Double Exile and Reflective Nostalgia in Max Aub and his Writing

Lena Hein
Freie Universität Berlin


Le double exil de Max Aub consiste, d’une part, en l’émigration de sa famille de la France vers l’Espagne en 1914 en raison de la Première Guerre mondiale et, d’autre part, en sa migration ultérieure de l’Espagne vers le Mexique en 1939 du fait de la guerre d’Espagne et de la dictature franquiste. Son écriture exophonique, son double exil et son approche esthétique de notions telles que le passé, la nostalgie, le chez-soi et l’appartenance dans ses œuvres font de lui un sujet d’étude intéressant pour la revue Post Scriptum de cette année. En effet, son choix d’écrire en espagnol n’est pas seulement lié à la langue elle-même, mais aussi à son profond engagement idéologique avec la Seconde République espagnole, à laquelle il fait constamment référence dans son travail. Après avoir exposé la constellation de l’exil, du chez-soi et du langage spécifique à Max Aub, cet article propose un commentaire de son texte, La gallina ciega. Dans ce journal où il raconte son retour « chez lui » (une expression qui devrait toujours se trouver entre guillemets dans ce contexte) en Espagne en 1969, il recueille ses impressions, réflexions et moments de nostalgie qui seront analysés à l’aide de concepts empruntés à l’ouvrage théorique de Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia. L’article se conclut avec une réflexion sur l’écriture de Aub à travers le texte de Derrida, Le monolinguisme de l’autre : ou la prothèse d’origine, qui traite du rapport entre le langage, la citoyenneté, l’existence et l’identité. Cet aperçu de la pensée du philosophe nous permet de mieux comprendre la démarche dialectique par laquelle Aub fait référence au passé dans son œuvre, au moyen d’une réflexivité nostalgique qui permet de penser le présent et le future tout en déconstruisant le caractère naturel de concepts comme le chez-soi, l’appartenance et la citoyenneté.

Mots-clés : Max Aub ; exil ; nostalgie ; Seconde République espagnole


Max Aub’s double exile consists, on one hand, in the emigration of his family from France to Spain in 1914 due to the First World War and, on the other hand, in his subsequent emigration from Spain to Mexico in 1939 due to the Spanish Civil War and Francoist dictatorship. His exophonic writing, his double exile and the way he deals in his works aesthetically with aspects like past, nostalgia, home and belonging make him an interesting study subject for Post Scriptum’s journal this year. His choice of Spanish is not only connected to language alone but also to a deep ideological engagement with the Segunda República Española that will be a constant referential element in his writing. After outlining the specific constellation of exile, home and language of Max Aub, the article comments on his text La gallina ciega. In this diary about his visit back ‘home’ – a term that is always to be used in scare quotes in this context – in Spain in 1969 he gathers impressions, reflections and nostalgic moments that will be analysed with concepts of Svetlana Boym’s theoretical work The Future of Nostalgia. The article finishes with a reflection on Aub’s writing together with Derrida’s text Le monolinguisme de l’autre: ou la prothèse d’origine, treating the connection between language, citizenship, existence and identity. This insight in the philosopher’s thinking allows us to understand better the dialectical way in Aub’s Œuvre to refer to the past in a reflective nostalgic way in order to think about present and future by simultaneously deconstructing the natural character of concepts like home, belonging and citizenship.

Keywords: Max Aub; exile; Nostalgia; Second Spanish Republic

  1. Max Aub: Historical Context

What does this double exile mean for the exophonic writer Max Aub who is born in Paris in 1903? It consists, on one hand, in the emigration of his family from France to Spain in 1914 at age 11 due to the First World War. On the other hand, it is his subsequent emigration from Spain to Mexico in 1939 due to the Spanish Civil War and Francoist dictatorship. Choosing only to write his works in Spanish, his double exile and the way he deals in his works aesthetically with aspects like past, nostalgia, home and belonging make him an interesting study subject for Post Scriptum’s journal this year. His choice of Spanish is not only connected to language alone but also to a deep ideological – but not strictly political, in the sense of belonging to a party, – engagement with the Segunda República Española (1931 – 1939) which will be a constant referential element in his writing.

Firstly, I will outline the specific constellation of exile, home and language of Max Aub. Secondly, this should be complemented by a reading and commenting of his text La gallina ciega. In this diary about his visit back ‘home’ – a term that is always to be used in scare quotes in this context – in Spain in 1969 he gathers impressions, reflections and nostalgic moments that will be analysed with concepts of Svetlana Boyms theoretical work The Future of Nostalgia (2001). The article finishes with a reflection on Aub’s writing with Derrida’s text Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou fa prothese d’origine (1996).

The condition of exile represents a crucial axis in Aub’s life and writing. Aspects of belonging, origin or roots are not only difficult to specify concerning his figure and his work but are constantly questioned and deconstructed in their meaning and existence. All his work always points to “his indeterminate national and linguistic identity in the tragic sociopolitical and cultural circumstances of mid-twentieth-century Europe” (Aguirre 2020, 134). Thus, instead of roots, it is more appropriate to speak of paths in order to understand and do justice to the different moments of life and creative contexts. The exophonic writer occupies a singular place in Spanish political, cultural, and literary history. But nationality as a framing category is inappropriate for Aub’s literary activity, as Octavio Paz already noted 1967 in his response to Juan Marichal: Aub “is an example of a Hispano-American Spaniard and therefore one of Spain’s truly European writers. That is why he is also a Mexican writer[1]” (Paz 2000, 1044).

Two quotes of Max Aub let us see immediately the manner in which he questions and somehow deconstructs concepts like home and belonging by tracing a line between these two and exile, language and writing in a transnational way. In 1964 Aub explained his transnational linguistic singularity as follows:

Not German, not French, not Spanish, not Mexican; or French, German, Spanish, Mexican … Born in Paris, raised in Valencia, speaking in Spanish – which I can write – with a French accent, I speak French – which I cannot write – as if I were French, and I pronounce German perfectly, though I cannot speak it. (Max Aub 1998, 128s., quoted in Aguirre 2020, 25).

The parallelistic enumeration of the nationalities – first with the negative particle and then without – contradicts and deconstructs already on a syntactical level the meaning of nationality and the sense of national belonging. We can observe a similar idea in the following quote:

What harm hasn’t it done to me, in our closed world, not to be from anywhere! To have the name I have, with a first name and surname that can be from one country as well as from another… In these times of closed nationalism, being born in Paris, and being Spanish, having a Spanish father born in Germany, a Parisian mother, but also of German origin, but with a Slavic surname, and speaking with that French accent that tears my Spanish apart, what harm hasn’t it done to me?[2] (Aub 1998, 126)

Just like in the first quote, Aub draws a direct line between belonging and language which makes his choice of the Spanish for writing his entire Œuvre especially significant. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that during the Spanish Civil War Aub returns to France to flee from the war and to work as a cultural attaché for the Republican government in Paris. This ‘homecoming’ turns out to be not as expected as Aub is denounced for being Jewish, a political activist and erroneously as a communist, then put first in jail and afterwards sent to the French internment camp Djelfa in Algeria from where, after two years of hard labour, he manages to flee into exile to Mexico. From Mexico he produces and publishes the larger body of his works until his death in 1972, returning to Spain only once in 1969. His texts include all kind of genre: from novels, to short stories, theatre plays, poetry, diaries and so on. He addresses constantly the Second Spanish Republic and the people of his generation, expressing always a deep sense of longing. This nostalgic longing is expressed in many ways but always refers to a specific time or historical moment as opposed to a place in the sense of home. What does this concrete nostalgic longing for a historical moment or context instead of for a place do with the concept of belonging? And what does it say about exophonic practices when this nostalgia and the expression of it just happens in the adopted language and never in French? These questions I would like to approach by focusing now on one specific text of Max Aub, his diary La gallina ciega.


  1. La gallina ciega – diario español

Let us begin with a short quote of Svetlana Boym’s work The Future of Nostalgia that we have mentioned before: “A modern nostalgic can be homesick and sick of home, at once“ (Boym 2001, XVIII). There are few sentences that better describe Max Aub’s emotional, historical, political and reflective feeling or sensation when he visits his former ‘home’, Spain, in 1969. The use of the scare quotes around ‘home’ not only responds to the conceptual framework and the central topics of this journal, but also to the understanding and constant questioning of ‘home’ in the figure and mainly the Œuvre of Max Aub. In 1969 Aub finally obtains the permission to visit Spain for the first time after his escape into exile. La gallina ciega is the diary of this three months visit that contains many personal stories and encounters, always connected to broader reflections on Spain in the late 60es Franco-era.

Regarding the specificity of the diary genre, we should mention briefly the special connection between author and narrator. According to Arno Dusini, the connection between the genre diary and the author’s name leads to the fusion of author and narrator in one and the same thing (cf. Dusini 2005, 54). This concerns our proposal inasmuch as, at the latest since Roland Barthes’ La mort de l’auteur (1967), we approach texts as independent objects without the pre-existent intention of the author. To what extent does one read La gallina ciega as an autobiographical diary of the author Max Aub with a narrative instance in the constructed text? On the one hand, we need the concrete person Max Aub with his historical background for some passages in order to deepen their meaning and to establish connections. On the other hand, however, it is also necessary here – or especially here – to avoid a mere biographical reading limited to the individual Max Aub, in order to do justice to the universal claims that many of the personal reflections and descriptions hold. This dialectic, paradigmatic for Aub’s Œuvre, between the specificity of the text in terms of a particular place, historical moment and its events, and the universal validity and value of the same, is also reflected in our understanding of the narrative instance of the Diario español. Thus, the question is not to be posed and decided in a binary way, but to be considered in its coexistence.

Our interest in this text comes from within the nostalgic elements in his writing. What could have been like a homecoming turns out to be a final confirmation of what Aub already suspected before: Francoist Spain is not the Spain he was yearning for; this is not the place he is nostalgic for and therefore he could never go back there to live and work. His attitude is not just found on the surface structure of the text but also in its aesthetic procedures. For the theoretical framework that allows us to analyse, understand and express these procedures and ways of thinking we refer to Svetlana Boyms concept of Reflective Nostalgia from her work The Future of Nostalgia from 2001.

2.1. Reflective Nostalgia – Svetlana Boym

The pseudo-Greek term nostalgia was first used by a Swizz doctor in the 17th century combining nostos which means return or home with algia, the word for longing. The book The Future of Nostalgia outlines a history of this concept and focusses on the distinction between reflective and restorative nostalgia. Boym explains in her text that the danger with the feelings of nostalgia is in loosing or abandoning the critical thinking because of emotional attachment and confusing the real home with an imaginary one. For Boym, nostalgia is a symptom of our time, a defence mechanism against our accelerated rhythms. While the sense of longing is shared by all human beings, the sense of belonging and nostalgia differs depending on our relationships to the past, to groupings, to a home and to self-perception. Boym suggests then the two types of nostalgia:

Restorative nostalgia stresses nostos and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming – wistfully, ironically, desperately. Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth or tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt. (Boym 2001, XVIII)

The concept of restorative nostalgia goes back to the Latin restaurare, to restore, and intends the reconstruction of the home and the patching together of the gaps in memory into a perfect and absolute whole. It is mainly used by movements of national and religious revival and represents itself in the total reconstruction of monuments from the past. For them, the past is not a duration, but a perfect snapshot, which must not show any signs of consumption, but must be forever original and young. Restorative nostalgia is less about distance and longing than about the fear of historical incongruities between past and present.

On the contrary, the reflection of reflective nostalgia suggests new flexibility instead of merely restoring the old. “The focus here is not on recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth but on the meditation on history and passage of time” (Boym 2001, 49). The reflective nostalgia focusses on the longing, the loss and the imperfect or incomplete process of remembering. While restorative nostalgia completely restores rituals, emblems and monuments, reflective nostalgia deals with ruins, the façade of time and history, fragments of memory and the temporalization of space. It is also important to note that reflective nostalgia, unlike restorative nostalgia, is not limited to one narrative and works less with fixed symbols than with individual details and memories. Longing and critical thinking do not contradict each other, just as emotional memory does not absolve us from the obligation to think and judge critically. “Homecoming does not signify a recovery of identity; it does not end the journey in the virtual space of imagination” (Boym 2001, XVIII). This approach and understanding of temporality also characterize many texts of Max Aub’s Œuvre, like his diary La gallina ciega that I want to continue commenting on now.

2.2. Reflective Nostalgia in Aub’s La gallina ciega

Aub longs all his life to return to Spain, but this nostalgia is not a restorative one – that is, idealising and absolutizing the place – but a reflective and questioning one. Instead of longing for Spain as the perfect home, the many diary entries express a longing for a specific historical moment or time, the republican Spain before the civil war. This concrete longing, however, leads Aub to think and reflect on the realities of that time and the present, and to questions that concern the past, the present and the future. His reflective nostalgia demonstrates a dialectical approach: By looking back to the past, he reflects and thinks about Spain, both present and future. We could call this a dialectical form of historical thinking. The personal aspects and experiences on one side keep their concrete historical singularity but at the same time obtain a universal meaning and importance by commenting on history, on nostalgia and historical memory itself. The longing for the concrete historical moment of the Second Spanish Republic does not come without the knowledge of the fact that this is forever lost and irretrievable. Let’s have a look at the following quote from one of Aubs diary entries:

I came back and I am leaving. At no time did I have the feeling of being part of this new country that has usurped its place from the one that was here before[…]. These Spaniards of today took what was here, but they are others. Understand me right: of course, they are different, because of the time that passed, but not only because of it; it is that and something else: I notice it because of what separates me from their way of speaking and dealing with life. […] Do I see windmills instead of giants? Not only the Spaniard is variable, I know; but there is no chameleon that changes colors like that […] And the people here do not speak as before, they are others and – now that we are going to take the plane back – they are what has changed the most in Spain and what has changed Spain itself. Those of the ‘great, unique, lonely’ Spain or however you say (One, great, free!) killed the one I knew and – as in any movie – replaced her with a double that can fool anyone, except a linguist. There are embers left, there are goods left. […] it’s another world: language is more important – although they don’t want it to be – than the economy to get to know a country. […] Yes, Spain hasn’t died: it’s a different Spain. It is also true that it will be another. When? Not even God knows.[3] (Aub 2015, 403s.; emphases added)

Aub’s nostalgia for ‘his’ Spain, therefore the Republican period, is here linked to an extensive and more politically oriented reflection. As the passage of time temporalizes the places and changes them, Aub’s nostalgia is always directed towards something that doesn’t exist anymore. But this passage of time is not the only thing that can be held responsible for the emergence of the ‘new’ Spain of actuality. In the specific case of this country, Francoism with its ideology, war and political deeds, has led to this drastic transformation of Spain and, above all, of its inhabitants. The recourse to the semantic field of murder leaves no doubt about Aub’s historical-political analysis and condemnation of Francoism – evoked in the quote by its famous slogan. The last sentence combines the three times on a syntactical level: The look into the past to the ‘other’ Spain in relation to the currently existing one is combined with an outlook into the future, which will also at some point constitute another Spain, the question is only when. The optimistic tone concerning a possible change of circumstances in the future is relativized by the pessimistic question “cuándo?”, meaning “when?”, and the God-trusting answer, which can be instantly read ironically because of Aub’s known secularism. Another important aspect of this paragraph consists in the significance of the language. Text subject not only emphasizes the analytical ability of a linguist using arguably the most famous topos in literary history to express his own confusion, but he explicitly declares language to be more important than economics in order to understand a country. Before that, he stresses the difference in the language he speaks to the one the people in Spain in 1969 speak, both being Spanish. Beside his exophonic writing in Spanish he denounces a lack of communication with people speaking the same language. Can one maybe adopt exophonic procedures in one and the same language? With this remark the concepts ‘home’ and ‘homecoming’ fall completely apart as Aub is not just disappointed by what he encounters during his visit in Francoist Spain in the late 60es, but he even diagnoses a lack of communication and understanding within the same language that seems not to be the same anymore – because of the passage of time and the ideological, social and political historical events. In these references we can already see the intention of Max Aub’s entire Œuvre, as one that offers his thinking on history as an alternative to the existing public discourse based on Franco’s regime.

Aub not only describes the later Spain he is so disappointed about, but also names and characterises what his reflective nostalgia refers to. This nostalgia can sometimes also be a collective one, or at least one shared with another person, as it is the case here regarding Dámaso Alonso.

Hey, Dámaso, what about our Spain? Yes, ours: Rafael’s, Jorge’s, Vicente’s, Federico’s – a little less so because he was given a sick note and a lot of air – yours, Luis (Cernuda)’s, who died suddenly; Manolito’s, in his accident, of which they left no trace in your capital, a niche of corpses; mine. Where is our Spain? Where is it? Where is it left? What have they done with it? You don’t know, I don’t know, nobody knows. It would have to be invented.[4] (Aub 2015, 261)

All the mentioned intellectuals from the time of Second Spanish Republic either died or had to go to exile because of the political circumstances. Rafael Alberti, Jorge Guillén, Vicente Aleixandre, Federico García Lorca – Lorca is murdered at the beginning of the Civil War, a fact that is described here ironically with the euphemism “given a sick note” –, and further Dámaso Alonso, Luis Cernuda, Manuel Altolaguirre and Max Aub himself. His nostalgia is clearly directed to a time in which the people mentioned lived and worked. Again, the longing for ‘home’ doesn’t consist of a place or national construct, but as in this case of a group of people that shared a specific historical, cultural and political moment.

The next quote we want to comment on confirms the observations of the ones before. Connected to the temporal differentiation between the Republican Spain and the one of 1969 is also the question “¿Qué te ha parecido España?”, meaning “What do you think of Spain?”, that people constantly ask Max Aub. In a conversation with Rafael Sánchez Ventura, the text subject gives the following answer in a kind of fit of rage:

What do I think of Spain? You are the thousandth or fifteen hundredth person to ask me. […] They don’t give a damn what I think of Spain. What they want me to answer is that I am amazed at the roads, the paradors, the restaurants, the meals – because they no longer remember how people ate here before the war, because the war was not only a bloody but also a gastronomic slash. […] Between the Spain I lived in, of which I was a part, and the Spain of today it is the same difference as between the Mexico of the revolution of 14 and the Mexico of today or between the Russia of 1917 and the Russia of 1960. Even the language, although the language is the same; the words no longer express exactly the same thing. For me, for example: “Cortes” and “Cortés” no longer mean the same as they did a third of a century ago. […] A cuisine that cannot compete with the one you entertained yourself thirty years longing for: the memories of the language do not compare with anything; the sun… No one cared about the sun then. […] And speaking of something else, and of how well you say you are living here: Has literature improved, compared to that of my time? […] Can my plays premiere in Madrid? No. When any text of my choice can premiere here, I’ll come. My plays have not premiered in Mexico. But that’s another problem. That’s what I think: when my plays premiere, I’ll come.[5] (Aub 2015, 247ss.; emphasis added)

There are many different nuances in the question and Aub’s resulting anger. As Soldevila Durante also notes, this iterative question shows and proves the disinterest of the Spanish population in 1969 in Aub and thus his generation and his history, that is, the past, the Second Spanish Republic, the civil war and his perspective on these. All interest of the people is focused on the current Spain with its regime, food, economic system, tourism, etc. – a fact that seems to be summarized in this question (cf. Soldevila 1975, 170). However, in addition to the complaint about the question itself, in this paragraph we also find the text subject’s answer to it, which he sums up in the fact that it is a country where he cannot write and publish what he wants, which for him already implies the damning judgment on the Francoist Spain in the late 60es. Between the lines, we detect here nostalgia for a time in which free writing and publishing was possible and for when there existed interest in history, in the political reality and in substantive conversations without the oppression of a dictatorial regime, a nostalgia for the time of republican Spain. However, these often angry and very negative judgments about the current Spain, which Aub so clearly differentiates from the one of 30 years ago, are often accompanied by a reflection on the extent to which the actuality could also have something positive that escapes him in his specific position of a visitor. Nevertheless, Spain doesn’t fulfill the function of a home to which to come back to but works more as a madeleine that provokes certain memories of another time with a nostalgic value. But the nostalgia towards this time always comes with a reflective moment that seems to substitute the typical moment of ‘homecoming’ belonging to what Svetlana Boym calls the restorative nostalgia. Just like in the quote we analyzed before, Aub comments on the passage of time and the change of language within the same language. The experience of exile and its specific geographical and conceptual place of writing also manifests itself in the language, that doesn’t seem to accord with the Spanish people use in Francoist Spain in the late 60es. The exilic position also reproduces itself within the same language, questioning automatically Spain as a home or the general existence of a home to which to come back to.

Another core element of Aub’s diary and his Œuvre in general consists in the creation of a historical memory of the people and the events that are not part of the official historical discourse dictated by the Francoists. Through the reflective nostalgic procedures, ways of thinking, and motifs, Spain’s memoria histórica is not only questioned, but sometimes altered by negating existing conceptions of history and recreated in the many existing blank spaces. Aub makes this intentionality clear right at the beginning of his diary in his prologue, where he already comments on the publications and the distribution that await La gallina ciega as on the historical memory in relation to his work.

I would have liked to write and publish these pages in Spain. It is not possible. I publish them in Mexico rather than keep them in a drawer. I could live quietly in a nice Spanish house, eat and drink according to the permissions of the doctors. For what then? To publish tomorrow the things of today is not worth it either. I know that officially this book will not become a consumer item, but some copy will find its way to Seville or Bilbao, Valencia or Santander. For these ten volumes I choose to continue on my path, accompanied by the shadows of some friends. I say nothing that has not been said, I repeat it so that there is another record of what some suppose to be the truth. Not to mention that, as a Spaniard, I don’t feel like “talking to the doorman”.[6] (Aub 2015, 18; emphasis added)

The prologue marks and evaluates clearly the polarization between a silent or silenced life in Spain and an active existence with publications and writing outside of it. Despite the negative outlook regarding reaching an official Spanish readership, we can find in these lines a minimal optimism existing in the few copies that will find their way into the hands of Spanish readers. It is this small door to the possibility of a contribution to the memoria histórica (compare the highlighted passage) that, here in the prologue, not only legitimizes the text and its publication, but seems to give them meaning. The explicit emphasis in the last sentence on his Spanish citizenship, contrary to his official juridical-legal situation in 1969, can also be seen as a verbal attack or critique on the oppressive historical representations of an authoritarian regime, without which he would continue to possess Spanish citizenship. In this sentence he defends a sense of dignity, as a Spanish citizen, of not wanting to fight for these basic rights that he should have without a question. The nostalgic element here consists in the desire, already classified as utopian, to publish in Spain, to which the last sentence in particular follows as a reflective response that preserves dignity. In Aub’s longing for his elected ‘home’ that is never a certain place but always an historical moment that cannot be brought back or went back to, he eradicates the possibility of a homecoming and therefore deconstructs the concept of home and belonging itself. But that doesn’t mean to abandon ideas, references and things of the past and of the Second Spanish Republic – as he obviously doesn’t – but to reflect constantly on them and hence remember them offering his own historical perspective and serving the spreading of his memoria histórica.

The way of referring to the past and in general the historical thinking in Max Aub’s literary Œuvre show a struggle against oblivion and often against the official historiography of Francoism. We could describe his literary representations of the political, social and historical reality in the words of Foucault as contrediscours. Like authors such as Daniel Aguirre-Oteiza point out, Aub wanted to inscribe the historical experience of the exiled in the cultural, political and social memory of the Europe of his time, opposing national and linear discourses. “Resistance to the teleological temporality of national literary history goes hand in hand here with resistance to a dichotomous, monolithic understanding of the relation between memory and history” (Aguirre 2020, 8).

Regarding this specific historical thinking, oriented towards the creation of a memoria histórica republicana and based on the reflective nostalgic procedure in his texts, the aspect of a non-teleological historiography and literary historiography plays a major role, as also Svetlana Boym and authors like Daniel Aguirre defend it. “The study of nostalgia might be useful for an alternative, nonteleological history that includes conjectures and contrafactual possibilities” (Boym 2001, 351).

Nowadays, Spanish literary historiography still tends toward a teleological, coherent, national, and chronological narrative, an aspect that strongly influences the access to exile literati, such as Max Aub. Thus, literary histories are created in the form of coherent accounts of events, names, and titles in a continuous and chronological linearity. As a result, exile poems in particular, but also other text genres, are unified, stripped of their individuality, and often read in a simplified way so that they ‘fit in’ (cf. Aguirre 2020, 3, 15). Even if Aguirre speaks in his book The Ghostly Poetry (2020) primarily of poems with their genre-specific characteristics, many of his points of argumentation are also relevant and to be considered for other texts of Max Aub. He describes poetic memory in exile literature “as a spectral form of spatiotemporal disruption that haunts and hinders narratives of Spanish national culture” (Aguirre 2020, 3) and sees in this aspect the potential in Œuvres like the one of Max Aub. Even if Aguirre’s book speaks primarily of the poetry collection El Diario de Djelfa (1944), we can also relate his statement to La gallina ciega when he suggests that the understanding and description of these texts as dialectical spaces of continuity and discontinuity constitute an act of resistance. This act of resistance depends on understanding memories as a spectral form of spatiotemporal interruption vis-à-vis the historical narratives of national cultures (cf. Aguirre 2020, 6). And this is exactly what happens in Aub’s works, by longing not for a place or space but for another time, without wanting it back as an absolute and idealized past but adopting a reflective position towards it and so breaking with the national historical discourse.

In this way, exile literature can form a resistance to national literary histories where a monumental historicism attempts to ‘heal’ the discontinuities of an imagined national community. In contrast, we try to maintain the historical strangeness and hermeneutic distance in relation to the past life full of war, death, exile and oblivion (cf. Aguirre 2020, 7). Alongside the transnational analyses and representations and the reflective way in which he nostalgically refers to the past, there are the literary, aesthetic strength and the constant reflection on memory and history in Aub’s Œuvre. “To demonstrate, in short, that literature can make memory and become a historical and ethical discourse capable of transcending the merely aesthetic” (Sánchez Zapatero 2014, 325).

  1. Language, citizenship and identity – Jacques Derrida

But returning to the concrete aspect of language, its choice, ideological value, power relationship and meaning for concepts like belonging, nationality, citizenship or home we want to have a brief look at Derrida’s thesis “Je n’ai qu’une langue, ce n’est pas la mienne.” (Derrida 1996, 13) and his proposal to reflect on the relation between language, existence and identity.

By trying to understand what Derrida is pointing out with this central sentence of his text Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou fa prothese d’origine it helps to take it as a proposition for a certain way of thinking. The philosopher negates the strict distinction between having and being. We are not living anymore in a binary reality and must learn to endure the dialectical tensions emerging from texts like this or also, for example, authors like Max Aub. The possessive pronoun in the sentence converts the language into one’s tool denying at the same time its possession, as language is not just a tool but a part of one’s being or existence. Only in the merging of being and having into language, the specific, non-binary existence of language and of the human being becomes perceptible. Whereas many times the having or possession of a language is presupposed, it is Œuvres like the one of Max Aub that negate this natural possession of a language by choosing one and in that way diving into exophonic procedures that loosen the connection between I and language as a possessive one.

Aub’s texts show us the choosing of the language as opposed to language as natural condition, or in different words, the not-having an own language or to be thrown between languages. Just like his works also Derrida’s thinking seems to challenge us to make contradictions and at the same time valid statements bearable, like: One speaks only one language, one never speaks only one language (cf. Derrida 1996, 25). From these contradictions arises the dynamic of dialectical thinking – both in Derrida’s words as in Aub’s Œuvre – which withdraws the language from having and mastering or controlling, and at the same time shows the interplay of being, having and language. “Parce que le maître ne possède pas en propre, naturellement, ce qu’il appelle pourtant sa langue; parce que, quoi qu’il veuille ou fasse, il ne peut entretenir avec elle des rapports de proprieété ou d’identité naturels, nationaux, congénitaux, ontologiques” (Derrida 1996, 45).

By dissolving the connection between I and language as a possession we also detach language from nationality. Citizenship does not define a cultural, linguistic or historical affiliation in a general sense. But it is also not only external, assigned to the superstructure (Derrida 1996, 33). Citizenship is nothing natural. “Surtout quand cette citoyenneté est de part en part précaire, récente, menacée, plus artificielle que jamais.” (Derrida 1996, 33). We notice its artificial and precarious character especially when we loose citizenship or still remembers when we obtained it. The choice of a language like Aub’s choice for Spanish does not come hand in hand with a place of ‘home’ or ‘belonging’, not in the political-legal sense, exposed here by Derrida, neither in the nostalgic-referential way used to construct an – always constructed – identity. The relationship or non-relationship between ‘home’ and language becomes even clearer in the following quote:

Mais qui la possède, au juste? Et qui possède-t-elle? Est-elle jamais en possession, la langue, une possession possédante ou possédée? Possédée ou possédant en propre, comme un bien propre? Quoi de cet être-chez-soi dans la langue vers lequel nous ne cesserons de faire retour? (Derrida 1996, 35s.)

Again, Derrida questions the action of possessing regarding language, as we have read before, just to continue denying the possibility of ‘being-at-home’ within a language in the sense of arrival or a secure place to act and write. Just like we can see in Aub’s exophonic Œuvre, his choice of Spanish doesn’t come with a definition of ‘home’ and a fixed place of belonging, but the contrary, a language is always a search and a not-having, it exists just in the sense of searching and not-having, but never as a home. There are many philosophical approaches to describe humans depending on their experience, on their history or analyzing there being (Dasein). The focus on the being to analyze humans starts from certain premises, that Derrida questions here by showing their artificial character. Because we don’t have a stable place with roots like Herder claims, neither are we at home in a culture or a language. All this architectural imagery is deconstructed by thinkers like Derrida and Œuvres like Aub’s. Both look for ways to express linguistically borderlands of existence that are hard to put in words, without equalizing them. They look for difference in sameness as a dialectical form and way of thinking.

The last aspect of Derrida’s text we want to point out concerns a central aspect in Aub’s writing. The tension between individual experience and history and universal validity of the texts. “Comment interpréter l’histoire d’un exemple qui permet de ré-inscrire, à même le corps d’une singularité irremplaçable, pour la donner ainsi à remarquer, la structure universelle d’une loi?” (Derrida 1996, 49). It is by inscribing something universal in an individual and unique story that the universal aspect becomes visible. Just through the unique, the universal can become visible and phenomenologically tangible. We need to consider the different historical experiences of individual cases and situations in order to get to universal laws and understandings, in order to make our being (Dasein) describable. And we need the individual experience and perspective on history to make the universal aspects experienceable. Max Aub describes in his works in Spanish individual perspectives on historical events – his own like in La gallina ciega or that of fictional characters like in El laberinto mágico – that let us understand and reflect on historical events like the Spanish Civil War, the Second Spanish Republic, Mexico during the 20th century and Francoism but also on more general aspects like exile, belonging or not-belonging, citizenship, historical memory, nostalgia and many more.

This individual perspective offering universal insights and reflections is also what his diary La gallina ciega consists of. In all the diary entries we can see the nostalgic but reflective longing not for a place as ‘home’ but for a specific time and historical moment: the Second Spanish Republic. This concerns us and our thinking about belonging and home because Aub chooses his nostalgic reference (his ‘home’) in a post-essentialist approach by referring always to the Second Spanish Republic and never to France where he was born. Linguistically he does this by writing all his work in his second or learned language, Spanish, and not in French. The connection between the choice of the language and the nostalgic references makes his exophonic writing politically so interesting. Furthermore, he chooses a time, a certain historical moment, to be the object of his longing instead of a place and thereby deconstructs the concept of belonging and home on an additional level. The chosen language cannot be a place to be at home, but it is through language that Aub reflects on these aspects, questioning them, searching for something, but never having it.


Aguirre-Otezia, Daniel. This Ghostly Poetry: Reading Spanish Republican Exiles between Literary History and Poetic Memory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020.

Aub, Max. Diarios (1939-1972), edited by Manuel Aznar Soler. Barcelona: Alba Editorial, 1998.

Aub, Max. La gallina ciega – Diario español. Madrid: Visor Libros, 2015.

Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

Derrida, Jacques. Le monologuisme de l’autre ou la prothèse d’origine. Paris: Galilée, 1996.

Dusini, Arno. Tagebuch – Möglichkeiten einer Gattung. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2005.

Paz, Octavio. “Una de Cal…”. In: Octavio Paz. Obras completas II: Excursiones/Incursiones. Dominio extranjero. Fundación y disidencia. Dominio hispánico. Barcelona: Círculo de Lectores – Galaxia Gutenberg, 2000, 1032–1051.

Sánchez Zapatero, Javier. Max Aub y la escritura de la memoria. Sevilla: Editorial Renacimiento, 2014.

Soldevila Durante, Ignacio. „Nueva tragedia de Rip Van Winkle: ‘La gallina ciega’ de Max Aub. Papeles de Son Armadans 230 (May 1975): 151–182.


[1] My translation of: “un ejemplo de español hispanoamericano y por lo mismo uno de los escritores verdaderamente europeos de España. Por eso también es un escritor mexicano”.

[2] My translation of: “¡Qué daño no me ha hecho, en nuestro mundo cerrado, el no ser de ninguna parte! El llamarme como me llamo, con nombre y apellido que lo mismo pueden ser de un país que de otro… En estas horas de nacionalismo cerrado el haber nacido en París, y ser español, tener padre español nacido en Alemania, madre parisina, pero de origen también alemán, pero de apellido eslavo, y hablar con ese acento francés que desgarra mi castellano, ¡qué daño no me ha hecho!”

[3] My translation of: “Regresé y me voy. En ningún momento tuve la sensación de formar parte de este nuevo país que ha usurpado su lugar al que estuvo aquí antes […]. Estos españoles de hoy se quedaron con lo que aquí había, pero son otros. Entiéndaseme: claro que son otros, por el tiempo, pero no sólo por él; es eso y algo más: lo noto por lo que me separa de su manera de hablar y encararse con la vida. No es el progreso, no es el turismo sino algo más profundo. […] ¿Veo molinos en vez de gigantes? No sólo el español es variable, lo sé; pero no hay camaleón que cambie así de colores […] Y la gente, aquí, no hablando como antes, es otra y —ahora que vamos a tomar el avión de partida— lo que más ha variado en y a España. Los de la España ‘grande, única, sola’ o como se diga (¡una, grande, libre!) asesinaron a la que conocí y —como en cualquier película— la reemplazaron por un doble que puede engañar a quien sea, menos a un lingüista. Quedan rescoldos, quedan bienes. […] es otro mundo: la lengua es más importante — aunque no quieran— que la economía para conocer un país. […] —Sí, España no ha muerto: es otra. También es cierto que será otra. ¿Cuándo? Ni Dios lo sabe” [emphases added].

[4] My translation of: “¡Eh, Dámaso! ¿Y nuestra España? Sí, la nuestra: la de Rafael, la de Jorge, la de Vicente, la de Federico —un poco menos porque le dieron de baja y mucho aire—, la tuya, la de Luis (Cernuda), que murió de repente; la de Manolito, en su accidente, del que ni hablar dejaron en tu capital, nicho de cadáveres; la mía. ¿Dónde está nuestra España? ¿Dónde queda? ¿Qué han hecho con ella? No lo sabes, no lo sé, nadie lo sabe. Habría que inventarla.”

[5] My translation of: “Que qué me parece España? Eres el número mil o mil quinientos que me lo pregunta. […] No les importa un pepino lo que me parezca España. Lo que quieren que les conteste es que estoy asombrado de las carreteras, de los paradores, de los restaurantes, de las comidas —porque ya no se acuerdan cómo se comía aquí antes de la guerra, porque la guerra no fue sólo un tajo sangriento sino también gastronómico. […] De la España que viví, de la que formé parte, a ésta de hoy va la misma diferencia que del México de la revolución del 14 al de hoy o de la Rusia de 1917 a la de 1960. Hasta el idioma, aunque la lengua sea la misma; las palabras ya no expresan exactamente lo mismo. Para mí, por ejemplo: Cortes y Cortés, ya no quiere decir lo mismo que hace un tercio de siglo. […] una cocina que no puede competir con la que te entretuviste treinta años añorando: los recuerdos de la lengua no se comparan con nada; el sol… Al sol, entonces, no se le hacía caso. […] Y hablando de otra cosa, y de lo bien que decís que estáis viviendo: ¿ha mejorado la literatura, comparada con la de mi tiempo? […] ¿Puedo estrenar en Madrid? No. Cuando pueda estrenar aquí lo que me dé la gana, vendré. No he estrenado en México. Pero es otro problema. Eso me ha parecido: cuando estrene, vengo” (emphasis added).

[6] My translation of: “Me hubiese gustado escribir y publicar estas páginas en España. No puede ser. Las edito en México mejor que guardarlas en un cajón. Podría vivir callado en una agradable casa española, comer y beber según los permisos de los facultativos. ¿Para qué entonces? Publicar mañana lo de hoy, tampoco vale la pena. Ya sé que oficialmente no ha de llegar este libro a artículo de consumo, pero algún ejemplar se perderá por Sevilla o Bilbao, Valencia o Santander. Por esa decena de volúmenes escojo seguir mi camino, acompañado por las sombras de algunos amigos. Nada digo que no se haya dicho, lo repito para que quede otra constancia de lo que algunos suponen la verdad. Sin contar que, como español, no me da la gana ‘de hablar con el portero’” (emphasis added).