On the Necessity of Treason

On the Necessity of Treason
JUAN BENET (1927–1993) was the most significant prose writer in Spain in the second half of the 20th century. An engineer by trade, he began writing to pass the long nights in the provinces of Asturias and León. His style was dense, allusive, and purposefully vague, and his work found few readers in his lifetime. His most remarkable achievements in fiction were the elaboration of an affective geography in the imagined territory of Región, which forms the setting of most of his novels; his compounding of poetic, scientific, and philosophical registers; and his search for a language of pure ambiguity, which culminated in his exquisite and baffling novel Un viaje de invierno (A Winter’s Journey). As an essayist, he covered topics ranging from Hjelmslev to Victorian London to irrigation policy. The piece below — the theme of which was of particular interest to Benet, whose father was executed during the Spanish Civil War and whose brother was forced into exile for his opposition to Franco’s dictatorship — is from his penultimate book, The Construction of the Tower of Babel, recently published by Wakefield Press in my translation. — Adrian Nathan West


The spy is two.

During the first hours of daylight on October 14, 1939, Lieutenant Prien must have been cursing the second.

Some 20 years before, at the beginning of 1920, a German watchmaker — quite possibly known as Julius Norke — fled the crisis in his country to take refuge in Scotland. In Kirkwall, a small village in the Orkney Islands, he opened a modest workshop for the repair of cheap watches, an industry that continues to exist in Scotland. He was a retiring man of middle age, and, thanks to his fragile constitution, he was excused from going the front, and devoted himself entirely to his craft, the greatest virtue of which was the little notice it attracted to him, even as a small abstemious German hemmed in by thirsty Scotsmen. As can be easily imagined, he did not grow particularly prosperous by that industry, and did not even save enough money to take up dignified lodgings or bring an old fiancée abandoned in his native Prenzlau over to his adopted land. Early on the letters were abundant, full of undimmed hopes; in the course of the years, she ceased to write, and it was only through the occasional friend with whom he maintained a sporadic correspondence that he came to know she had remained unmarried and was employed in the municipal library.

Fishing was the chief, if not the only distraction for Julius Norke; every Sunday, with the punctuality typical of his native Pomerania, he would go to a certain spot on the coast, chosen well in advance, and cast the rod with which he procured a part of his breakfast for the week: mackerel, which he would preserve in vinegar and eat with boiled potatoes. Faithful to his profession, he fished with a watch; at fixed intervals he would glance at it, reel in the line, change the lure, and cast his bait against the current, simultaneously cutting a small notch in his pole to mark the timing of this gesture. He was extraordinarily scrupulous, both as a watchmaker and as an angler.

It is not hard to picture the scene that opened up before the patient eyes of Norke on those Sunday mornings, with their calm seas and overcast skies — the best kind for fishing. The bare coast of Caledonia, composed of crude, hypogenic forms trimmed with scant vegetation, never quite sheltered from the choppy sea, only enlivened by the ever-impertinent cawing of the gulls or the sloping flight of the dark cormorants. And off in the distance, the tranquil masts of the naval division at Scapa, moored to the harbor of the redoubtable base, in deserved but never distrait repose after the bloody test at Jutland. For it was Scapa that, since time immemorial, was reputed the most impregnable of all the British bases, the hardest to access by sea, and thus, the most formidable; the center of operations, in fact, for the greatest naval force in the world, from which the northern gates to the Western world were defended and surveilled.

Twenty years after Norke’s arrival in Kirkwall, at 00:05 hours on October 14, 1939, Lieutenant Günther Prien piloted his U-47 into the Scapa Flow through the strait by Lamb Holm, and sank a torpedo in the hull of the one commission ship then moored in its dock; this was the venerable Royal Oak, a veteran of Jutland, the crew of which believed at first that an explosion had taken place inside the ship. For more than an hour, until 01:20, Prien lurked through the strait, in search of more succulent prey; then, at 01:25 he fired another three projectiles at the old battleship, which immediately foundered, taking with it 24 officials and 809 members of the crew. It was the first British warship to be sunk in the course of the Second World War. That was not the worst of it; the famous impregnability of the Scapa Flow was now forever tarnished, and the British Admiralty would pass through its lowest period to date. The entire policy on the naval bases of the European blockade had to be reexamined. Günther Prien, on the other hand, made it back to his country, a national hero after his mission. He was received by the Führer, given a promotion, and decorated. Along with Kretschmer, he would become the most famous man in the German submarine fleet. His storied vessel, the U-47, was breached and sunk to the south of Iceland — not far from the waters where he had begun his stellar career — on March 8, 1941. There were no survivors.

Norke, in the meantime — a man beyond reproach — carried on repairing watches in Kirkwall, closely watched over by British agents from the counterespionage service.

All things considered, Lieutenant Prien’s mission was both a success and a failure. The hardest part was reaching Scapa through any one of its straits, a feat considered impossible at the time, even with the good marine charts and navigation systems available for those who dared to try. In addition to the labyrinthine arrangement of the firths, scattered with reefs, shoals, islets, and narrows, lined with beacons undetectable by periscope, the tidal currents, in many places, exceeded the cruising speed of an underwater vessel. Still, once inside the firth, nothing would be easier than to select the prey, with the aid of a notebook showing the outlines of the ships, and let loose on the home fleet’s finest units. Fish in a barrel, so to speak. But Prien’s torpedoes found no target save for the Royal Oak, which had been saved from the scrapyard by the outbreak of hostilities. The Abwehr was unaware that the entire Scapa division had set sail from the base the night before, for routine exercises in the North Sea. Prien had been furnished with firsthand information regarding the inlets of Scapa and its currents, thanks to the patient, precisely timed, expert observations of Norke, noted down over 20 years of fishing. Once arrested, Norke faced trial and was pardoned by the British judges; he had never renounced his German citizenship and had done nothing more than share observations on the tide currents in certain of the straits of the Orkney Islands. His story was barely publicized; he returned to his country at the war’s end and died in obscurity in Lübeck, where he had opened a small shop for the repair of cheap watches.

If I have referred to the case of Julius Norke, it is in order to examine a kind of espionage that can no longer occur today: I am referring to the lone spy who does little beyond laboring on his own account; who has no collaborators or contacts in the system and furnishes a body of information that, patiently compiled and laboriously studied as it may be, remains within the reach of the average person. Ordinarily, spies — from those sent to Hellas by King Xerxes up to those presently engaged in the copious machinations contemporary conflicts have given rise to — make contact with the adversary; their key sources of information are the politicians and functionaries of a foreign power, and the secret documents they most covet are official in character. It is for that reason I averred, at the opening of this essay, that the spy is two; like a marriage; an activity carried out in collusion: the spy proceeds from the enemy camp and the traitor emerges from his own camp and secretly breaks — not necessarily for money — his oath of loyalty to his king, constitution, or people, sells his soul to the devil, and changes coats to collaborate for the triumph of ideals or principles very different from those on which he was raised.

The differences between the two persons composing this pair could not be more varied: they are professional but also social, moral, and psychological. Leaving aside their possible compenetration and a certain commonality of interests or, possibly, of ideas, what is certain is that both of them, as thematic figures, do not resemble one another in the least, sharing nothing beyond the particulars of their collaboration. It is a matrimony of two beings who could not differ more.

The first of these, the spy come from elsewhere in search of secret documents, is not — irrespective of the singular character of his profession — anything more than a salaried employee of his government, which asks of him only that he carry out his mission and not reveal the nature of his enterprise. If he must lead a double life, this will be only on the surface; he will have to take care of details, be forbidden the least indiscretion, and he will make of dissimulation, more than an art, a profession, down to its finest points. Someday or other, he will be called on to negotiate, and, as a consequence, he will reveal his status as a spy, and only his tact will enable him to appraise this decision’s wisdom in that sovereign moment when a regrettable choice or overlooked detail could mean the ruin of his career. But for the rest, he should not be regarded as a man tormented or divided; he is — I repeat — an earnest and efficient servant who is nowadays accustomed, if his mission should fail, to resort to the protections of diplomatic immunity, and will wind up repatriated to his place of origin when the government that had harbored him declares him persona non grata. Back home, he will generally be assigned administrative labors in the same organization that sent him abroad. He is a person of so little interest that none of the countless ambassadorial attachés accused, in a convincing manner, of having engaged in espionage show up — except in a fleeting and circumstantial way — in the pages of the copious literature, both fictional and historical, that takes this activity as its theme.

The interesting one is the other, the one who is forced — once the cat is out of the bag — to flee by his own means, without diplomatic protection, or else face his country’s courts, accused of treason. It is he who must lead a double or triple life down to his very marrow; he who must never reveal his secret, not to his wife, to his friends, or to his children; he who cannot permit himself the least respite; who must, at every moment, be on the lookout for danger and, when he hears the dreaded alarm, must be ready to pack his bags and vanish without a trace; who must, when the fateful moment arises, abandon wife, lover, children, home, habit, fortune, whiskey, and sanctuary to seek refuge in a country that is strange to him and where, at best, he will be taken in and cared for with a solicitude that means nothing to him because it lacks all the things he loves, even in spite of his ideology. Such a dark horizon shows the measure of the forces — unleashed by himself and himself alone — to which, for whatever reason, he who chooses the path of treason will find himself subject. And if the punishment meted out by the state for the crime of treason — a rubric that encompasses the entire range of espionage activities carried out in the service of the foreign land, whether enemy or ally, in times of war or peace — is so implacable, this must be because it is understood that treason is never an aberration, but represents instead the eternal possibility of conflict between an individual who is born free and acknowledged as such, and a society that is not. Since the dawn of political thought, the individual has been a free being, endowed by Providence with a will that enables him to think and to choose what is right for him and his congeners; whereas society is unfree, and has neither the right nor the intellectual mechanism by which to decide on another form for itself beyond the fixed regulations that dictate its nature, which are held to be unbreachable; the individual may dispense, should the occasion arise, with whatever law is imposed upon him, and may thereby even dispense with himself. Society does not have that right; its first duty is to self-preservation, and its usual manner of pursuing this imperative is not so much change as the imposition of a set of immutable laws upon an environment that society itself obliges to change, for its greater convenience. Politics would be impossible if the individual did not accept this arrangement in general, and there can be no solution to this contradiction other than the deviation of the instinct for freedom toward the compliance with a basic set of rules. On the one hand, society judges delinquent the individual who fails to comply with its rules, and mandates that he be punished; on the other — and this is by far the more pervasive procedure — it constitutes the individual in such a way that he is convinced the field of possibilities these rules mark out for him is far preferable to any other. His preference takes on a sacred aspect, and reaches its apogee in the first commandment of God’s law, which conceives Him as the supreme legislator who thinks for all and must therefore be considered separate from all. Every state — regardless of the era, even if it declares itself provisional, a transition toward another state, the advent of which it will seek to defer, situating it in a uchronic future — considers itself the best of all possible states, and hence, the last thing the individual is allowed is to protest. Every state is confessional, and demands communion with the congregation; he who refuses to take it will be branded a rebel, and the rebel who takes action will be a traitor. The dawn of the state thus coincides with the necessity of treason. As concerns the individual, the worth or eminence of one state with respect to another is not to be measured by its strength, its riches, or the amplitude of its domains; it is, quite simply, to be measured by its capacity for persuasion, by that politics which will instill in the citizen the conviction that of all the other offers in his grasp — including those of other states and those imagined by utopians — his is the one that is best. When this conviction is instilled not by persuasion but by duress, the state ceases to be democratic, and as a consequence loses respect for free choice. It may be posited that, in relation to the individual, each particular state must accept the existence of a free market of states, where it puts itself on display in competition with its counterparts; and within this market, its ineluctable vocation will be to devise the most attractive possible offer if it does not wish to see treason flourish in its breast.

The traitor breaks an oath of fidelity. The oath will be a ritual formula by which he who accepts it promises to show respect for certain rules. It is, in a manner of speaking, the enclosure that defines the limits of the state within which the individual may move. By overstepping them, he becomes a traitor. I have twice used the simile of matrimony, because of the traitor’s deep affinity with the adulterer who breaks his oath of fidelity with his spouse in thrall to a compulsion more powerful than his respect for this oath, than his affection for the person he has deceived or the pain ineluctably provoked by the irremediable harm he has caused. Just as the traitor within is far more interesting than the spy, who comes from without, so it is the case of the adulteress, who destroys her family and life for a fleeting love — generally portrayed by the narrator in pejorative terms — that has fired the novelist’s imagination. Rênal, Ozores, Karenina, Bovary are characters who, faced with an overwhelming circumstance, respond with their faculties intact to an insoluble drama implicit in the clauses of society, and lose; Pierre Laval, William Joyce, Ezra Pound, Count Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Count Claus von Stauffenberg lost too, for having ventured their inadmissible reply. A reply, it must be said, that for some would be long in coming, or that would never manage to be heard, because traitors, martyrs, and heroes never witness the triumph of the cause their sacrifice bolstered, which is, so often, swept aside by history as a fatuity little more than personal, deficient in the required momentum for social change.

In 1940, in the bitter days of the Blitz, the English lived through the German bombardment in the cellars and the Underground, their ears pressed to the radio. Their favorite orator of all possessed an irresistible voice, a voice endowed with the most elegant accent, such as a foreigner could never manage to acquire. The voice said awful things, unbearable to English ears. It came from Berlin and joyfully described the astounding German triumphs, at the same time predicting the blackest future for the British people if they persisted in their struggle against the Reich. It must have been remarkably unpleasant to hear, and yet no one ceased to listen to Lord Haw-Haw until the end of the war when, by chance, he was captured in a forest in the vicinity of Hamburg and carried off to England to be judged as a traitor. The story of his capture reveals the popularity he had achieved. Faced with the advance of the British army, he had taken refuge in some woods in the company of his wife, and for the space of a few weeks they lived off wild fruit. One morning he came upon two British officers out searching for firewood and, as he couldn’t make himself understood in French, he told the men in their own language where they might find some. “You wouldn’t by any chance be Lord Haw-Haw?” one of the officials asked upon recognizing his voice, and when William Joyce went to remove his German passport from his pocket, the other man shot him in the leg. At the opening of his trial, the shocked and disbelieving public discovered that William Joyce was not a British subject, but rather an American. He was the son of an Anglo-Irish immigrant who made his fortune building houses in Brooklyn and returned to Ireland in 1909 to take up residence in Galway. During the Irish Revolution, young William became a confidante of the Black and Tans, and when Ireland achieved independence, his family sold all its properties and moved to England. William was a gifted boy whose marks were among the highest granted by the University of London in those years. And yet he did not integrate himself into academe, nor did he manage to enter fully into the English way of life, in part because of his unmistakably Irish appearance and certain of his manners that were not quite proper to a gentleman — the ideal to which he ardently aspired. He drifted into politics and made contact with Sir Oswald Mosley, the face of fascism in Britain, from whom he would soon distance himself on account of the latter’s incompetence. In the stormy days on the eve of the war, he grew increasingly radical, edited a newspaper, preached politics on street corners, and began to attract attention thanks to his captivating speeches, even if he never overstepped the bounds of the law. On the 23rd of August, 1939, the day of the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, which clearly boded war, William Joyce renewed the British passport that would seal his ignominious end. A month after the commencement of hostilities, he began his campaign over the airwaves from Radio Berlin.

When William Joyce’s lawyer proved that his client had never — not even for a moment — been a British subject, the judge nearly threw out the case. The accusation of treason was based on a 1351 law according to which “if a man do levy war against our lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere […] that ought to be judged treason.” The prosecution responded to the defense with a precedent from 1608 according to which, independent of nationality, all individuals under the protection of the crown are obliged to show due loyalty thereto. The beneficiary of a British passport enjoys such protection and is thus obliged to said loyalty. Over the course of two days, the defense and prosecution dueled, pitting against one another their respective expertise in the fine points of law, until at last the court declared proper and pertinent the conclusions of the second. William Joyce was condemned to be hanged by the neck until dead, and so it was done.

Joyce did not participate in his own defense, and followed his trial with a certain distance and ironic pathos. Perhaps, as Boveri remarks, “his perverse love for England went so far that he preferred being hanged as a Briton who had committed treason to being acquitted as an American.” In his closing statement, he denied being a traitor and affirmed that his conduct toward England had been, in its entirety, utterly becoming, with an eye to the future. “Whatever opinion,” he said, “may be formed at the present time with regard to my conduct, I submit that the final judgment cannot be properly passed until it is seen whether Britain can win the peace.” After his death, English opinion was divided and disconcerted, and national feeling was somewhat wounded: “A British passport can’t change an American to an Englishman,” people said, with a vague tone of disdain for that nation that had helped preserve the English way of life. Rebecca West, who followed the trial attentively, later wrote The Meaning of Treason, and after declaring that, whatever the case, Joyce could not be accused of perjury, stated: “It might be debated whether a man can live all his life among a tribe and eat its salt and in the hour of its danger sharpen the spears that its enemies intend for their attack on it, and go free because he has not undergone the right ceremonies which would have made him a member of that tribe.” The tribe showed that it could win the peace or, at the least, perpetuate itself as a tribe. It may be that Joyce’s error was to adjudge its dissolution too imminent, and to bet too heavily on impending change. Far from reaching his goal, the traitor, upon failing, provokes a reinforcement of tribal bonds, and the state, by his punishment, obtains a double benefit: the guarantee that its offer is the best available and an extension of the credit ceded to it by its citizens. In this way, no matter how great the havoc he wreaks, the traitor is generally welcome within the order of the state.


Juan Benet (1927–1993) was one of the most important 20th-century Spanish writers. The author of some 30 books, he is best known for his first novel, Return to Región.

Adrian Nathan West is author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of more than a dozen books, including Marianne Fritz’s The Weight of Things and Pere Gimferrer’s Fortuny.

LARB Contributors

Juan Benet (1927–1993) was one of the most important 20th-century Spanish writers. The author of some 30 books, he is best known for his first novel, Return to Región.
Adrian Nathan West is a novelist, essayist, and translator based in Spain. His works have appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including 3:AM, Words Without Borders, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. He has translated books from German, Catalan, and Spanish, as well as short pieces from Portuguese, French, and Italian, by authors ranging from Josef Winkler to Pere Gimferrer to Enrique Vila-Matas, and has worked with a wide array of publishers both small and large, including NYRB Classics. He is also a contributing editor at the online translation journal Asymptote.


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