Some recent Spanish Civil War novels

By Thomas Bunstead

A history written by the victors, but only until the victors were deposed, and after that written by no one: this is the story of Spain in the nearly eighty years since the end of the Civil War. The ensuing four decades of black-is-white dictatorship gave way in the 1970s to a constitutional monarchy and democracy, but any public contest over collective memory has remained muffled. The legal framework of the Transition was built around a “pact of forgetting”, a bipartisan commitment to let sleeping dogs lie. This was enshrined in a 1977 Amnesty Law that made it impossible for public officials to be prosecuted for war crimes or human rights violations. Intended to ease the country out from under the shadow of Franco – the importance of which can’t be overstated – it has however shut down the possibility of commemorating leftist victims killed during the war, or those tortured or executed under Franco, or indeed of identifying the many thousands of dead, from all political persuasions, lying in unmarked graves. Though the exhumation of these graves began in 2000, and advances in DNA sequencing mean it is possible to verify people’s identities, the 1977 law, covering all allegations prior to 15 December 1976, remains in force. A recent spate of Civil War novels by Spanish writers tell us far more about the country’s vexed attitude to its recent past.

Luna de lobos by Julio Llamazares was the first novel about the Spanish Maquis to be published after Franco’s death (it came out in 1985), and has this year appeared as Wolf Moon in English, in a co-translation by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles, as part of the Peter Owen World Series (in association with Istros Books). The Maquis were anti-Franco guerrilla fighters who continued to harry Nationalist forces after the end of the Civil War. Anyone who has seen Pan’s Labyrinth will have an idea of their situation and modus operandi. As in Pan’s Labyrinth, the quartet in Llamazares’ book, including narrator Ángel, hide out in harsh mountainous terrain, dodging the better-armed guardias and relying on local villages or shepherds for food and medical supplies. In a sense the moral of the book is no more subtle than that of Guillermo del Toro’s film, or anything, for that matter, in the Orwell/ Hemingway tradition: perhaps unavoidably, we identify with the underdogs, those bound by history to defeat. The power of the story, however, derives not from its place in history’s wider currents, but from the writing – for instance the unalloyed excitement of the Maquis’ escapades, a deeply felt depiction of the Asturian wilderness and, in particular, the convincingly rendered hardships endured by Ángel and co. during what is in effect a desperately drawn-out manhunt. Not only are they outgunned and surrounded but, because of the difficulties in escaping the country (on open tracts of land they would be spotted, and the railways are heavily controlled), they also have to remain in the vicinity of their home village. Each time they creep back to have a wound dressed or to catch sight of a former sweetheart, Guardia Civil reprisals follow for family and sympathizers. Llamazares is tremendous on the psychology of all this, and the scene in which Ángel’s father lies dying, and the guardias, expecting the son to come and bid his final farewell, surround the family home, will stay with me for a long time. There is also Llamazares’ ‘beautiful, simple’ prose, as it has been described in connection with his book Distintas Formas De Mirar El Agua, which is yet to be translated, and has been recommended on the UK version of New Spanish Books.

Javier Cercas has already shown mastery in negotiating the fictional stakes of Spanish historical memory. Among probably a handful of Spanish writers approaching ‘well-known’ status outside his own country (I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘household’), his 2013 Soldiers of Salamis (tr. Anne McLean) won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and sold well in England and the U.S. An investigation into the story of a republican militiaman who spared the life of a Falange leader – in which the author’s investigations, crucially, are foregrounded – had an enormous impact in obdurately partisan Spain, where no Vaclav Havel has ever stood up to say that the line separating regime collaborators from opponents runs not between people, but through them. Cercas’ latest book, El monarca de las sombras (Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial), again narrated by one ‘Javier Cercas’, tells the story of a great uncle who died in the 1938 Battle of Ebro at the age of nineteen – fighting for the Nationalists. Like Salamis, a sympathy for the devil sort of impulse, or at least a humanizing one, underlies El monarca; the title comes from The Odyssey, when Achilles, visited in the underworld, says he would rather be a slave to the worst of masters than king of all the dead. Again, Cercas’ subtle musings on the ever-porous line between truth and fiction are key. Though he succeeds in bringing the past very believably to life, it is the present-day framework, and the interrogation of the impulse to ransack history for answers, that provides access to a full and ambiguous reality that simply cannot be fitted to any right/wrong binary – like Achilles’ satisfaction when told of his son’s heroic exploits in the Trojan War. Maclehose Press are due to publish in 2018.

‘On the summer night in 1944 when my grandfather died, my mother and grandmother found five million pesetas buried in the cellar.’ Another book treading porous lines, as well as interweaving past action with present reflection, comes from celebrated (and as yet untranslated) Galicia-born writer Ainhoa Rebolledo. Wolframio (Editorial Tandaia) hangs on an account of Spain’s complicity in the Nazi war effort, and has another self-named narrator uncovering family secrets. Galician mines were a rare source of tungsten (or wolfram), an essential component in the Nazi war machine, and when Franco’s administration allowed Germans access to the materiel, prices shot up. The predicament then faced by Galician miners – collude with a fascist monster or let your family starve – is of course a false one, a time-machine revision: no one knew the nature of the Nazi regime until after the fact. With great brio, Rebolledo alternates descriptions of mid-century rural Galician intrigue, a gentle, amused account of conversations with her cagey mother (her source), and the kind of head-on, Alt-Lit feeling self-questioning that has seen her named ‘one of the freshest voices in the new Spanish literature’ (La Vanguardia):

‘My mother told me this story and I’ve turned it into prose, making use of the conversation we had in the family kitchen ten years ago… My limitations as a novelist mean I’m completely unable to imagine characters having experiences I have not had. I know my mother won’t like seeing these words in writing but I have a need to reconstruct her half-told stories, to make these notes and scraps cry out where she could not.’

Wolframio was shortlisted for the 2014 Herralde Prize and is represented by Letras Propias Agency.

Making rather different use of historical sources, Falcó by Arturo Pérez-Reverte is a foray into thriller territory by the bestselling author, most well known for his works of historical fiction featuring Captain Alatriste, the Spanish musketeer. The main character here, a nihilistic lady’s man, quaffing painkillers as he goes, has a good deal of James Bond about him as he operates behind enemy lines at the start of the Civil War. A former arms dealer, he is sent into Cartagena to pave the way for a Nationalist assault on the town, which aims to free José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange Party, from captivity. Cue plot twists and loving historical detail aplenty. Does the deployment of a Nationalist sympathizer in a page-turner mark a Spain newly and suddenly at ease with itself? Wounds sufficiently healed to see them displayed as part of a rip roaring good read (which it undoubtedly is)? In fact, the opposite is probably the case: Pérez-Reverte has for a long time been a controversialist off the page, for example taking to Twitter like – well, like a controversialist to Twitter. If anything, the use of a real historical moment as a hook for a thriller like this only reinforces the sense of the Civil War as enduringly potent. The idea of de Rivera being sprung from prison, which would have diverted the course of the war, is the kind of revisionist what-if that, had it no contemporary currency, and were it not fresh in the minds of readers, would not propel this kind of book along. The book is represented by Abner Stein and has all the signs of being the first in a series featuring Lorenzo Falcó.

While an appetite clearly remains among Spanish writers for literary treatments of the Civil War, it is probably worth pointing out that the appetite of Spanish readers for serious literature in general is on the wane. Statistics recently published by the Union of Spanish Publishing Houses show sales to be in decline since 2008. I come to write this at the close of the 2017 Madrid Book Fair, where the main attraction was not any of the books discussed here, or ‘hot titles’ like Martín Caparros’ genre-blending 1,000 pager La historia, but a self-help book written by YouTube sensation LunaDangelis: cue two-hour queues for signatures. Fiction in Spain, clearly, is under pressures that will be recognisable to those working in Anglophone markets. In this context, it seems worth bearing in mind comments by writer Rubén Lardín in a Revista Cactus interview:

Q: Long queues for YouTubers’ signatures at the Book Fair: did you get yours?

A: I follow one or two people on YouTube, usually more out of anthropological curiosity (or velociraptorial curiosity) than any genuine interest, but yes, spinoff books are a strange phenomenon. I suppose it’s just like any fan craze. But it does still seem significant that it should be the book that remains the greatest, or most intimate, connection one can have with whoever it happens to be, with the idols of the day.