My naked angel

LAST UPDATED: 1 Feb, 2010 @ 11:47
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My naked angel

THIS year marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s seminal novel, which is often included in ‘all-time best book’ lists.

Although set in a thinly-disguised version of Soviet Russia – and a savage condemnation of the Stalinist show trials – the novel draws heavily upon Koestler’s experiences of imprisonment in Andalucia during the Spanish Civil War.

However, were it not for a curious incident that occurred in Malaga in 1937 involving a stash of erotic photos and a retired English zoologist, the novel would never have been written.

The British writer, who was born in Hungary in 1905, visited Spain twice during the civil war, ostensibly as a journalist for the London daily News Chronicle, but also working as an agent of the Comintern, an organisation, based in Russia, which aimed to spread communism around the world.

His first visit took place in August 1936, when he visited the Nationalist H.Q. in Sevilla and managed to interview General Gonzalo Queipo de Llano, who was busy earning notoriety via his vitriolic radio broadcasts.

Something of a scoop, the interview was arranged by the Nationalists’ international press liaison boss, Captain Luis Bolin.

Sir Peter took advantage of the distraction and appealed to the captain’s sense of decency, explaining how much trouble Señor Bolin would be in should his wife realise he possessed photos of such a scandalous nature.

The day after the interview, Koestler was recognised by a pro-Nazi German journalist, who warned Bolin of Koestler’s communist sympathies.

Koestler wrote afterwards: “I managed to escape to Gibraltar just in time; the warrant for my arrest was issued an hour after I crossed the frontier.”

He added: “Never again was a representative of a British liberal paper allowed to enter rebel territory.”

When Koestler’s unflattering portrayal of Queipo de Llano was later published in the international press, Bolin was furious and promised to shoot Koestler (labelling him as simply ‘k’) “like a mad dog” if he managed to get hold of him.

Meanwhile, 150 kilometres south in the city of Malaga, Sir Peter Chalmers-Mitchell, an elderly British zoologist, was growing deeply concerned about his neighbours.

During the early days of the civil war, Malaga had been one of the only key cities not to fall to the fascists.

But this had led to problems of its own, with lawless anarchist militias frequently taking great delight in burning property in the exclusive neighbourhoods such as El Limonar, where Sir Peter lived, and arresting anyone suspected of Nationalist sympathies.

Sir Peter’s immediate Spanish neighbour Tomas Bolin – the uncle of Captain Luis Bolin – was repeatedly harassed by gun-wielding mobs demanding to search his home.

As the war became increasing bitter, Bolin and his family became the target of numerous searches and Sir Peter ended up inviting them to take refuge with him.

At first Sir Peter used his foreign status to protect the Bolin’s home, but one day a young, aggressive anarchist captain arrived who was unimpressed by Sir Peter’s British charms.

This captain and his patrol turned the house upside down and eventually discovered pro-Monarchist literature in a desk drawer, something which could have had potentially fatal consequences for Tomas Bolin.

However, digging deeper in the same drawer, the captain also discovered a cache of photographs depicting a naked woman in various erotic poses.

The discovery of these “pretty pictures”, as Sir Peter later tactfully termed them, threw all thoughts of spies and traitors out of the window as the members of the anarchist patrol crowded round to have a closer look.

Sir Peter took advantage of the distraction and appealed to the captain’s sense of decency, explaining how much trouble Señor Bolin would be in should his wife realise he possessed photos of such a scandalous nature.

The anarchist captain eventually agreed to take the photos away ‘to be destroyed’ and left the incriminating Monarchist material with Sir Peter, who sensibly quickly disposed of it down his well.

Within weeks, Sir Peter had helped Tomas and his family to escape to Gibraltar, which was one of the nearest and easiest safe havens to reach.

In January, 1937, Koestler himself returned to Spain, this time to Republican Malaga, just as the major Nationalist offensive to take the city began.

It was a bloodthirsty attack leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children, most of them fleeing via the road to Almeria.

After being caught up in the rout of the Republican forces and the chaotic fall of the city in early February, by coincidence Koestler also ended up taking refuge at Sir Peter’s home in El Limonar, from where he nervously witnessed the entry of the Nationalist troops.

Unfortunately for him one of the first Nationalists to enter the city was Tomas Bolin himself, eager to discover what had occurred to his house.

Sir Peter was initially overjoyed at seeing his neighbour return and told Koestler “we’ll be OK now”.

However, Tomas was now returning with the squadrons of conquering heroes and was greatly displeased to find his house had been used as a military hospital.

He flatly blamed Sir Peter, displaying what can only be described as open antipathy toward his former host and protector. But the real problem was that Tomas was not alone – his nephew, Luis, had managed to make the journey over to Malaga to witness the victory.

It did not take long for Luis to discover that Arthur Koestler was lying low in Sir Peter’s home and he had his men quickly arrest him.

Overjoyed at the chance to get even, Bolin immediately began making preparations for a summary execution, tying Koestler’s hands together and asking for a rope so he could hang the journalist on the spot.

But even as the rope was being brought, the wily Sir Peter played his trump card. He asked to take Tomas Bolin aside for a private chat and revealed that he knew of the existence of Bolin’s secret stash of erotica – and that he was prepared to inform Señora Bolin.

Minutes later, all thoughts of summary execution had been forgotten. Koestler wrote: “To this day I do not know what made Captain Bolin break his promise to “shoot K. like a dog” but evidently it all hinged on his uncle’s “pretty pictures”.

At any rate I wish to acknowledge in public my gratitude to the anonymous lady who posed for them.”

Although temporarily pardoned, Koestler spent the next three months in prison in Sevilla under sentence of death.

It was the time he spent in the prison under the threat of death on which he drew upon these experiences in Darkness at Noon, which was released three years later.

He was eventually released after a prisoner swap with the wife of a Nationalist aviator captive in the Republican zone was arranged.

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