All four of my grandparents were refugees; my mother was a refugee, and her only sibling was twice a refugee by the age of thirty-five. Sometimes, therefore, I feel mildly guilty at my own comparatively smooth passage through life, as if it were in some sense my duty to have experienced it as a vale of tears, and selfish of me not to have done so. Insofar as I have experienced misery, it has been overwhelmingly of my own making—one definition, I suppose, of a free and fortunate person.
What is it to arrive in a foreign country, having fled imminent persecution and possible death, with no belongings and no obvious means of support? This was the question that ran through my mind constantly in Collioure, the beautiful and charming (not to say chichi) port on the Mediterranean French coast, not far from the Spanish border. Who would not be reconciled to life, lunching excellently under the warming winter sun near the little beach of the fishing port, the wavelets of the Mediterranean lapping gently nearby? Hedonism is natural here; anything else would seem inappropriate.
But before my visit Collioure had for me just one connotation, that of the place where the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado died in exile as a refugee, on February 22, 1939, a mere twenty-five days after his arrival. Of course, Collioure had been a place favored by artists well before Machado arrived, and the former Hôtel de la Gare, no longer a hotel, has a plaque commemorating the stay of Henri Matisse and André Derain there in 1905. But for me, Collioure meant Machado.
There are few more haunting or affecting stories of exile and foreign refuge than that of Machado. In 1936, he, his mother, Ana, and his brother José with his wife, Matea Monadero, left Madrid, then under nationalist bombardment, for Valencia. When that too came under nationalist attack, they moved to Barcelona. In January 1939, that city was also about to fall, and there was an exodus not dissimilar from that of Paris in May 1940. Machado, who was then sixty-four and not in good health, and his mother, eighty-five, joined the migration, as did his brother and sister-in-law. I quote from Matea Monadero’s testimony, cited in the book Últimos Días en Collioure, 1939, by Jacques Issorel, a French scholar of modern Spanish poetry:
Towards eleven at night, we left Barcelona in a closed vehicle. I think it was an ambulance. . . . The journey was slow and painful, until we arrived in the morning at Cervià de Ter. We were all very tired, because we had been unable to sleep a wink, nor eat or drink a thing.
Getting out of the ambulance, in which was left all the manuscripts of Machado’s work done in Barcelona, with the hope that they would be forwarded to him (they never were, being therefore definitively lost), the little party stayed three days in a house nearby until the refugee convoy moved on. They found another ride and drove for a day to another house near Figueras, where they stayed until the following night, but the convoy got stuck in the rain. The refugees alighted from the vehicles and began to walk toward the frontier.
Antonio, resigned and silent, contemplated his mother with her fine white hair fastened to her breast by the rain, falling from her beautiful face like a veil of tears.
Reaching the border, they were lucky enough to meet the journalist Corpus Barga, also fleeing Spain, who explained to the border guard that it was impossible for Machado’s party to continue on foot, and that Machado was to Spain what Paul Valéry was to France. Machado’s party was allowed to spend the night in a railway carriage, which the following day took them on to Collioure.
Corpus Barga, who accompanied them, remembered their arrival:
Antonio Machado could hardly walk; his mother even less. . . . José helped Antonio to walk, and it seemed to me better to carry his mother, light as a child, in my arms. . . . She was asking me as we went, “Are we arriving soon in Seville?”
Seville was where the Machados originally came from.
I went to Collioure’s small station to see whether there was any plaque commemorating the arrival there of Machado, but there was not. There is, however, a médiathèque, a multimedia library, named for him, built of course in the worst of modern French taste despite the surrounding pleasant and civilized vernacular; the town cemetery, where he and his mother are buried, is a place of pilgrimage. Issorel writes that “a day doesn’t pass without admirers of the poet, pupils from both sides of the Pyrenees accompanied by their teachers, simple tourists, visiting the grave of Machado and his mother, where many leave flowers and messages.” So it proved when I visited, a party of Catalan schoolchildren listening with varying degrees of attention to their teacher, one of them stepping forward afterward to recite a poem of her own. I was pleased: though most of the pupils were uninterested, at least some of them were not.
On the tomb was laid a poem by a Cuban poet exiled in Spain, Gleyvis Coro Montanet:
With the face of the defeated . . .
and in full abuse of analogy
I will ask, before the cold grave
of the eternal poet, who with the defeat,
repaired the threads of his country,
if it is impossible to repair those of mine.
In a French cemetery, one is never far from the terrible events of the past century. On the tomb of Augustin Frances, of whom I knew nothing, was a photograph of a young man who died on November 16, 1947 aged twenty-four, I surmise of tuberculosis: for he was quite likely to have developed it in the conditions in which the 600,000 French workers, of whom Frances was one, were kept after being deported for the Nazi occupation’s compulsory work service, the Service du travail obligatoire; and in 1947, the first effective anti-tuberculous drug, streptomycin, was probably not widely used in provincial France.
The Machados reached the center of the town a few hundred yards from the station and were given refreshments by a kindly Catalan woman with a shop. They installed themselves in the Hotel Bougnol-Quintana, though Machado was worried about how they would pay for it. His Spanish money was worthless, and he had no francs, but he hoped that the Spanish republican authorities in Paris would send some money. His plan was eventually to reach the Soviet Union, where he was much appreciated, although he was by no means a communist. The Soviets would probably have feted him until they killed him, but all this is conjecture, since he was never to leave Collioure.
He was both ill and poor. He managed to leave his bedroom for meals, but only on alternate days, since he shared his one decent shirt with his brother, who also appeared on alternate days: Machado had always been fastidious in dress.
The deputy stationmaster of Collioure, Jacques Baills, who looked regularly at the registration books of the Collioure hotels (for what purpose I do not know, but it has to be remembered that nearby, in Argelès-sur-Mer for example, were concentration camps for Spanish refugees), recognized the name of Machado in the book and—how times have changed for good and ill!—was a reader of his poetry. He visited Machado daily until his death.
Machado’s brother described Antonio’s first and last excursion from the hotel.
He said to me, while in front of the mirror as he tried in vain to tidy his disorderly hair, “Let’s go and see the sea.”
It was on the beach overlooking which I had so pleasurable a lunch nearly eighty-five years later that they sat on an upturned boat.
The midday sun gave hardly any heat. It was the unique moment at which it said that the body buries its shadow under its feet. There was a lot of wind, but he took off his hat, holding it on his knee with his hand, his other hand resting on the top of his cane. He remained thus, absorbed, silent, before the constant coming and going of the waves that, untiringly, moved as if under a curse that would never allow them peace. After a long while of contemplation, he pointed to one of the humble little fishermen’s houses: “Who could be living there behind one of those windows, free of all worries?” After he stood up with a great effort and walked laboriously on the shifting sand, in which he almost submerged his feet, we undertook our return in the deepest silence.
There may be more tragically affecting deaths than those of Machado and his mother, but if so, I do not know of them. He was sharing a room in the hotel with his mother, and the doctor came to see him when called:
Dr. Cazabens prescribed some medicine and said to us that he could do nothing. Antonio was dying, there was not room for the slightest doubt. . . . For four days he was very agitated and disturbed. . . . At times, we heard him say, “Goodbye mother! Goodbye mother!”—but she, who was very near in the other bed, did not hear him because she was in a deep coma.
He died on February 22, 1939, at half past three in the afternoon.
When Antonio died, as the room was small, they had to remove his body raising it over the bed in which his mother was dying. . . . They soon enshrouded him in a sheet, because this was how his brother wanted to interpret the sentence that he had uttered about the unnecessary ceremonial of some burials: “To bury a person, to wrap him in a sheet is enough.”
I thought, on reading this, of the last verse of one of Machado’s poems:
They are good people who live,
Labor, pass by and sleep,
And on a day just like the others,
Rest below the earth.
His mother, then in a coma, had a sudden lucid interval:
Hardly had they removed Antonio’s body than, by one of those things that amaze, his mother had a few lucid moments. She turned to look at Antonio’s bed and asked . . . with a weak and anxious voice, “Where is Antonio? What has happened?” Antonio’s brother said that Antonio was ill and had been taken to hospital where he would be cured, but the mother gave him a look that showed that she did not believe him, closed her eyes and died three days later.
Machado seems to have written nothing while in Collioure, but in his pocket after death was found a crumpled piece of paper on which, in pencil, he had written “To be, or not to be” (in Spanish), and a single line of verse:
These blue days and this sun of childhood . . .
After my mother died, I found a letter to her dated 1944 from her sister in Shanghai, where the latter and my grandparents had taken refuge, informing her that they had both died within a very short time of one another, and asking her whether she wanted the inscription on the tomb to be in English or German.
Was it right, then, that I, so fortunate by comparison with my forebears, should bask in the blue day and sun in Collioure, and enjoy myself so greatly? Yes, provided that I did not forget.