Sixty years have passed since the death of Antonio Machado in the last days of the Civil War. Of all the stories contained in that history, one of the saddest is no doubt Machado’s, because it ends badly. It has been told many times. He came to Barcelona from Valencia in April 1938, accompanied by his mother and brother José, and stayed first in the Hotel Majestic and later in the Torre de Casteñer, an old mansion on Sant Gervasi avenue. There he kept doing what he’d been doing since the beginning of the war: using his writing to defend the legitimate government of the Republic. He was old, weary and ill, and he no longer believed in Franco’s defeat. He wrote ‘This is the end; any day now Barcelona will fall. For the strategists, for the politicians, for the historians, it is all clear: we have lost the war. But in human terms, I am not so sure. Perhaps we have won.’ Who knows if he guessed right about that last bit; without a doubt he was right about the first. The night of 22 January 1939, four days before Franco’s troops took Barcelona, Machado and his family left in a convoy for the French border. Other writers accompanied them on that nightmarish exodus, among them Corpus Barga and Carles Riba. They made stops in Cervià de Ter and Mas Faixat, near Figueres. Finally, the night of the 27th, after walking 600 metres through the rain, they crossed the border. They’d been obliged to leave their luggage behind and they had no money. Thanks to the help of Corpus Barga, they managed to make it to Collioure and get rooms in the Hotel Bougnol Quintana. Less than a month later the poet died; his mother survived him by three days. In the pocket of his overcoat, his brother José found a few notes; one of them was a verse, perhaps the first line of his last poem: ‘These blue days, this childhood sun.’

The story doesn’t end here. Shortly after the death of his brother Antonio, the poet Manuel Machado, who lived in Burgos, learned of it through the foreign press. Manuel and Antonio were not just brothers, they were intimates. The uprising of 18 July had caught Manuel in Burgos, rebel territory; Antonio, in Madrid, Republican territory. It is reasonable to assume that, had he been in Madrid, Manuel would have been loyal to the Republic; it would perhaps be idle to speculate what might have happened if Antonio had chanced to be in Burgos. The fact is, as soon as he heard the news of his brother death, Manuel procured a safe-conduct and, after traveling for days across a Spain that had been reduced to ashes, arrived in Collioure. At the hotel he learned his mother has also died. He went to the cemetery. There, before the graves of his mother and his brother Antonio, he met his brother José. They talked. Two days later Manuel returned to Burgos.

But the story—at least the story I now want to tell—doesn’t end here either. At more or less the same time that Machado died in Collioure, Rafael Sánchex Mazas faced a firing squad near the Sanctuary of Collell. Sánchez Mazas was a good writer; he was also a friend of José Antioio, and one of the founders and ideologues of the Falange. His adventures in the war are shrouded in mystery. A few years ago his son, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, told me his version. I don’t know whether or not it is strictly true; I’m just telling it as he told me. Trapped in Republican Madrid by the military uprising, Sánchez Mazas sought refuge in the Chilean Embassy. He spent most of the war therel towards the end he tried to escape hidden in the back of a truck, but they arrested him in Barcelona and, as Franco’s troops approached the city, he was taken towards the border. Before crossing it they assembled a firing squad; but the bullets only grazed him, and he took advantage of the confusion to run and hide in the woods. From there he heard the voices of the militiamen pursuing him. One of them finally found him. He looked Sánchez Masas in the eye. Then he shouted to his comrades ‘There’s nobody over here!’, turned and walked away.

‘Of all the stories in History,’ wrote Jaime Gil, ‘the saddest is no doubt Spain’s, / because it ends badly.’ Does it end badly? We’ll never know who that militiaman was who spared Sánchez Mazas’ life, nor what passed through his mind when he looked him in the eye; we’ll never know what José and Manuel Machado said to each other before the graves of the brother Antonio and their mother. I don’t know why, but sometimes I think, if we managed to unveil one of these parallel secrets, we might perhaps also touch on a much more essential secret.

Copyright © Javier Cercas. All rights reserved.