Michael Mullan - Obituary - Victor Alba
(The Guardian, 24th March 2003)
Victor Alba, who has died aged 86, never existed - despite an immense volume of published evidence to the contrary. Behind the nom-de-plume was the radical journalist Pere Pagès, who was exiled in France after the Spanish Civil War and worked under Albert Camus at the left-wing newspaper Combat. “Victor Alba” was the protagonist in a novel Pagès worked on during six years in Franco’s prisons, and he invited Camus to give his opinion on the finished draft.
“Ç’est une merde”, was the succinct verdict, whereupon Pagès doused the manuscript in brandy and burned it. But he rescued the name of Victor Alba, which became his own by-line for the rest of a literary lifetime. The fictional character put his name to well over a hundred books and pamphlets and thousands of articles expounding his idiosyncratic libertarian views.
Alba had more than that in common with George Orwell; when Eric Blair, as was, visited Barcelona to witness the infighting among the Republican forces, Alba was his guide. His language skills earned him this assignment from Andreu Nin, ill-fated leader of the Partit Obrer d’Unificació Marxista (POUM), the unorthodox party Alba served as a militiaman and propagandist. What Orwell witnessed inspired his Homage to Catalonia. Ken Loach’s 1995 film Land and Freedom owes much to Orwell, though the director also credits Alba’s history of the POUM.
Born into a bourgeois family, and enrolled as a law student at Barcelona University, Alba was an unlikely recruit to the POUM but these were no ordinary times. Dabbling in political journalism from the age of 16, he wrote for the party organ Ultima Hora and La Batalla. After the war, he was jailed in Alicante and later in Barcelona and, before escaping to France in 1945, translated some of Mark Twain’s works.
In 1946, Alba published his first substantial historical text, Histoire des Républiques Espagnoles. His exile continued in Mexico, where he wrote for newspapers and magazines, directed a social research centre, taught at university and wrote his 1954 Historia del comunismo en América Latina. Moving to the USA, he worked as a translator at the World Health Organization and taught politics at Kent State University in Ohio.
From 1968, Alba started revisiting Catalonia, settling back in 1970 to witness the last years of the hated Franco regime. He was regarded with suspicion by both the dictatorship and the underground opposition, of which the backbone in his region was the communist Partit Socialista Unificat de Catalunya. For the PSUC, with which Alba had clashed in the Republican ranks, anyone who had spent so much time in the USA and criticised the Soviet Union with such vehemence could (preposterously) only be a CIA mole.
During this decade Alba’s prodigious output peaked, with four or five books appearing in a single year in the several languages he mastered. Despite their value as eyewitness testimony, these were often ignored by the mainstream media and few were bestsellers. His biographies, Andreu Nin (1974) and Joaquim Maurín (1975) are indispensable for students of that era, as are his four volumes on the POUM and the Bloc Obrer i Camperol. His published novels were not as much admired as his journalism, though El pájaro africano (The African Bird, 1975) was shortlisted for the Planeta prize.
Alba created his own genre with a series of ‘dictionaries’, books of miniature essays about things that annoyed him. A regular contributor to the leading Catalan-language daily Avui, he was revered by many journalists as a model of style and industry.
Having pursued many lost causes, Alba saluted the myth of Sisyphus in titling his autobiography Sísifo y su tiempo: Memorias de un cabreado, 1916-1996. The subtitle, “memoirs of a man pissed off”, captures the scathing, sarcastic tone he cultivated with such pride and care.
Michael Portillo has written in this newspaper of his astonishment, when interviewing Alba, to hear him describe the Civil War years as the time of his life. He told another interviewer: “Fear makes you feel alive. That was a period that made you feel that whatever you were doing really meant something.”
The twentieth century, he added, was “the worst son-of-a-bitch century there’s been. Not just for the number of people killed, tortured or persecuted, but because we’ve had a greater technological capacity than any other century and we could, therefore, have made life so much better.” However, he was happy to have been around for long enough to toast the deaths of the three symbols of his visceral hatred: Hitler, Stalin and the self-styled Generalísimo.
He felt the protagonists of Spain’s post-Franco transition were too timid in settling for the easy consensus known metaphorically as “café para todos” - coffees all round: “They should have ordered coffees, brandies and cigars for everyone.”
In the vernacular, Alba was “sense pèls a la llengua” - there were no hairs on his tongue. Speaking his mind was among his quintessentially Catalan characteristics, as was his stubbornly libertarian, anti-communist, anti-capitalist outlook. He exemplified (to quote another of his titles) Homo sapiens catalanibus.
Pagès, and/or Alba, succumbed to cancer at Sant Pere de Ribes near Barcelona. He is survived by his French-born wife, Noemi (Loute) Boune and their daughter, Cristina.
Pere Pagès i Elies (Victor Alba), writer, born 1916; died 10 March 2003.
Michael Mullan - Obituaries...
Spanish translation by Juan Manuel Grijalvo...