Paris with his 2nd Armoured Division to liberate the city. Just before midnight on August 24, his troops reached the Hotel de Ville in the heart of Paris. General Leclerc’s charisma and reluctance to follow the American’s order are legendary. What is less known is that the first element of the 2nd French Armoured Division entering Paris was the 9th Company (the “Nueve”) made mostly of former Spanish Republicans. Paco Roca’s Los Surcos del Azar (published in Spain in 2013 and translated in French in 2014) is a superb graphic novel on the long and winding road of one of those forgotten Leclerc’s Republican Spaniards.
Los surcos del Azar (2013) by Paco Roca (Bilbao: ediciones Astiberri), 328p. – ISBN: 978-84-15685-36-4 – [in Spanish]
La Nueve (2014) by Paco Roca (Paris: Delcourt), 313p. – ISBN: 978-2-7560-5025-6 – [in French]
Los Surcos del Azar by Francisco Martinez Roca (aka Paco Roca) is the first graphic novel on the Republican Spaniards who ever since the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 have fought in Spain, in North Africa, in France and elsewhere in the hope to return one day to liberated Spain. First released in Spanish in 2013 and translated in French in April 2014, Surcos del Azar is largely inspired by the pioneering work of Evelyn Mesquida, La Nueve, los españoles que liberaron Paris [The 9th or the Spaniards who liberated Paris] published in 2008 and the TV documentary, La Nueve ou les oubliés de la victoire [the 9th or the forgotten ones of the victory] produce by the filmmaker Alberto Marquardt in 2009. Yet, Los Surcos del Azar is a moving and elegantly drawn story.
Los Surcos del Azar starts where the Spanish Civil war ended with the defeat and exile of the last Republicans, in the port of Alicante in 1939. By land or by sea, many of them managed to leave Spain. Some were detained in French internment camps and others resumed the fight a few years later as part of the Nueve, the famous 9th company of the Chad regiment integrated within General Leclerc’s armoured division. In Los Surcos del Azar Paco Roca tells the story of one those forgotten Leclerc’s Spaniards, Miguel Ruiz. Miguel Ruiz leaves in the North-East of France, in Lorraine. He never forgot the civil war, the harbour in Alicante where in 1939, in embarked upon the “Stanbrook” with his unfortunate comrades and arrived after a long journey in Oran on the north-western Mediterranean coast of Algeria, before joining Leclerc’s division. He never forgot the war but never spoke about it:
Paco: A friend historian has done some serious research over the past few years on a retired combatant who – according to some anarchist veterans and members of the WWII Parisian Resistance –, is named Miguel Ruiz and leaves around here. There can be only one. You.
Miguel: Damned anarchists, can’t they leave me alone at once? To hell all of them whoever they are!
Paco: Are you Miguel Ruiz, who left Spain on the Stanbrook with Granell and Moreno?
Miguel: I do not have much to say about it.
This is how starts the conversation between the Spanish artist and the suspicious, taciturn old man in his flat in the rainy little village of Baccarat, nor far away from Nancy (North-East of France). Page after page as the conversation with Paco Roca continues, Miguel Ruiz tells his epic story with great details, looking back on those years of suffering without a trace of bitterness or resentment. Baccarat is a real village. Miguel Ruiz is a fiction. He never existed and Paco Roca never met him. He is inspired though by a real member of the “Nueve”, the anarchist Miguel Campos, who disappeared in December 1944 somewhere around Nancy. If Miguel Campos was still alive, what could he tell us? Perhaps that Miguel Ruiz is not so untrue.
Paco Roca’s account of Spanish Republicans of the 9th Company is thorough, exciting and full of authentic anecdotes. The incredible and epic journey of those Spanish anarchists and Republicans is told with respect and admiration. They were all in their early twenties when they took up the arms in 1936. None of them would have thought that eight years later they will be the first to liberate Paris. During many years they have been forgotten. In 2010, three of them – Rafael Gomez, Luis Royo and Manuel Fernandez – received the medal of Paris and during the recent commemoration of the liberation of Paris in August 2014, the Spanish-born Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, paid a tribute to all of them in front of an assembly where Spanish Republican and CNT flags were floating around… ¿Para qué llamar caminos a los surcos del azar? Why give the name roads to the ruts of fate, said once the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado who died while he was escaping the Francoist repression and moving across the French border in 1939.
Los Surcos del Azar is a superb graphic novel. Not only Paco Roca’s reminds his reader about the important role played by these soldiers once forgotten and now celebrated, but he also offers a stimulating reflection on fiction, reality and Spanish national memory about the Civil War in the continuity of two of his previous works: El Faro [the lighthouse], originally published in 2004 and reedited in 2009 by Astiberri and El Angel de la Retirada [the angel of the departure], published in Spanish by Bang Ediciones and in French by 6 pieds sous terre in 2010.