The Anarchist Who Shared My Name

By Pablo Martín Sánchez
translated by Jeffrey Diteman 


Deep Vellum
December 2018

Reviewed by Rick Henry


Pablo Martín Sánchez's The Anarchist Who Shared My Nameis a disturbing but satisfying, read. We might start with the violence. Shootings, bombs, torture. A trial 'by morality' wherein the prosecution cares little about evidence, but instead argues to convict our hero (Pablo) and several other accused anarchists based on "hypotheses and moral convictions." Part of that argument carries the expectation that executing the anarchists will work as a simple deterrent. The discomfit with this position hits a little close to home given the contemporary climate in the United States. Indeed, much of the novel hits close to home. However much The Anarchist Who Shared My Nameis set in a historical moment, that moment is also a backdrop—its currents can be transported across history.

We could continue with noting an odd kind of aimlessness. Our anarchists are committed to the overthrow of Primo de Rivera's dictatorship in Spain, a government which is the result of a coup. But they seem to be constitutionally unable to coordinate or act with a coherent and concerted plan. There are loose plans—assemble in small groups at the border and wait. But the 'plans' are constantly disrupted by smallest of details. This aimlessness extends to nearly everything Pablo does. The drifting comes with its own frustrations—as readers, we are left to follow him from France to Spain to France to New York to Argentina and back, most of which just happens just because. But . . . we might say, such is life. And Sánchez is following an historical figure, an anarchist from his early childhood. 

Such is life. Throw in a love interest. A passion. The love of Pablo's life. What appears to be his driving impulse is overshadowed, however, by the politics. The pursuit of the young woman is haphazard at best. At its worst, we see our hero come to the brilliant realization that if he can commit some atrocity and get caught, his name will be broadcast everywhere. That will allow the love of his life to find him. Thisplan, at least, comes to fruition.

Much of the satisfaction of this novel lies in watching how Sánchez negotiates time as he constructs his narrative. The overall structure is typical biography, running the course of Pablo's life from 1890 to his death in 1924. Into that structure is a second story, one that begins with his arrest in 1924, runs through the trial, and ends with his execution, or 'legal murder.' These chapters open with excerpts from testimonials, leaflets, newspaper stories, and other documents from those who participated in the movement and the atrocity that Pablo and others were charged with. The movement back and forth between the two stories establishes a more nuanced portrait of the anarchist who shared his name. Sánchez's epilogue offers a broader stroke, a historical overview of the movement, its participants, and their fates. 

As a young boy (late 1890s), the printer's apprentice has a chance opportunity to see "The Lumière Cinematograph." The five-minute film isn't described in depth, but the nature of the slices of life, the editing, and the movements from danger (an oncoming train) to ordinary children playing with a dog and a bit of slapstick, give a rounded picture of life at the time. The narrator comments on the cinematograph more generally: "the optimists claimed that the cinematograph would improve people's lives and contribute to the development of human thought." This sentiment is countered with the assessment that the new technology is little more than a "sideshow gag," and further, that "it would shrink children's brains." These assessments might serve as a model for the book in terms of the anarchist movement, generally, and Sánchez's selection and arrangement of his historical details and story, which share some of the editorial splicings of film. Perhaps this is one reason Sánchezwas invited to join the literary group Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (OuLiPo). This, and the fact that he has translated work by other members of the group. 

Underlying everything is a bit of irony that appears to drive the narrative. Having been condemned, Pablo appears to commit suicide—a leap through a window as he's being ushered to his execution. The narrator comments: "Too bad your peers no longer have the courage of a Don Quixote to launch themselves into the void." One feels, early on in the novel, that we have precisely that in Pablo and, more generally, in the anarchist movement—Don Quixote. What of Sancho Panza? The entirety of Spain, "cowardly and gluttonous, incapable of grasping any idea from beyond its manger." A sideshow gag? No. A threat to children's brains? No. The development of human thought? Perhaps, assuming we might read with a critical sense of the void and its contrast with what it means to "grasp an idea."