Critically acclaimed throughout Spain, and now available for the first time in English, this tender, satirical novel vividly captures the intrinsic absurdity of war--and the joys of true friendship in a place where it is difficult to distinguish man from beast.
Juan Castro Perez is a simple muleteer caught in the brutal Spanish Civil War. Never far from his closest companion--a stray mule named Valentina whom he is determined to keep for himself after the war--Juan engages in the low-brow drinking escapades, long shots at love, and an otherwise droning existence shared by his compatriots.
As he lies, cheats, and steals to protect Valentina during his improbable odyssey home, Juan unwittingly "fights" for both sides--and becomes a reluctant and unlikely hero of the people, exploited by opportunistic journalists desperately trying to convince the Spanish public that the war is under control, when it is anything but....
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February 25, 2008
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Excerpt from The Mule by Lisa Dillman
Juan Castro Perez, corporal muleteer of the Third Battalion of the Canaries Falange, third company, is hunting for wild asparagus in the brush. Day has been attempting to break for some time now, but a dense, damp fog coils around the tops of the dwarf oaks and cork oaks, holding it at bay.
Dewdrops trickle off the branches, burrowing tiny funnels into the sandy ground and rolling down the soldier's forage cap. Castro climbs a stony hill dotted with oaks and low scrub. A few granite crags jut out, halfway up. He's heading toward them when suddenly he stops and crouches, one knee to the ground, holding his breath, his heart pounding. Something moved in the fog, a gray shadow behind a patch of bramble. Through his sidepack, Castro fingers the handle of the pistol Sergeant Otero lends him when he goes asparagus hunting. Getting caught by the reds is the last thing he needs. It's been a year since Castro switched sides, and if a turncoat falls prisoner, not even Jesus Christ Himself can save him from the firing squad. Deserter and traitor. It would mean court-martial, death sentence, ten shots, and into the ditch within a heartbeat.
Castro narrows his eyes and breathes deeply. He feels tiny droplets of icy water in his lungs. For a few interminable minutes, he awaits the enemy's next move. "Why send me out to hunt asparagus, when it's so nice playing cards back in the hut?"
The fog lifts a little. Shapes and colors slowly become distinguishable in the undergrowth. Castro makes out the familiar silhouette of a mule. Alone, or not? He glances around cautiously and cocks his ear, listening: just the unremarkable sounds of a country morning. That's all. He cocks the gun, and the click-clack of its well-oiled parts seems to embolden him. He crouches low toward the undergrowth, keeping his eyes peeled, alert. He circles the crags, walking around the sunny side, and sees the mule standing there, frozen, expectant, having sensed his presence. Castro surveys the terrain: the ruins of a cottage with a collapsed arbor, stone porch, the remains of some abandoned fig trees, a hayrick, rotting straw. No one. Maybe the mule got lost on the hill. She's not hobbled and wears no halter.
He approaches the animal. The mule cocks her ears nervously and starts, her eyes frightened. She raises her muzzle to reveal big, yellow teeth.
Castro knows animals. He's in charge of the regimental mule train. He speaks softly to the mule, who responds to the friendly tone of his voice.
"Hey, there! Shhhhhh. There now, pretty girl. What are you doing here, eh? Where's your master?
Hey now, girl."
The mule seems reluctant, but when the corporal strokes her neck, she stretches her black muzzle forward to sniff him.
"Well, well, well. What are you doing here, eh? There, there. Don't be scared, pretty girl." Castro leans in so she can smell his body, places his open hands before her snout, and the animal's hot breath warms him. "What are you doing here, baby girl?" he whispers. "You lost? No master?" The mule flicks her ears, lets herself be stroked, feels the man's friendly hands on her powerful chest, on her loins, her ribs, which stick out a little. "Not too well fed, eh?" the soothing voice inquires.
The corporal's fingers slide gently to her hocks. The animal remains calm. She's well trained.
"A good, tame mule, eh?" he whispers approvingly.
Castro inspects his find with expert eyes. A fine-limbed mule, solid knees, shrunken belly, straight, slightly arched back. A good mule, the kind his father used to buy at the Andujar fair, this one an unusual ashy white. An excellent mule. He gazes into her lively, round eyes, shiny and hard.
"Where's your master, baby girl?" he whispers. "You with the army? The fascists or the reds? You lost?"
He crouches to examine her cannon bones, to see if there are scratches, any indication that she might have broken her hobble and run away. No sign of that. Castro studies her small hooves with satisfaction, notes that her horseshoes are new. The clinched nails show through the center of her hooves, two centimeters from the ground; she's well shod. Like a marquis--well, a marquise.
"What do you say, baby girl? You come over to the other side too? Which column are you with?"
The mule lets him stroke her strong jaw, her hard bony face, her downy-soft black snout, sprouting a few bristly patches of gray. But she doesn't respond to his question.
Castro imagines his arrival back at the company, his encounter with Captain Montero, announcing his find by the trenches. One more beast of burden he'll add to those already in his care, the twenty-four that make up the mule train of the Third Battalion of the Canaries Falange.
Castro takes the bandolier off his sidepack and ties a couple of knots, improvising a headstall.