Franco's Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936

Overview

An open-minded and clear-eyed reexamination of the cultural artifacts of Franco’s Spain

True, false, or both?

Spain’s 1939–75 dictator, Francisco Franco, was a pioneer of water conservation and sustainable energy.

Pedro Almodóvar is only the most recent in a line of great antiestablishment film directors who have worked continuously in Spain...

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Franco's Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936

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Overview

An open-minded and clear-eyed reexamination of the cultural artifacts of Franco’s Spain

True, false, or both?

Spain’s 1939–75 dictator, Francisco Franco, was a pioneer of water conservation and sustainable energy.

Pedro Almodóvar is only the most recent in a line of great antiestablishment film directors who have worked continuously in Spain since the 1930s.

As early as 1943, former Republicans and Nationalists were collaborating in Spain to promote the visual arts, irrespective of the artists’ political views.

Censorship can benefit literature.

Memory is not the same thing as history.

Inside Spain as well as outside, many believe—wrongly—that under Franco’s dictatorship, nothing truthful or imaginatively worthwhile could be said or written or shown. In his groundbreaking new book, Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, Jeremy Treglown argues that oversimplifications like these of a complicated, ambiguous actuality have contributed to a separate falsehood: that there was and continues to be a national pact to forget the evils for which Franco’s side (and, according to this version, his side alone) was responsible.

The myth that truthfulness was impossible inside Franco’s Spain may explain why foreign narratives (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Homage to Catalonia) have seemed more credible than Spanish ones. Yet La Guerra de España was, as its Spanish name asserts, Spain’s own war, and in recent years the country has begun to make a more public attempt to “reclaim” its modern history. How it is doing so, and the role played in the process by notions of historical memory, are among the subjects of this wide-ranging and challenging book.

Franco’s Crypt reveals that despite state censorship, events of the time were vividly recorded. Treglown looks at what’s actually there—monuments, paintings, public works, novels, movies, video games—and considers, in a captivating narrative, the totality of what it shows. The result is a much-needed reexamination of a history we only thought we knew.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Valerie Miles
A discerning, provocative book, part travelogue, part reflection on how memory passes into history, and part cultural narrative, Franco's Crypt establishes that much more was going on during Franco's regime than is usually credited. Touching on prickly issues with the pragmatic detachment of a foreigner, Mr. Treglown shows that subversive elements were at play in art, literature and cinema, and that a cautious yet irreversible process of modernity had begun long before Franco's death.
Publishers Weekly
Spain under Nationalist dictator Francisco Franco was not a mute, traumatized wasteland, but a country with a complex, imaginative culture that deserves to be remembered, according to this probing study. Treglown (Roald Dahl: A Biography) surveys an eclectic range of cultural artifacts from the Spanish Civil War, the Franco period, and Spain’s modern democratic era—everything from monuments and hydro-electric dams, to video games and the latter-day movement to unearth the mass graves of Republican opponents shot by Nationalist forces. He unflinchingly registers the crimes of the Franco government, but argues that sophisticated, even subversive voices were tolerated and at times nurtured by the regime: novels with ambivalent attitudes toward the war and the sides that fought it, challenging art, films that satirized Franco-ite mores. Treglown presents subtle and perceptive critical readings of unjustly neglected works, showing how far they depart from the caricature of bland conservatism that some apply to the culture of the Franco era. But he also advances a deeper argument about modes of historical awareness, contrasting the confrontational and sometimes simplistic commemorative politics of democratic Spain with the oblique, symbolic but still rich expressiveness of the more repressed Franco period. Treglown’s elegant and thoughtful meditation shows us that authoritarian power is neither monolithic nor immune to the soft power of civil society and individual creativity. Agent: Amanda Urban, ICM. (Aug. 13)
From the Publisher
Praise for Francos Crypt:

 

“A discerning, provocative book, part travelogue, part reflection on how memory passes into history, and part cultural narrative, Franco’s Crypt establishes that much more was going on during Franco’s regime than is usually credited. Touching on prickly issues with the pragmatic detachment of a foreigner, Mr. Treglown shows that subversive elements were at play in art, literature and cinema, and that a cautious yet irreversible process of modernity had begun long before Franco’s death . . . Franco’s Crypt [is] an unflinching addition to the literature on contemporary Spanish history and a cautionary tale about the nature of the beasts invoked by the political manipulation of bad memories. It also serves as a thought-provoking study on artistic expression under authoritarian regimes.” —Valerie Miles, The New York Times

 

Franco’s Crypt . . . provides by far the best, and most objective, brief introduction to Spain’s memory wars to be found in any language . . . Mr. Treglown offers a stimulating new reading of the chief milestones of Spanish culture since 1939. In doing so, he highlights the vitality of the country’s artistic activity under Franco, subjecting the standard leftist narrative of a culturally stale Francoist Spain to sharp contradiction.” —Stanley Payne, The Wall Street Journal

“[Treglown] brilliantly captures the ways that circumstances affect writers’ lives and work in accounts of his own visits to gravesites, in his stories of monuments and archives, and in profiles of novelists, historians, filmmakers, and architects grappling with an autocratic regime . . . Behind the lines, Treglown observes, many artists and writers refused both to act as propagandists or to be silenced. This is where his book is especially powerful. His inquiries into the Spanish past recover experiences and efforts that don’t fit neatly into the rival rhetorics. Franco’s legacies had deep effects throughout Spain but were more complex than has been acknowledged . . . Franco’s Crypt questions both the fabrication of Franco’s legitimacy and the one-dimensional view that his regime crushed all creative voice and expression . . . [Treglown] is unsparing in his indictments of the regime, but this does not prevent him from showing how Spaniards created art and literature even in the depths of the dictatorship, with much independent work accomplished before Franco’s death. Treglown’s account overturns the conventional view that the transition to democracy had to wait until Franco’s death.” —Jeremy Adelman, The New York Review of Books

Franco’s Crypt, the latest book by the British literary critic Jeremy Treglown, is so refreshing. In his focus on the surprising richness of Spanish culture since the war, Treglown pushes back against a knee-jerk pro-Republican perspective—not by apologizing for the Nationalists but simply by abstaining from projecting his own moral stance on the culture of the period . . . To explain how the Spanish have come to terms with the war and Franco’s rule, Treglown narrates a series of personal encounters with people and places in contemporary Spain, weaving them together with his examinations of cultural artifacts, including public works, paintings, movies, and novels. His analysis is anything but simplistic. He shows how the day-to-day cultural reality of the Francoist period was much more complex and less planned from above than most portrayals suggest.” —Victor Pérez-Díaz, Foreign Affairs

 

“Jeremy Treglown is an accomplished editor and literary critic, who has published three splendid biographies . . . He approaches his subject with the affectionate enthusiasm of an outsider—curious, well-informed, but not deeply entangled in the political struggles he describes with admirable evenhandedness . . . Treglown raises some important questions about historical memory and introduces readers to a number of neglected writers and filmmakers. Those who want to know more about Spain’s troubled past and challenging present will find a great deal of useful and interesting material in this book.” —James J. Sheehan, Commonweal

“Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936 is such a necessary book: it is the first—at least in English—to investigate Spain’s attempts “in recent years . . . to ‘reclaim’ its modern history.” —James McAuley, The Daily Beast

“Treglown studies the Spanish art, literature and public works produced during and just after Franco’s rule and which he rightly thinks have been neglected by critics and journalists outside Spain . . . Treglown is right . . . that ‘memory politics’ is essentially an open front in the country’s ongoing culture wars, and that disenchantment and opportunism have festered because of unique historical circumstances.” —Jonathan Blitzer, The Nation

“[Treglown] argues, in a forthright and original analysis, that Spanish culture and the memory of war have been steadily colonised and manipulated by the demands and pressure of international ideologies . . . The conventional view of the Franco years is that they were a time of sterility, when artistic expression was censored and opponents of the regime were arrested, tortured and imprisoned . . . By painstaking inquiry he shows that the psychological wounds of the battlefield were in fact a powerful inspiration for writers, artists and film-makers, and that much of the work published or exhibited was a direct challenge to the values of Franco’s regime. He concludes that popular mythology has exaggerated the extent to which this work was ever subject to dictatorial control . . . One of the many pleasures of Franco’s Crypt is that it draws our attention to a long list of Franco-era writers and film-makers whose work is unfamiliar or forgotten but who deserve to be translated or re-screened today.” —Patrick Marnham, The Spectator

“An ambitious study of seven decades of Spanish ‘culture and memory’ . . . Treglown’s interplay of history with personal narratives is skilful and incisive. Equally perceptive is his illustration of the ways artists and writers were able to circumvent the constraints of censorship during the 36 years of Franco’s dictatorship. Indeed, his book amply demonstrates that ‘any notion that Franco’s Spain was an artistic desert is the opposite of the truth’ . . . Humans, Treglown reminds us, negotiate present and future, even when the ghosts of the past come back to haunt the living.” —Mercedes Camino, Times Higher Education

“At the heart of this enthralling book is the exhumation of a Spanish culture far too recent to have been forgotten, and too rich to have been dismissed out of disdain for the dictatorship. Whilst Treglown has much to say on the way the period has been recalled by more recent writers such as Javier Cercas and Antonio Muñoz Molina, his great accomplishment is the reinstatement of what went before . . . Close in its engagement and alive to the complexity of its subject matter, Treglown’s book reminds us just how reductive we are being when we talk of ‘Franco’s Spain’.” —Michael Kerrigan, Financial Times

“Spain under Nationalist dictator Francisco Franco was not a mute, traumatized wasteland, but a country with a complex, imaginative culture that deserves to be remembered, according to this probing study. Treglown surveys an eclectic range of cultural artifacts from the Spanish Civil War, the Franco period, and Spain’s modern democratic era—everything from monuments and hydro-electric dams, to video games and the latter-day movement to unearth the mass graves of Republican opponents shot by Nationalist forces. He unflinchingly registers the crimes of the Franco government, but argues that sophisticated, even subversive voices were tolerated and at times nurtured by the regime: novels with ambivalent attitudes toward the war and the sides that fought it, challenging art, films that satirized Franco-ite mores. Treglown presents subtle and perceptive critical readings of unjustly neglected works, showing how far they depart from the caricature of bland conservatism that some apply to the culture of the Franco era. But he also advances a deeper argument about modes of historical awareness, contrasting the confrontational and sometimes simplistic commemorative politics of democratic Spain with the oblique, symbolic but still rich expressiveness of the more repressed Franco period. Treglown’s elegant and thoughtful meditation shows us that authoritarian power is neither monolithic nor immune to the soft power of civil society and individual creativity.”  —Publishers Weekly

“This is an erudite and at the same time pleasurable and intriguing book about Spain’s historical memory that gives the best and most thought-provoking portrait of the culture of the Franco era and its aftermath. Jeremy Treglown shows the reader poignant examples of commemoration of atrocities and their erasure—bland assurances of reconciliation and durable antipathy. Informative, searching, and disturbing, Franco’s Crypt updates what V. S. Pritchett called ‘the Spanish temper.’” —Paul Freedman, Chester D. Tripp Professor of History, Yale University

“Franco’s Crypt is the most comprehensive, most perceptive book on Spain I have read in a long time. I’m full of admiration for the scale of Jeremy Treglown’s undertaking, for its fine balance between storytelling and reflection, and for its subtle and deep political and aesthetic judgments, which touch on practically everything that irritates or pains me most about my country. Normally these matters are presented abroad with exasperating stereotypes, and at home with intolerable factionalism. Spain, so obsessed with memory, is extraordinarily forgetful. This is a book that must be read, in Spain and abroad, by anyone who wants to understand the country’s history, her present, and her future.” —Antonio Muñoz Molina, author of Sepharad and two-time winner of Spain’s Premio Nacional de Narrativa

“How should a country remember civil war and dictatorship? Or is it better to forget? Jeremy Treglown has written an insightful and deeply humane account of Spain’s attempts to dig up its past both literally, by searching with backhoes for mass graves, and imaginatively, through novels about survivors, films about tango, and paintings of screams. Franco’s Crypt is an indispensable guide to Spanish culture in the twentieth century, and a provocative reflection on the ambiguities of truth-telling.” —Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors

“A thoughtful, erudite hand grenade of a book that takes issue with contemporary narratives about Spanish cultural life during the Franco dictatorship (1939–75). Examining various works of fiction, journalism, and art, as well as public controversies about museums, graveyards, and other centers of historical gravity, Treglown argues that our understanding of culture under Franco has (ironically) been muddied by efforts to cultivate cultural memory of the period . . . Whether or not they share his concerns about cultural memory, readers interested in postwar Spanish art, literature, or politics will appreciate and likely learn from Treglown’s deep knowledge of these subjects.” —Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

 

Praise for V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life:

“Anyone who admired Pritchett’s writing will find Treglown’s book astute, incisive (sometimes to the point of being trenchant), and extremely valuable in the effort to hold this great writer’s life up to art’s defiant reflection.” —Richard Ford

Kirkus Reviews
In a studious, occasionally turgid work, accomplished British biographer Treglown (V.S. Pritchett, 2004, etc.) explores the legacy of Francisco Franco in monument and art. As the Spanish continue to reckon with, reclaim and sift through the buried wreckage--physical and emotional--of the Spanish Civil War, the author, who lives part of the year on a finca and speaks Spanish, was moved to find out more about Franco's influence on modern culture. The extraordinarily long tenure of the generalissimo means that anyone living in Spain today between the ages of 40 and mid-70s was born during Franco's rule; he continues to arouse strong feelings on both sides, by people disgusted by his ruthlessness and repression and by others grateful for what they deem his ability to keep order and build massive public works. Treglown traces some of the efforts by victims' families to excavate mass graves (the 2007 Law of Historical Memory requires the government to assist victims and "to remove memorials to Franco's dictatorship"), such as the search for poet Garcia Lorca's grave, although most victims were not famous and were dumped in mass, unmarked graves. However, monuments to the Falange (fascists) still abound--e.g., the annual celebration at Valle de los Caídos, orchestrated by Franco's own daughter. While the conventional view among (European) intellectuals is that the true artists fled Spain during the Franco era, many did not, and Treglown delves into the rich, subversive literature and culture of film since the war. This is a tricky, detailed book, maneuvering between public collections and private values, but the author's deep study of the artists involved is remarkable and inspiring. A dense, comparative tome that should act as a challenge to students of Spanish.
The Barnes & Noble Review

It can sometimes seem that the Spanish Civil War is an event in English history as much as in Spanish history. Of course, this is an illusion: it was the Spanish who saw their country torn apart, from 1936 to 1939, in a bitter struggle between Left-leaning Republicans and the fascist Nationalists led by Francisco Franco, the eventual victor. The English were just bystanders, except for those few thousand who volunteered to fight, mostly on the Republican side. But they were exceptionally articulate and involved bystanders. English writers produced a number of classic books and poems about the conflict, including George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia and W. H. Auden's "Spain." For England's Left, and America's, too (witness Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls), the Spanish Civil War was not just a domestic fight but the first eruption of the world struggle against fascism. After all, Soviet Russia intervened on the side of the Republic, while Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy helped Franco, as if in a preview of the Second World War. The fate of Spain was the fate of Europe and the world in miniature — which made the victory of fascism there a frightening portent.

Franco's Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936, by the English man of letters Jeremy Treglown, can be seen as the latest installment in this long-running fascination with Spain and its war. Yet Treglown, who lives part of each year in Spain, starts out by acknowledging that he approaches the subject as an outsider. "While English speakers may use Spanish Civil War as a compound adjective," he writes, "war is a noun, what it refers to is a fact, and in this instance the facts, however hard to understand and interpret, had most of their effects in Spain and on Spanish people." Indeed, Franco's Crypt could be described as an act of respectful eavesdropping on the discussions Spanish people are still having about the meaning of the Civil War — discussions carried out not just in the press but in works of fiction and films and even architectural projects.

After triumphing in 1939, Franco ruled Spain as a dictator until his death in 1975. In the following years, Spain successfully committed itself to parliamentary democracy for the first time in its long history. Today, it seems as "normal" a Western European country as France or Italy — beset by economic problems but secure in its democratic institutions. But as Treglown explains, the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship continue to loom very large in Spanish politics and culture.

After all, he points out, "everyone between roughly forty and their mid-seventies today who was born in Spain was born under Franco, most of them went to school during his regime, and almost every man over sixty served in his armed forces." And the younger, post-Franco generation is putting increased pressure on its elders, wanting to learn the truth about the atrocities of the war and the repression that followed. The result is a kind of Spanish version of the German "struggle to overcome the past," the confrontation with Nazism that dominated German culture in the 1960s and after.

One vivid manifestation of this impulse, Treglown shows, is the current vogue for exhuming Republican victims of the Civil War. That conflict featured atrocities on both sides — notoriously, the Republicans killed thousands of priests — but Franco's mass killings had been hidden or euphemized away under his regime. When democracy came in the late 1970s, there was a general agreement to forget the grievances of the past, in the name of reconciliation in the future. But now that amnesty is giving way to a new desire to find out exactly what happened to the Republican dead, many of whom were slaughtered and tossed into mass graves.

A shoestring organization called ARMH, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, has provided the impetus for these exhumations, using DNA testing to try to give a name to every corpse. In 2008, Treglown observed one of these digs in action, as researchers used radar to try to locate the line of a trench where, local memory had it, a number of bodies were buried. The episode is an anticlimax — nothing is found except a few old bullets — but this disappointment suits Treglown's purposes, since he is rather skeptical of the value of such digging. "To a detached observer," he writes, "there is something futile about going in search of bodies buried seventy years ago." He quotes Spanish writers who argue that "the memory vogue has been exaggerated by the media, that it is in danger of opening old wounds, and that it distracts from more urgent problems such as the environment and the economy.... Today more than ever, digging up the past can seem like a new version of burying your head in the sand."

Treglown suggests that such digging is unnecessary, because so many relics of the Franco regime can be seen above the ground. One of the dictator's favorite projects was dam building, which greatly improved the state of Spanish agriculture and electricity — though at the cost, often, of flooding small towns out of existence. This infrastructure, Treglown points out, helped to underpin the economic growth of the post-Franco period: "Big public works are easier to undertake in authoritarian regimes than in those where public consultation is the norm." It is one of many examples of how the past lives on into the present, in ways the present doesn't like to acknowledge.

The supreme example of an embarrassing relic, however, is the crypt that gives Treglown his title. Franco is buried in "the biggest, most religiose war memorial in the world," the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen, outside of Madrid. This church complex includes a park and a 150-meter-tall cross, visible for miles; the church itself is built underground, in the side of a mountain. In its grandiose blend of military and religious themes, the building is an apt symbol of Franco's dictatorship — "the most imposing piece of fascist landscape art and architecture still in active use anywhere" — and it remains a pilgrimage site for neo- fascists. As long as it stands, there is no danger of Spain forgetting its past.

The second half of Franco's Crypt is less engaging than the first. It amounts to a long syllabus of Franco- and post-Franco- era novels and films, heavy on plot description and light on critical context. Treglown's purpose here is primarily to show that, even during the Franco years, it was possible for Spanish writers to criticize the regime and express dissent. Camilo José Cela, the Nobel laureate, was actually a censor in the Franco regime, yet in his fiction he "laments the indiscriminacy of war and particularly its failure to change anything," in contrast with the fascist glamorization of the Civil War. Even moviemakers could slip subversive themes into their work, though no such thing could be expected from Raza, the propaganda film based on a novel written by Franco himself. Most of the writers and films Treglown writes about are little known outside Spain, and many of the books have never even been translated. This makes the second half of Franco's Crypt at once frustrating — too many descriptions of books tend to blur together — and tantalizing, giving the reader a whole reading list's worth of authors to explore. Even for those who don't intend to devote the next year of their reading to Spain, Franco's Crypt is a fascinating study of the kind of cultural politics that play so large a role in every society, including our own.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic and a columnist for Nextbook.org. He is the author of Why Trilling Matters, Benjamin Disraeli, and The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry.

Reviewer: Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374108427
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/13/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 335,098
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.28 (h) x 1.15 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeremy Treglown is a British writer and critic who spends part of every year in Spain and has written about the country for Granta and other magazines. His previous books include biographies of Roald Dahl, Henry Green (which won the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award), and V. S. Pritchett (which was short-listed for the Whitbread Biography Award and the Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize). Formerly the editor of The Times Literary Supplement and a fellow of the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, he has taught at Oxford, University College London, Princeton, and the University of Warwick, and has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Bad Memory

 

 

Ignacio Ruiz Vara is a security guard in Málaga, on the southern coast of Spain. He grew up there, as did his father and grandfather. There’s plenty of work these days for people in his business, especially looking after second homes and holiday developments, augmented now by building projects abandoned “until the economy picks up.” His own duties changed for a time, though, in 2007, when he volunteered to help take charge of San Rafael cemetery, a sixteen-acre sprawl on the west side of the town. This was once the place where Málaga’s poor, los humildes, were buried—originally well outside the old town, in the middle of farmland mainly given over to sweet potatoes. Now the area, on the way to the huge tourist airport, is part industrial, part social housing and blocks of flats. A small chapel with a lamp hanging off its corner was demolished to make way for a wider road. Much of the original cemetery wall has fallen down, and been replaced with high temporary fencing. A single-story gatehouse still stands, and here Ignacio had his base. The cemetery gates are kept locked.

The reason Ignacio volunteered, and the reason the cemetery needed a security guard in the first place, is that among its dead were more than four thousand people—mostly men but also women and children—executed without trial between 1936 and 1955: the period of Spain’s civil war and of the long, grim first phase of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. Almost all were in fosas comunes, “mass graves.” Now their bones were being dug up, put into separate boxes, and prepared for DNA testing. No one knew how long the job would take, or even how many fosas—let alone how many bodies—were still to be found. It was organized very systematically, under the direction of a senior archaeologist, Sebastián Fernández. The project, locally based but loosely connected to a national program, was being paid for jointly by the town, the region of Andalucía, and the University of Málaga, where Fernández heads the humanities faculty. “Once all the exhumations are finished,” Ignacio told me, “the whole area will be turned into a park. In the middle will be a memorial carrying the names of everyone who can possibly be named.”1

For several years, all Spain has been searching for its disappeared. They are everywhere—in every region, in every kind of terrain. Families who stayed silent for decades have been urged, often by the victims’ grandchildren or great-grandchildren, to say what they suspect, or know, or saw. Politics has played its part. Under a law passed in 2007, when the socialist party PSOE2 was in power, anyone who can produce reasonable evidence of the existence of a mass grave is entitled to help in excavating it. The dotted map of likely sites, between the Basque country and Andalucía, Castilla-León and Valencia, makes the peninsula look like the face of a child with chicken pox.

One of the skeletons in Málaga belongs to Ignacio’s paternal grandfather, Diego Ruiz Schacht. Ignacio isn’t superstitious; he doesn’t imagine, he said, that Diego’s spirit haunts the cemetery, or is anywhere, in fact, but he is proud of his grandfather and showed me a picture of him that he carries in his wallet. Diego was a prodemocracy lieutenant in the Guardia Civil, well known for his resistance to corruption. Within the force, he had set up a multiparty group to police the police, and this may have been why he was picked for elimination.

The family had already seen a lot of changes before Diego was eliminated. Miguel Primo de Rivera’s military dictatorship, which had taken over Spain in 1923, collapsed after seven years. The king abdicated, and in 1931 a democratically elected government was installed—Spain’s first. It commanded the loyalty of working people and liberal intellectuals but was weakened by internal divisions, by questions about the legitimacy of the electoral process, by the apparent impossibility of solving the country’s economic difficulties, and by left-wing extremism of a kind that gave encouragement to its equivalent on the right. The Falange, Spain’s fascist party, was founded soon after, under the leadership of the charismatic José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator. In July 1936, Francisco Franco, a career soldier who had come to prominence in the army’s struggle to hang on to “Spanish” Morocco, took part in a kind of colonial invasion in reverse, against the home country. The military uprising—justified, it was argued, by the government’s manifest inability to protect sections of its own people, especially in the Church—had the support of most of Spain’s disproportionately large number of army officers and of the middle and upper classes, of almost all the still-powerful bishops, and of the mostly Catholic peasant population in Castilla la Vieja and Galicia. While Britain and France prevaricated over whether to back the Spanish government, the coup gained immediate aid, including troops and weapons, from Hitler and Mussolini. Stalin came in on the Republican side. Often called the Second World War’s dress rehearsal, the Spanish Civil War may be better seen as its first act.

Franco’s soldiers were a mix of hardened Spanish legionaries and North African mercenaries, quickly reinforced in the Málaga region by rebel troops based on the mainland and Fascist Italian motorized columns with light tanks. The port of Málaga was bombed from the air, shelled from the sea, then invaded by land. The extent of the casualties among fleeing civilians horrified even hardened observers, the writers Arthur Koestler and Franz Borkenau among them.3 Afterward, the rebels undertook a long purge of suspected Republican sympathizers—just as, in other areas, the Republicans were doing with suspected Nationalists, particularly priests—which continued into the 1940s under the notorious local prosecutor Carlos Arias Navarro, “the Butcher of Málaga.” Diego’s turn came in March 1937, when he was picked up at home in the middle of town. His son, Ignacio’s father, was seven at the time and is still unable to say much about that period without crying, but the scene was often described to the young Ignacio by his grandmother, who lived to be ninety-nine, and also by a friend’s voluble grandfather, who was in the same Guardia company as Diego. It’s generally said that victims were shot against the cemetery wall by the light from the chapel, but Ignacio takes a practical view: “The place is very big. It’s a long way to carry a lot of dead bodies. I think they were mostly shot inside, beside the graves.”

*   *   *

I went to the San Rafael cemetery because I was trying to make more sense of Spain—today’s Spain as well as that of 1936. I had traveled all over the country, where I live for part of every year in a remote mountain finca that through the centuries has seen more bad times than good. The region and its inhabitants keep their secrets. Asked about events when she was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, a normally talkative, friendly woman on the next farm closed her face and said, “No sé,” “I don’t know.” This was during a matanza, the December butchering of a pig that has been brought up in the yard, a procedure carried out by a couple dozen family and friends, old and young, who, within a day, efficiently turn the at first cheerful, then noisily indignant, then struggling, cumbersome, terrified animal into a tidy arrangement of joints, offal, and hanging sausages. Something about this struck me as resembling what must have happened in places such as San Rafael in 1936—the orderliness of the process, its unsentimentality.

Understanding Spain, though, is less a matter of seeing that its culture has been violent and cruel—which has often been said and anyway is true of most cultures, one way or another—than of recognizing more hidden respects in which the country and its component regions, for all their absorption into and enthusiastic collaborations with “Europe,” remain distinctive. These are partly a twentieth-century matter. Even if you set aside eight centuries of Islamic rule in Spain between A.D. 711 and 1492—a longer period than the one that has passed since it ended—and ignore the subsequent expulsions of Muslims and Jews and the ferocious expansion into America, Spain still feels different. Is it because, there, the wrong side won the Second World War? Was the cultural impact of the dictatorship as severe as that of Nazism? How is it remembered and what are its aftereffects?

Long after Hitler and Mussolini were dead, the regime they helped establish in Spain continued. Everyone between roughly forty and their mid-seventies today who was born in Spain was born under Franco, most of them went to school during his regime, and almost every man over sixty served in his armed forces. Buildings and infrastructure are part of his legacy, too: the creation of the monstrous crypt in which he is buried at the head of many of his troops, with its surrounding memorial park called the Valle de los Caídos, “Valley of the Fallen,” was supervised by him personally, and other grandiose public edifices and sprawling municipal apartment blocks that went up in the 1950s and ’60s are due to him. So also, more obliquely, is the fact that so much of the older urban architecture survives: while parts of Spain were bombed and shelled during the civil war, neutrality in 1939–45 saved it from the urban obliterations visited on other European countries. Meanwhile, the water that irrigates the fields and comes out of the tap in your hotel is as likely as not a long-term result of the dictator’s program of dam building; the electricity that lights the street, of his hydroelectric schemes. And then there is his legacy in the arts: painting, novels, films.

Told that the topic of this book was to be Franco’s influence on Spanish culture, more than one inquirer joked that a postcard might cover it. Such attitudes aren’t solely a matter of ignorance. An English speaker asked to name countries colonized by the Americans and British in the twentieth century would be unlikely to think of Spain, yet if you ask Anglophone people what book or film they most associate with the Spanish Civil War, the answer is usually For Whom the Bell Tolls or Casablanca or Homage to Catalonia. In 1980, Penguin published an anthology of Spanish Civil War Verse which, as was pointed out by the Mexican-born poet and editor Michael Schmidt, was written entirely in English (and for the most part not very well): “It seems rash … to produce a national anthology out of so essentially international a series of events.”4 International involvement has indeed been crucial to Spain’s modern history, and the part played by foreigners in the civil war was substantial and often honorable. No overall account of the period would be adequate that didn’t mention facts such as the death of Felicia Browne, an English painter who volunteered on the Republican side and was shot in Aragón during an attempt to blow up a Nationalist munitions train; or the support given to the Nationalists by the South African poet and war correspondent Roy Campbell. Yet La Guerra de España, or La Guerra Civil Española, was, as its Spanish names asserts, Spain’s own war, and in recent years the country has begun to “reclaim” its modern history. How it is doing so, and particularly the complex role played in the process by ideas about “historical memory,” are among the subjects of this book. Novels such as Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis and Almudena Grandes’s The Frozen Heart have in different ways reminded their international audience that while English speakers may use Spanish Civil War as a compound adjective, war is a noun, what it refers to is a fact, and in this instance the facts, however hard to understand and interpret, had most of their effects in Spain and on Spanish people. The conservative Nobel Prize–winning writer Camilo José Cela made this point forcibly when he dedicated one of his books “To the conscripts of 1937, all of whom lost something: their life, their freedom, their dreams, their hope, their decency. And not to the adventurers from abroad, Fascists and Marxists, who had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral.”5

The novel those words introduce is one of many great works produced in Spain during as well as after the dictatorship that explore and embody what the civil war and the long dictatorship that followed were like. Yet these works were largely ignored abroad. People in other countries had concerns of their own, especially during and immediately after 1939–45, but a kind of political censoriousness was involved, too, not easy to distinguish in practice from censorship. Many Spanish intellectuals who were in danger from, or simply hated the idea of, the Franco regime moved out, especially to Latin America and France. Their own work, like that of the Soviet and East European dissidents who soon followed them, attracted foreign attention (though it wasn’t much noticed that the two groups were escaping mutually opposed ideologies). In this situation, anything produced by people who had stayed behind in Spain was thought suspect, and relatively little of it found its way abroad. Until Franco’s death there was, after all, a Spanish Republican government in exile, based in Mexico and widely recognized as the legitimate government of Spain. Mario Vargas Llosa has confessed that as a young man in Peru in the 1950s he read nothing by contemporary Spanish writers living in the Iberian Peninsula “because of a prejudice as widespread in the Latin America of those years as it was unjust: everything published over there reeked of fustiness, [the] sacristy, and Francoism.”6

This book describes some of what was ignored as a result of the fastidiousness Vargas Llosa speaks of: not least a whole library of books and films written and made under Franco that provide intimate, often subversive revelations about the war and what came after. The book also shows how some Spanish officials and patrons, though conservative in politics, actively helped good artists of all kinds continue to work as they wanted to. All this was part of the foundations of “cultural memory,” but memory in this sense of the word has become distorted over the past half century—roughly the period since Pierre Nora published the results of a group project conducted in France under the title Les lieux de mémoire, “Sites of Memory.” Fertile though the idea has proven, the problems with it, especially in its more diluted forms, are manyfold. They include sentimental politicization, escapism, complacency, and ignorance, and even after these are discounted, you’re left with questions: Doesn’t forgetting have cultural value, just as it does psychological value? Surely memory is notoriously unreliable? What about the mutations involved in generational change? (I remember some of what my parents and grandparents told me about the Second World War, but in passing it on to my children and grandchildren, I have to speak to their knowledge and preoccupations, and out of my own. What matters to us has changed and keeps changing.) In trying to identify what’s special about Spain, I soon found that much of it is related to a politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with “memory.”

So Spanish culture and memory are a diverse and continually evolving set of phenomena. Some novels written during the regime and about it, like some films, didn’t appear until after the dictator’s death in 1975, an event that in turn led to yet more recountings, each with its own new emphasis. In the last decade of the twentieth century and the first of our own, a generation that had grown used to the globalization of high culture and to national democracy began excavations that included the literal digging up of mass graves, a project related to similar ones in many other parts of the world. All this overlapped with another global phenomenon: mass tourism. It’s eerie to consider that the fosas comunes and other physical relics of the war and the dictatorship—among them Franco’s crypt in the mountains north of Madrid—were passed over by some of the first tourists speeding to the southern coast—tourists who brought money to the impoverished Francoist regime, whose expectations increasingly shaped and helped soften its policies, and on whom the country still depends for its economic survival.

*   *   *

Going to the cemetery at San Rafael was part of a series of inquisitive wanderings on my part, and while some were geographical, others were mental: reading Spanish novels and histories, watching Spanish films, looking at Spanish works of art, and pondering what they seemed to say. Human productions reveal things their makers don’t intend, Franco himself among them in his self-fantasizing novel Raza and the film based on it, and in the aggressive-defensive architecture of the Valley of the Fallen. Political systems, too, bad or good, contain the elements of their own destruction and replacement. Spain today, despite economic and social difficulties of kinds that it shares with most of its still-privileged region, is ruled by a reasonably secure, responsive parliamentary democracy. It feels, in other words, like other parts of western Europe; and yet it doesn’t. Its particular system emerged in the 1970s and ’80s from a determination that things should be unlike they had been for the previous three and a half decades. The dictatorship itself had been a reaction against prior arrangements and had some positive consequences. Opinion polls in Spain consistently suggest a significant, though decreasing, level of approval for the Franco regime.7 This is found more in the old than the young—though the anecdotes of some parents of teenagers suggest that José Antonio Primo de Rivera may be gaining a new kind of appeal among the young—but democracy must involve a respect for people’s views regardless of their age, and the dismissive argument that the older generation was educated under Franco, while true, is counterbalanced by the fact that the young were educated after his death in 1975, a turning point whose implications their parents and grandparents, too, have had almost forty years to get used to.

The extent to which studies of twentieth-century Spanish history and culture are polarized has so often been commented on that it’s important to be clear that there are exceptions, some of which I discuss. Still, the general point made by Eric Hobsbawm and others remains true, that “in creating the world’s memory of the Spanish civil war, the pen, the brush and the camera wielded on behalf of the defeated have proved mightier than the sword and the power of those who won.”8 To take just one example, a recent collection of essays about the cultural consequences of Francoism, published by a university press, begins with an admission—or is it a boast?—by the two editors that they are not interested in hearing anything favorable about the regime, that, as they put it, as far as the anti-Nationalist orthodoxy is concerned, their work “departs from a decidedly critical stance.”9 It’s not only just but satisfying to condemn past evils from the safety of the present, but given some of what has been and is still being done in the name of Western democracy, there’s a touch of hypocrisy in the process, and we learn more from trying sympathetically to understand the past, however bad it was, than from simply putting what we think we know of it under our own moral template. Very many people have reason to remember bad things about the civil war and the dictatorship: to them, Franco is a bad memory, like a bad dream. But “bad memory” also means forgetfulness and falsification. When Spain’s campaigners for historical memory accuse their opponents and critics of olvido, amnesia, they have themselves often forgotten, or overlooked, or are simply ignorant of, the rich historical deposits in their own culture that are my subject.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Treglown

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