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…

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