Author Archives: Andrew Youngson

‘Enhanced Interrogation’ in the Spanish Civil War: the Curious Case of Alfonso Laurencic

This post was contributed by Dr Carl-Henrick Bjerström, Lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck. This post first appeared on the Hidden Persuaders blog on Friday 15 June 2016.


Earlier this year, Professors Daniel Pick and Paul Preston recorded their conversation about the rediscovery of Alfonso Laurencic, a designer of highly unusual prison cells during the Spanish Civil War. Inspired by their discussion, Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom, specialist in Spanish Republican propaganda, delves into the circumstances surrounding the creation of these cells and the scandals that followed. While Laurencic’s experiments are a strange case within the history of psychological warfare, how they came to be documented by Francoist forces tells us even more about coercion and propaganda within the Spanish Civil War.

“We’ve all got those friends or family members who consider ‘modern art’ a form of torture. Next time they complain about an exhibition you bring them to, just tell them how relieved they should feel that they didn’t fight in the Spanish Civil War […]; they could have found themselves subject not just to actual torture, but torture directly inspired by modernist aesthetic principles”.¹

Colin Marshall’s tongue-in-cheek comment on was typical of media responses to the story of Alfonso Laurencic, a Frenchman who designed psychologically disorienting torture cells on behalf of the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. The story first appeared in January 2003, when El País reported on the findings of art historian José Milicua, and soon spread to news outlets all over the world. Intrigued by the curious case of Laurencic, Daniel Pick, principal investigator of the Hidden Persuaders project, recently talked to Paul Preston, one of the foremost contemporary experts on the Spanish Civil War, to hear whether Laurencic’s innovations amounted to an experiment in psychological warfare.

In the context of modern Spain, Laurencic’s bizarre prison cells were certainly unique. Describing the cells’ design, Paul Preston draws attention to bricks cemented to the floor in a zig-zag pattern – designed to hinder any walking in the cell – and to the concrete bed placed as a 45-degree angle, making it impossible for prisoners to lie down without sliding off. Prisoners were also forced to listen to an amplified metronome at different speeds – an innovation probably related to Laurencic’s background as a musician – and were kept within sight of a clock that ran too fast. Such devices were added to maximise the psychological distress of prisoners and perhaps contributed to practices of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

Photos of Laurencic’s cells on Calle Zaragoza, Barcelona.1939.2

A photo of Laurencic’s cells on Calle Zaragoza, Barcelona.1939.2

Yet the feature that captured journalists’ attention in 2003 was not the attempt to manipulate prisoners’ sense of time, but the seemingly psychedelic shapes and patterns painted on the prison walls. This obsession derived from a perceived link between Laurencic’s designs and modern art: it appeared as if the visual language devised by artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, foundational and universally revered innovators of contemporary art history, had been converted with surprising ease into an instrument of psychological torture. Among more serious-minded writers there was a sense that Laurencic’s designs may not only speak of the cruelties of civil war but also of a dark potential inherent in the utopian visions that shape our modern artistic heritage ².

However, this view is problematic in several ways, as my reflections below will show. Most importantly, it excludes from accounts of Laurencic’s case its most evident contemporary significance. As Paul Preston emphasises, the story of Laurencic needs to be situated in its proper socio-political context. Once this is done, it becomes clear that it is not a story about modern art but rather a story about the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath.

* * * * *

The Spanish War of 1936-1939 was an unequal battle fought between various forces loyal to a legitimately elected centre-left government, on the one hand, and politically, socially, and culturally conservative supporters of rebelling sections of the Spanish Army seeking to halt the government’s modernising reform programme, on the other. The Republic was from an early stage fighting against the odds, and in spring 1938, when Laurencic designed his cells, the Republican government faced an unprecedented political and military crisis. Rebel forces, led by General Francisco Franco and strengthened throughout the conflict by generous arms shipments and logistical support from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, had launched a blitzkrieg offensive across the north-eastern region of Aragon. Within weeks they reached the Mediterranean Sea by the Valencian town of Vinaròs, thus cutting the remaining Republican zone in two.



The dire military situation exacerbated internal political tensions within the Republican side. The Republican war effort, which received isolated but vital military aid from the Soviet Union, was weakened by in-fighting. This was due both to resentment caused by the Spanish Communist Party’s influence over political and military affairs and to a de-centralising and collectivising grass-roots revolution pursued by semi-autonomous left-wing forces. It also intensified the hunt for spies and other fifth columnists, known to be operating within left-wing organisations and the Republican Army.

In this sensitive situation, it is perhaps remarkable that Alfonso Laurencic, a music-hall pianist and self-styled architect who had been a sometime member of libertarian, dissident communist, and mainstream socialist unions while making money selling false passports, ended up working for the Republican state intelligence services. But seen from another perspective, he may have had just the skills needed in such desperate times. In their hunt for fifth-columnists, the Republican intelligence services resorted to various shady tactics. Interrogation often took place in so-called chekas: secret prisons first used by radical left-wing groups operating independently of the Republican government. The existence of the chekas was not officially acknowledged by the Republican government but government officials were aware of their continued use throughout the conflict. Cells with the kind of brutal innovations ascribed to Laurencic were uncommon – according to Paul Preston, there were four of them in the Republic as a whole – but their exceptional nature has nonetheless led observers to ask whether they show a hitherto unknown dimension of the Spanish Civil War, evincing the use of sophisticated psychological torture.

However, when details from Laurencic’s trial are studied carefully, the psychological aspects of his gruesome work appear less significant than first assumed. The torture technique used in the Barcelona cells designed by Laurencic were predominantly physical. Descriptions and illustrations in a published contemporary account of the proceedings repeatedly focus on a box in which prisoners were placed and forced to endure hours in excruciatingly painful positions. Even the misleading clock on the wall was not primarily used to disrupt prisoners’ sense of time but psychosomatically, to intensify the sensation of hunger. There is moreover little evidence that any aspect of these designs emerged from real understanding of the psy-sciences. Laurencic referred to the allegedly bewildering patterns and colours on the prison walls as ‘psycho-technic’ additions, but his inspiration in this respect seem to have come not from scientific work but rather vague artistic ideas about the impact of colours on mood. At first sight, this appears to strengthen impressions that Laurencic took inspiration from painters of modern abstract art, especially perhaps, Kandinsky and Klee. Yet on closer inspection even the link between Laurencic’s prison designs and abstract art seems tenuous, as Paul Preston suggests in his conversation with Daniel Pick. Although the actual patterns painted on the prison walls seen in photos of the cells may have been found in paintings by Kandinsky and Klee, they do not necessarily bear more relation to these artists than they do to the geometrical patterns of a chess board or any abstract decoration. Neither did painters of abstract art aim to use their formal exploration as a means to alter psychological states, for good or bad. The one modernist movement which was interested in psychological experimentation was the Surrealists, and, incidentally, a scene from the classic Surrealist film Un Chien Andalou – the opening scene where an eye is slashed open – was shown to prisoners being interrogated in Republican chekas. In this case modernist art did indeed serve as an instrument of torture.

To place abstract art in general in the dock on the basis of Laurencic’s experimental cells, as many commentators have been tempted to do, is not only empirically questionable, but also, as mentioned in the introduction, to miss the real significance of his case. For it was not modern art that was on trial here. In the greater scheme of things, it was not even Laurencic who was the true target of the Francoist prosecution. What was being questioned and judged in the courtroom was, fundamentally, the legitimacy of the Republic that had employed his services. This is clear once we consider the socio-political context of the Laurencic trial and shift our focus to the main source of the Laurencic story: a contemporary book-length account of the court proceedings, written by R. L. Chacón: Why I made the ‘Chekas’ of Barcelona: the court martial of Alfonso Laurencic (1939).³

In his book, Chacón includes several details implicating – directly or indirectly – the Republican government in Laurencic’s crimes. Witnesses testify that ministers in the Republican government knew about the secret prisons but did nothing to close them down. Revealingly, there are also oblique references to the presence in the prisons of foreign agents. Although their nationality is not mentioned, it is clear, as contemporary readers would have understood, that such agents would have been Russians working for the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Thus, by linking the chekas both to the Republican leadership and Stalin’s henchmen in Spain, the trial, as described by Chacón, appeared to produce further evidence to support the Francoist view of the Republic as a sinister communist plot inflicting pain on honourable ‘Spanish gentlemen’ (a section of the nation to whom Chacón dedicates his book), merely to serve the interests of an evil foreign power. From this perspective, the horrors of the chekas were ultimately attributed to the ideological influence summing up all things abhorrent in the Francoist universe: the so-called ‘Judeo-Masonic-Bolshevik’ conspiracy, believed to be an international force of which the Spanish Republic was but the most recent and threatening expression.

Such references make clear that Chacón’s book served primarily as a propaganda piece justifying Franco’s post-war repression, often taking the form of vengeful mass trials. I have not found further information about Chacón himself, but considering the slogans scrawled on its back pages – ‘Russia is Hell! Franco will save Christian civilization!’ – there can be no doubt that both author and publisher were deeply sympathetic with the Francoist ‘Crusade’, as the civil war was often called by Franco supporters. To them, the Republican experiment had tainted the nation with sin and the political ‘diseases’ of liberalism and socialism, making it necessary for the Army violently to purge the body politic of ungodly and unhealthy elements. Having achieved military victory, the victors moved ruthlessly to exclude from all social and political spheres every group associated with the vanquished, denounced collectively in Franco’s Spain as ‘Anti-Spain’.

Chacón’s book contributes to the dissemination of this narrative; its language and structure even dramatizes it in striking ways. On the surface, Chacón purports to provide a witness account of the procedure. He claims to operate in a documentary mode, mirroring the expected objectivity of the juridical process – an objectivity which in fact was entirely absent in the political trials of the early Francoist era. Yet on closer inspection his documentary account, like all documents, elicits particular responses from its reader by employing a series of literary devices. The scene for Laurencic’s trial is carefully set: the court room is described in detail, as are the reactions of the expectant audience when Laurencic is brought before the judge to testify. The cross examination of the accused and other witnesses is transcribed in the form of a dialogue. Such stylistic choices create suspenseful drama, turning Chacón’s book into something akin to a modern inquisition play.

Indeed, rather than a documentary record, its real function is that of a literary show trial, seeking to terrorise and stoke fear in its readers in order to facilitate the regime’s task of enforcing nationwide obedience. The logic of such propaganda, backed up by credible threats of torture and death, arguably produces a political parallel with methods used in Laurencic’s cells. Francoist trials were not only a way to eliminate the internal enemy, but also a means to keep the entire population on edge. (‘All of Spain is a prison’ was a common saying in the early Francoist years, making the parallel with the chekas clearer.) Chacón’s curiously distorting description of the Laurencic trial serves this goal by showing the implacability with which the regime intended to carry out its ideological project. This project intended to resolve, with brutal force if necessary, the conflicts generated by Spain’s disparate experiences of modernity; conflicts which in this case found their symbolic resolution, described in vivid detail by Chacón, on the morning of 9 July 1939, when Alfonso Laurencic was executed.

1 Colin Marshall, ‘Modern Art Was Used As a Torture Technique in Prison Cells During the Spanish Civil War’, 29 October 2014. See

2 The clearest example is a video by Elise Rasmussen entitled ‘Checa’. See

3 Orig. Por que hice las ‘Chekas’ de Barcelona. Laurencic ante el Consejo de Guerra.

Dr Carl-Henrik Bjerstrom is Lecturer in Modern European History at Birkbeck College. His current research is on Republican print culture during the Spanish Civil War, particularly the role that trench journals played in the Republican nation-building project. His first book, ‘Josep Renau and the Politics of Culture in Republican Spain, 1931-1939: Re-imagining the Nation’ was published earlier this year.

Find out more



Rio 2016: Predicting Success

This post was contributed by James Fisk, graduate administrator at the School of Business, Economics and Informatics. This article relates to new a new study by Professor Klaus Nielsen, of Birkbeck’s Sport Business Centre and Department of Management. Prof Nielsen’s study uses novel measures to predict countries’ success in the approaching Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

A hand with the Brazilian logo and the five Olympic ringsWith the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic games due to take place in a few days (6th August, to be precise) athletes throughout the world will be making their final preparations for the biggest sporting event of their lives.  It won’t just be anxious athletes arriving in Rio de Janeiro this week; the international press, hopeful fans and governments will all be alighting for the competition, whose roots famously stretch back to antiquity. The Olympic Games appear as a focal point not just for athletes, but also for governments throughout the world, for whom huge investments have been made in the pursuit of the coveted Gold medals. So, who will come out on top? Fortunately for us, Birkbeck’s Dr Klaus Nielsen, Professor of Institutional Economics, has written a paper that should give us a good idea. Using a combination of results from recent world championships in Olympic sport disciplines, world rankings, taking into account banned or absent athletes and historical comparisons, Dr Nielsen has predicted the winners and losers of the forthcoming tournament.

The Top Three

The top three may not come as a huge surprise to many, they are: the United States of America, China and Russia.  However, it’s not all static at the top, as Dr Nielsen’s paper predicts the overall medal share for the three giants to reduce from 30% in 2012, down to 25% for 2016. A reduced share of the medals for Russia are a direct consequence of many of its athletes being banned or suspended, particularly in disciplines for which Russia has traditionally been dominant, such as weightlifting. The USA, meanwhile, face reductions in their predicted tally following a disappointing showing from their Track and Field team at last year’s world championships, although overall, the USA is still predicted to come out on top.  China are also set to see their tally drop from 2012, from 88 medals to 83, with Dr Nielsen citing a lack of diversification in the sports they actively compete in. So, with the big three seeing a 5% drop in success shared among them, where will the extra medals go?

Great Britain

Four years after successfully hosting the tournament, in which they won 65 medals, Great Britain return with momentum. Although funding has not dropped below the level it received in the build up to London 2012, the ambitious previous target of becoming the first nation to win more medals in the tournament immediately after hosting, has recently been replaced with a more modest one of winning at least 48 medals – which is more than its hitherto most successful overseas Games in Beijing 2008. Professor Nielsen believes that this target will be achieved in Rio. Recent performances at world championships suggest that a figure of 51 medals is likely. Great Britain is predicted to end up as the fourth best nation so although the top three look set for diminished returns, Great Britain are not poised to use this to their advantage and interfere with the dominant triumvirate.

The beautiful coastline of Rio de Janeiro

Movers and Shakers

Rio looks set to witness changes to the top 10 medal-winning countries. Italy look set to drop out of the top 10 and Brazil, the Netherlands and, rather surprisingly, New Zealand will be vying to shoot up the table.  New Zealand will be hoping to use a phenomenally successful London 2012 showing (where they won 13 medals) as a platform for increasing their share of medals to 20. Although investment plays a significant role in this upward trajectory, Dr Nielsen highlights their dominance in 3 of the 4 new events due to debut at the Olympics. Rugby 7’s, as well male and female Golf, will see New Zealand continue their ascendancy into the higher echelons of sporting achievement.

Whilst the Olympics has always cherished its surprises, such as Abebe Bikele  in 1960 or Billy Mills in 1964, Dr Nielsen’s work should put some anxious minds to rest, whilst others – such as Russia and Italy –  will perhaps be hoping for more Olympian surprises.

Read Professor Klaus Nielsen’s study: “Medal predictions for the Rio Games – the competition between national elite sport systems

Find out more


Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Suzannah Biernoff, senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art writes about her current research activity.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Hi Suzannah. What was your route to Birkbeck?

I moved to London from Sydney in 1998, after finishing my PhD. Before taking up a lectureship at Birkbeck in 2007 I taught on the Visual Culture programme at Middlesex University and at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

What’s your current topic of research?

My most recent publications have examined attitudes towards disability and disfigurement during and after the First World War. My book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, is due out with the University of Michigan Press early next year. Wellcome funding has made it possible to publish open access articles in journals including Social History of Medicine, Visual Culture in Britain and Photographies.

I wanted to use visual sources as much as possible – from medical photographs and life drawings to prosthetic masks, photo albums and images in the illustrated press – sources that complicate and at times contradict the written record. As a historian of visual culture I am also interested in how people viewed the disfigured face. Cultural prohibitions against staring, expressions of pity or disgust, and later in the century the visual thrill of the horror movie: all of these ‘ways of seeing’ are part of the story, as much as the material evidence of injury, masking and repair.

I have recently been awarded a Birkbeck Wellcome Trust ISSF mid-career fellowship to begin a new project on images of facial difference within European and North American popular culture, film and visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am interested in how people have responded to unusual or extraordinary faces; the cultural mechanisms of normalisation; and strategies of defiance and re-interpretation (for example, where the damaged face is re-imagined as beautiful, or where artists use disfigurement as a creative or symbolic device). As well as artistic representations of the face, my sources include public health images, advertisements, medical photographs, coffee table books, film and fashion photography.

Why did you choose this topic? What inspired you?

In autumn 2002 I went to the Strang Print Room at UCL to see a small exhibition of Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI servicemen with facial injuries. In western art, the face is a primary marker of identity and humanity, and its violation or absence often represents the limits of the human. Tonks’ portraits are almost unbearably intimate studies. They record men before and after reconstructive surgery: almost certainly in pain, physically and emotionally exposed, but stoical. A surgeon himself, as well as a professor of anatomy and drawing at the Slade School of Art, Tonks managed to reveal something new about the depths of the human face and the ways in which images – and institutions – can shape the way we see. He once wrote that he wondered what the body must look like to someone without his knowledge of anatomy. I wonder if his ability to look without horror or embarrassment at the men he drew allows us to see them differently as well.

What excites you about this topic?

I’ve always liked the idea that the things we take most for granted, the things that feel inevitable and personal – our bodies, emotions or sensations – have a history. My current project focuses on the human face, which has tended to be overlooked in histories of the body.

Each chapter of Portraits of Violence revolves around a particular image or set of images:

  • Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo winning portrait Marine Wedding is discussed alongside Stuart Griffiths’ photographs of British veterans of the Iraq War;
  • Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI facial casualties are compared to the medical photographs of the same men in the Gillies Archives; the production of portrait masks for the severely disfigured is approached through the lens of documentary film and photography;
  • and in the final chapter the haunting image of one of Tonks’ patients at the Queen’s Hospital reappears in the first-person shooter game BioShock, provoking an exchange on a players’ discussion forum about the ethical limits of realism.

What is challenging about the research?

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Like most researchers working on issues of stigma and appearance within the humanities, my approach is informed by a social model of disability, according to which beauty, normality, acceptability and ugliness are in the eye (and cultural imagination) of the beholder. One of the strange things about disfigurement as a topic is that people (both experts and popular writers) have tended to assume that the object of study is self-evident. We think we know what we’re talking about when we refer to disfigurement. In fact there are no sources – historical or contemporary – that define this problematic term. The sociologist Heather Laine Talley observes in her book Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance that the concept of disfigurement has ‘no static intelligibility, no objective point of reference, no stable shared meaning’ (2014, p. 14).

This problem with definitions presents a challenge for historians. If we understand ‘disfigurement’ – and stigma generally – as negotiated and context specific, then the idea of a history of disfigurement is a bit misleading. Really, one would need to ask why and how facial or bodily difference becomes disfigurement within particular social interactions and cultural contexts. In the early twentieth century – the period I’ve looked most closely at – these contexts include the fear and censorship of facial war injuries, and the lingering stigma of syphilis, but the symbiotic relationship between war and medicine had a role to play as well. Thanks to the large number of facial casualties returning home from the battlefields of WWI, plastic surgery – described by the pioneering surgeon Harold Gilles as a ‘strange new art’ – became a recognized medical specialism, and disfigurement a treatable condition.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

Appearance plays a crucial role within social hierarchies. Like gender, class and race, the way we look is a powerful determinant of social mobility and physical capital. In this respect, there are clear parallels between the civil rights and feminist movements, and more recent developments in disability rights and ‘face equality’.

Despite the inclusion of serious disfigurement in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, there is a widespread perception among disability scholars and campaigners that the norms of acceptability are becoming narrower: that society (at least in the developed and increasingly globalised world) is becoming less tolerant of people who look different from a prevailing idea of normality.

Although disfigurement is not an illness – or even, in most cases, a functional impairment – it is widely perceived as having and requiring a medical solution. Understanding the social, political and historical contexts of ‘disfigurement’ is important both from the perspective of the medical humanities, and for scholars, artists, activists and policy makers working in the field of disability studies and advocacy.

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

One of the things I love about working at Birkbeck is that I teach students with such diverse interests and backgrounds. Each year I run an MA option called Exhibiting the Body, on medical museums and the historical intersections between art and medicine. Over the years my students have included nurses, GPs, painters and performance artists, a game developer, a medical photographer, and the curator of Barts Pathology Museum. There have been some memorable debates along the way on topics ranging from 19th-century freak shows to the ethics of displaying human remains.

As a teacher, being able to draw on a wide spectrum of personal and professional perspectives makes for an incredibly rich classroom experience. In the humanities we talk a lot about the value of interdisciplinarity at the level of research, but often overlook the benefits of teaching students in a multidisciplinary environment.

Find out more



Birkbeck’s Published Alumni Series: Nadim Safdar

This post was contributed by Valeria Melchioretto. This summer the Birkbeck Creative Writing department launched its new website The Mechanics’ Institute Review Online. This year marks a huge success for the Creative Writing MA as ten alumni have novels coming out this year.

To celebrate these achievements we are profiling a selection of the authors and extracts from their upcoming novels will appear on MIROnline. Here, Valeria speaks with alumnus Nadim Safdar, about his debut novel, Akram’s War (Atlantic, May 2016)

Read an extract of the book at MIROnline

VM: Firstly, congratulations on your debut novel Akram’s War which has just been published by Atlantic and thanks for taking part in this interview. We are keen to learn about your career so far. If you had to pick the most significant learning experience from your entire MA, what would it be?

NS: I feel fortunate that I come from a scientific background in which what we were taught was empirical and fact. It is not so different in the Creative Arts – the idea of form, structure, characterization and whether or not a situation or scene or phrase has been earned – these things I had to be taught. I listened carefully and writing the book, I built a shed in the rear of the garden and having sacrificed the day-job, I thought of little else for over four years. My day would begin around 10 at night when (my now wife) would go to bed and I’d work through.

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Image credit: Sahar Afzal

Debut novels are famously thought to be, at least in parts, autobiographical. How much inspiration have you drawn from firsthand experience and how much is down to research or fiction?

It is surprising how you live within the character and indeed, how much of your character(s) live in you. There are two main characters in the book, Akram and Grace and during the four years of writing them, I often found myself (in real life) at a point of decision-making and wondered – what would Akram or Grace have done?

It won’t come as a surprise to me that readers’ might ask what I have in common with Akram (a Pakistani male). We men think we know how to fight but there are some battles we are not equipped for.

I therefore had to find the character Grace – and through her express the story of someone at the mercy of a system she is not equipped to deal with. I had to make the story of losing one’s child (or even the ever-present day-to-day threat of that loss) acceptable to the reader and for that to be believable it could only be expressed through the eyes of a woman.

We all have lived experience: have loved, fought, wounded others and scarred ourselves. You might want to but you can’t just blurt it out – writing is about finding a form in which to put it.

Your book has a strong message about the radicalisation of British Muslims. Over the last couple of years the topic has become ever more pressing, with the rise of ISIS etc. Could you see it coming?

Although no one could see it coming, I don’t think anyone could say, in retrospect, that the unfolding events weren’t inevitable.

The first Muslim has been sworn in as London’s new Mayor. Do you think he might be a role model for young British Muslims and could this event mark a turning point for radicalisation? Or what do you think it all means?

I think it means that the majority of Londoner’s are relatively poor and prefer the socialist candidate.

There is a whole genre of novels based on politically and socially urgent topics. I am sure you are familiar with the work of Lionel Shriver and so on. There is often talk about writers having an obligation to make social comments. How important is it for a writer to pick a relevant subject that features in the media or do you think that topics pick their writers and it’s about following one’s hunch whatever the subject matter?

Lionel Shriver talks about writing about people who ‘are hard to love,’ and with a protagonist who is something of a loner and an outsider there is much more to explore and say. To me, such people are far more interesting. In terms of social commentary, why would a writer like myself want to be between two intractably opposed sides murdering each other with any means at their disposal. The book is a complete work of fiction and has to exist all by itself.

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

Nadim Safdar (Image credit: Sahar Afzal)

How do you know when you are onto something big? Moreover, when do you know the novel you are writing is finished?

I wrote down one single phrase, printed it out large and posted it to the wall. After that, I had to invent the character and somehow, through 80,000 or so words, make him earn that phrase. It might sound arrogant but knew I had it in that first phrase.

The end point was more prosaic, the character Akram had simply run his course and had nothing more meaningful to say.

Was there much more work that needed to be done on the novel after finding an agent?

I was fortunate in finding an excellent agent and publisher who really seemed to understand what I was getting at, but also and importantly, they represented the reader. Through their direction the published book is far better than the one I originally submitted. For me, from first submission to an acceptable draft took about a year.

The opening sentence of chapter one is an absolute classic and has the sharp directness that instantly engages a reader. Given that your book has such a serious content how did you find the right form for it?

The opening phrase that I posted on my wall was set in the present. To earn it I had to take my protagonist right back to childhood and, through twenty or so years of his life, work back up to it. Although the past was told in a sort of flashback narrative, those scenes originally started as a series of short story’s linked through inter-connected characters. Once I had those, I had to find a form or framework and so I set the entire novel over one night and discovered Grace, someone my protagonist could tell his story to.

Getting a book deal is any MA student’s ultimate dream. Do you now write on a full-time basis?

You don’t get paid enough to write on a full-time basis – or at least I don’t! Indeed, writing on a full-time basis almost drove me mad. A writer needs something else, whether it’s travel or family or teaching or a part time job. You need also to be out in the world.

Rumours have it that you are already working on your next novel The Journeyman which is about a boxer. Could you tell us a bit more about it?  

A journeyman is a boxer who’s prone to losing and fights weekly for a living wage. A journeyman can’t afford to getting knocked out or injured as he then has to lay off for a month or more. So a journeyman is a master in defense and evasion and if he is that good, what does it take for him to win?

Barely a quarter through the new book, I already feel like I’m sitting at the bar at the Hailstone in Rowley Regis with my characters and for that feeling, a sort of writers-magic that signals I’m on to something, I’m very grateful.

Akram’s War by Nadim Safdar (Atlantic) is available now for £ 12.99

Nadim Safdar was born to Pakistani parents and grew up in the Black Country. He is married with three young children and lives in London. His first novel, AKRAM’S WAR, was published by Atlantic in May 2016.

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto

Valeria Melchioretto is the author of Podding Peas and The End of Limbo. She received a bursary from the Arts Council. In 2012 she represented Switzerland at the Poetry Olympics at the South Bank and won the ‘New Writing Ventures’. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck and a MA in Fine Art.