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Return to Catalonia

Soldiers of Salamis

by Javier Cercas, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Bloomsbury, 210 pp., $23.95

The transition from dictatorship to democracy in Spain after the death of Franco in 1975 was a model of decorum, choreographed with skill. There were to be no recriminations against the old regime, which was to be consigned to the dustbin of history through silence rather than show trials. Neither the life and death of the old dictator himself nor the events of the civil war were commemorated or much mentioned after 1975. The street names, which had paid homage to the fascist and Falangist leaders, were taken down and changed in the night while we slept. The silence worked wonders; it allowed for a new constitution, great autonomy for the regions (or nations as some of them would have it), and a strong sense of democracy everywhere outside the Basque country. But strangely, in those years of easy and friendly freedoms, the silence exerted its sinister power and influence in the private realm more than in the public, and there, in families and in villages, it did a great deal of harm.

History resided then in locked memories, half-told stories, unread archives. In some families the silence was complete; the children, as they grew up in the bright new democracy, simply did not know what their parents had done in the war. Many people born in the 1950s and 1960s have unfond memories of their father growing grumpier and more silent as the war was mentioned, or having one story, which seemed to mask other more dangerous stories, told over and over, until it came to resemble a bad alibi. In other families, however, the political allegiances and prejudices of the young bore an uncanny resemblance to those of the previous generation. People who came of age in the post-Franco era seemed to know which party to join when the opportunity arose. This time, for once, history would only partly repeat itself. The sons and daughters, nieces and nephews of the old right-wing parties could join the Partido Popular knowing they would be fighting elections rather than a civil war. So, too, the heirs of the old left-wing parties could become Socialists in a time of compromise.

During these years, despite a number of important television documentaries, the standard history of the Spanish civil war, even for Spanish readers, remained Hugh Thomas’s book in translation.1 Other historians who write in English, such as Raymond Carr, have had an authoritative role in the writing of Spanish history. The standard biography of Franco remains Paul Preston’s book in translation.2 The problem for a Spanish historian was that any survey of the war, however accurate, would serve only to offer narrative to what was often chaotic, to offer shape and meaning to what varied considerably according to region and even village. A definitive single history of the war would have to emphasize strategy, the large picture, the overall result. These matters were not surrounded by silence, they were perfectly known and understood and strangely useless; the silence was in the detail, the erasure was in the vicious atrocity in places other than Guernica and the savage single killing. As survivors of the war grew old, and as the need to forget what happened seemed to become sharper, a new approach to the writing of this history was needed.

Much remained mysterious and disputed. A proper history of the Spanish civil war, satisfying everybody, would, it seemed, be an elaborate encyclopedia of the dead, telling precisely how each killing happened, and what the consequences were. This might seem like an impossible task, requiring Sisyphus and Borges to combine their talents, yet two of the most useful books on the war in recent years have tried to do just that. Manuel Gimeno’s Revolució, Guerra i Repressió al Pallars (1936–1939), published in Catalan in 1989,3 and Francisco Espinosa’s La Columna de la Muerte, published in Spanish last year,4 have taken limited geographies and attempted meticulous histories, paying special attention to the names and the data of the dead.

Gimeno’s book took a small region of the Catalan Pyrenees, detailing every killing, every skirmish and battle during the three years of the war. His task was made easier because, as he worked on the book, he was employed by the electricity company in an area where many remote villages were subject to power cuts during the long winter. He was popular and well known and had no personal agenda; neither his father nor his grandfather had been involved in either side of the war, and he himself had been too young to fight. This left him free to mention the unmentionable in villages which he was visiting in any case, and to sit patiently by firesides waiting for an essential fact to be explained. He was not looking for oral history or anecdotes; he used his informants merely as a way of amassing and collecting facts, which he then checked and rechecked, using other witnesses or archival material.

He wrote with care, realizing that some of his readers would know more than he did about disputed matters, knowing that the actual people or the close families of those he named still lived in the same villages, the same houses. Many had remained silent about the war, and would now have to face their own children’s discovering through this book what they had been hoping to take to the grave with them. Gimeno’s work, in its sober collecting of all available data, has an impact which no overall history of the war could have and was one of the first books to apply the methodology of the micro-historian to the Spanish civil war. The surnames are common and local, the villages are intact, and some of the events described, especially the killings of locals by both Loyalists and fascists based on local information, had never been made public before, had become part of the silence as soon as the dead were hastily buried.

Francisco Espinosa, born like Manuel Gimeno in the 1950s, is a professional historian who has been part of a group of researchers working on small and circumscribed areas of the war, using archival material as it applies to single events, individual villages, and short time-spans. His new book centers on a region of the province of Badajoz in the southwest of Spain as the Nationalist army advanced at the beginning of the war. His introduction is combative as he charts the destruction of the bullring in Badajoz, where a great and now half-forgotten massacre took place in 1936, and its replacement with a nice modern conference center. No commemorative plaque; no anniversary speeches; mere silence. “In our country,” he writes, “memory has been synonymous with rancor and forgetting with reconciliation.” In his lengthy, sober, data-filled, list-laden book, he uses a cold tone to mask a deep fury as he tries to turn his readers’ eyes toward what happened in 1936—the vicious murder of thousands of people by Franco’s forces—and away from the needs of now, the basic urge to block and erase difficult memories in a kinder and gentler Spain.

Forgetting and reconciliation have made their way into the core of Spanish political life. In 1988, old soldiers who had fought in the International Brigades returned to Barcelona to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of their withdrawal from the war. Although they were commemorating a defeat, many of them saw the Spanish civil war as a sort of moral victory, which had prepared them to carry on their struggle against fascism successfully in the Second World War; many of them had gone on to fight for left-wing causes in their own countries thereafter. They were old, but they had fire in their eyes, and they were proud to be back in the city now that the dictator was dead and the Socialists were running the Madrid government and the Barcelona town hall.

The Socialists viewed matters differently, however. They did not want to be associated with the war and its commemoration. They had put flags in Catalan all over the city with the words “La Nostra Energia” (“Our Energy”) inscribed on them to commemorate the Great Exhibition of 1888, when the great wave of modern Catalan architecture had begun in the city. They did not want to give an official reception to the old soldiers. The Socialist mayor, Pasqual Maragall, agreed to unveil a memorial to the International Brigades, but in the deep suburbs. The event was not covered on Spanish or Catalan television, and was hardly mentioned in the press. Toward the end of an anodyne speech, Maragall spoke of our need to understand the other side, how they too had their ideals. At that moment one of the old men from the war stood up, his expression fierce and angry beyond belief, and he moved toward the mayor with his finger pointed, hurling abuse at him. The other side, he knew, were fascists; there was no other word for them. They had help from Hitler and Mussolini—just as his side had regrettable help from Stalin; they did not have ideals.

Maragall, who is now president of the Catalan government, lived in a different country. His job in 1988 was to make the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona a success. He thus had to work on a daily basis with Juan Samaranch, who had been a senior figure in the Franco administration, and was then president of the International Olympic Committee. After the death of Franco, when I was living in Barcelona, Samaranch had been a major hate figure for those of us marching for democracy and liberty. A very rude slogan using his name was a constant chant. Eleven or twelve years later, as I watched him being cheered by the crowd, the young especially, as the man who brought the Olympics to the city, I wondered whether I was the only one there whose memory lasted longer than a decade. The Spanish way of forgetting, their skill with the airbrush, gave them their silky transition to democracy; it also made certain public gatherings surreal and almost unbearably strange. Reality felt at times like one of Javier Cercas’s characters in his novel Soldiers of Salamis when he lost his glasses: his vision was “nothing but an unintelligible handful of smudges.” In Spain, in those years, you did not need to kill your father, merely create a new image for him, a new agenda, and cheer him on his way.

The civil war as a battle between good and evil, the narrative favored by the survivors of the International Brigades, no longer works in Spain. Just as on the right, no one wants to be reminded of the cruelties in the name of fascism, on the left, no one is proud of what happened either. Local factors, and the complexity and ironies of events in those years, have become the new focus. When Manuel Gimeno was writing his book in the 1980s, he contacted a retired general from Franco’s army and asked him to come to the Pyrenees and show him the exact route the army had taken in 1937 and 1938. Amazingly, the general complied. When he arrived in one of the towns, now priding itself on its once brave anti-fascism in the war, people, especially older women, remembered the general and approached him happily to remind him of the fun they had had fifty years earlier, the dances, the long nights, the great flirtations. The men in Franco’s army were southerners or from Castile, and they stayed up late drinking, which Catalans usually do not do. As long as your sons or your husband were not on the run or involved on the opposite side, Gimeno learned, then you had a good time when the fascists took your town. This uncomfortable truth is not part of the memories of the period passed from one generation to another. It is another aspect of the silence.

  1. 1

    The Spanish Civil War (Harper and Row, 1977).

  2. 2

    Franco: A Biography (Basic Books, 1994).

  3. 3

    Manuel Gimeno, Revolució, Guerra I Repressió al Pallars (1936–1939) (Barcelona: Publicacions de l’Abadia de Montserrat).

  4. 4

    Francisco Espinosa, La Columna de la Muerte: El Avance del Ejército Franquista de Sevilla a Badajoz (Barcelona: Crítica).

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