Viena, Austria, 1902 - Viena, Austria , 1973
Ilsa Barea was born in Vienna where she studied political sciences at the university. Come the 1930s political reasons compelled her to emigrate to Czechoslovakia, from whence she went to Spain on the Republican side early in the Civil War. There she met Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Frank Capa and others. She married the Spanish writer Arturo Barea and together they settled in England. During World War II Ilsa worked in the BBC Monitoring Service. She translated over twenty books into English (including Arturo Barea’s great Spanish Civil war trilogy The Forging of a Rebel), edited a paperback series of international classics, and wrote, lectured and broadcast in several languages. In the 1960s she returned to Vienna, where she died in 1972.
Written in 1938, Telefónica was first published in Austria in serial form by the Arbeiter Zeitung, and in book form in Spain and Austria in 2019.
The Spanish Civil War, late 1936, and the Nationalist troops are already circling on Madrid while German planes bombard it. Madrid’s tallest building, a Manhattan-inspired telecommunications tower, the Telefónica, is now its most important building and a vulnerable target. At the top is the Republican military observatory, immediately below this the office of Augustín Sanchez, commander of the building. The basements are filled with refugee women and children, their homes destroyed. On other floors are technicians and telephone exchanges, providing vital lines for co-ordinating military strategy. One floor houses the foreign correspondents, also competing for lines, and the censors’ office through which all reports pass before they are phoned abroad. Here arrives Anita Adam, German socialist and linguist, in Spain to fight the cause, deployed as censor by the government thanks to her many languages.
Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar follows a range of personalities up and down the Telefónica’s floors, with their varying agendas and emotions, backgrounds and politics, creating a montage of precisely observed scenes. The foreign journalists vary in their stances, but all strive for objectivity, outside observers, however much affected. The telecom workers, military and secret service officials are a range of socialists, trade unionists, communists and anarchists, a distrustful coalition fighting to save the republic. Initially they all share distrust of the German foisted on them. Why is she here? What are her motives? Is she letting too much information through? Anita does indeed think the cause would be helped by letting the world know more about the atrocities being perpetrated in Madrid. She tells the journalists to report more viscerally. When the characters leave the tower Ilsa Barea-Kulcsar doesn’t spare us details of what they see: pooled blood on the streets, mutilated bodies, bereaved families.
While based on her time as a censor in the Telefónica, this is a fictional evocation, with key details differing from Barea-Kulcsar’s own experience. It is partly a portrait of the building, its height both its strength and its weakness, its multiple levels, lifts, stairs, floors and telephone lines providing scope for human intrigue and misunderstanding; anyone calling or visiting another floor is clocked by telephonists and lift girls, orderlies or technicians. Highly cinematic, the novel echoes the collaged narratives of Barea-Kulcsar’s contemporary John Dos Passos. There are multiple points of view, constantly switching, to represent the building’s diverse occupants. Soon, however, key characters and a classic psychodrama emerge.
"Telefónica is a novel that amazes: Because it focuses events in besieged Madrid on a single building and on a manageable number of people. Because it shows what they all have in them: courage, resentment, fear, kindness. Because it ends hopefully. And because in the form of the author the novel introduces us to a woman whose life and work must not be forgotten." Erich Hackl
"… A great success… even though the novel dives into a completely different time, it also seems timeless, in that it vividly depicts the oppressive atmosphere and the conflicts that arise between people who are trapped and who have voluntarily put themselves in a position from which there is no easy escape." Ralf Höller, Neues Deutschland
"A text that evokes the terrible memory of the civil war in a special way, as it was written by a foreigner, a political activist and a woman." Edurne Portela, El Mundo
"I wanted to reveal the soil, milieu, or social sphere and situation, from which the contributions of Vienna to European civilisation have sprung... I hope it is not my incurable love for my native city which makes me believe that Vienna is still important in the world of today, through all that is alive in its past, present and future..." Ilsa Barea, from her Preface (1966).
This fascinating, learned yet highly personal survey explores the legend of Vienna, from frontier fortress and melting pot to the culturally rich centrepiece of the Hapsburg Empire, through two world wars and the grave damage inflicted by Hitler.
"A fascinating account, so rich in texture, a book in which history and landscape, personalities and politics and culture combine to produce a living picture." C.V. Wedgwood
"Neither the treacly legend, nor the acid anti-legend, but a delicate and scholarly panorama." Arthur Koestler