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.

Javier Cercas was born in 1962, the right time perhaps to experience not only the transition to democracy in Spain, but the overwhelming influence of what became known as el boom, the rise of the South American novel, the fame of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Borges, and others. His novel Soldiers of Salamis has some of the playful, conversational tone of García Márquez, and a concern too with memory and forgetting. It is a story about a story, constantly alert to its own constructs. But it is also a deeply serious novel about the abiding legacy of the civil war in a time when, officially, it had been forgotten. In Spain, Soldiers of Salamis has sold half a million copies; it has done so because it manages to enact in its pages the same process of reconciliation which Spain has been striving for, while reminding readers, with considerable tact and some wryness, that the shadow of the civil war is a shadow they live with, and that what creates this shadow continues, whether they like it or not, to obscure the light.

The novel is set in the province of Girona (or Gerona in Spanish), in whose capital Cercas lives. The city of Girona, on one side of the river, is exquisitely beautiful, and the atmosphere is provincial, quiet, and deeply conservative. The names of the streets throughout Catalonia are now solely in Catalan, and most public life is conducted through Catalan only. To work as a teacher or a public servant, one must have a fluent command of the language. Girona has always been a Catalan-speaking city, but over the last twenty years, the language has been official, almost to the exclusion of Spanish. Cercas speaks Catalan also, but he deliberately wrote his book in Spanish, connecting him not only to a larger audience, but, more important perhaps, to a longer and richer tradition for a writer interested in mixing the playful and the dead serious.

The narrator, like many before him, is a loser, a journalist turned failed novelist who has gone back, cynical and exhausted, to his old newspaper. His wife has left him, and he is amusing himself with a TV fortuneteller, who believes that he should write a book about García Lorca. He ignores her bright suggestion. His days of tilting at windmills are long over. One day in 1999, he is asked to write an article commemorating the death of the poet Antonio Machado, who died in Collioure, over the French border, at the end of the Spanish civil war. Machado’s elegy for García Lorca is included in The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse (1980):

They killed Federico

as the first light pricked.

The murderous band

dared not look on his face.

The poem ends with the line: “the crime took place in Granáda…his Granáda.” Sixty years after the death of Machado and sixty-three years after the death of Lorca, that elegiac, declamatory tone had disappeared from Spanish rhetoric; no one writes poems like Machado’s elegy anymore, and even journalists, like our narrator, when asked to write an article for the anniversary of a civil war death, will be careful not to use words such as “crime” or “murderous.” In fact, our narrator goes further, and finds a poet from the civil war who does not have an entry in The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse because he fought on the other side. This poet, Sánchez Mazas, was not a victim of the war, as were Machado, Lorca, and Miguel Hernández; he was one of those whose words in fact created the war, and he himself survived, after some adventures, to become a minister in Franco’s first government.

The article in Soldiers of Salamis, written in 1999, reflects then what I heard Maragall, the Socialist politician, say in 1988. In the matter of commemoration in a democratic Spain, in which the sons and daughters of the Franco side are living peacefully and harmlessly, the other side will have to be included. It is something which the Germans and the Italians have barely, perhaps only secretly and half-heartedly, considered; in those two countries, it is fraught with danger. In Spain, on the other hand, the danger comes from not remembering at all.

The narrator is alert to this climate of silence in which the name Sánchez Mazas was merely a faint whisper:

To me he was no more than a mist-shrouded name, just one more of the many Falangist politicians and writers that the last years of Spanish history had hastily buried, as if the gravediggers feared they weren’t entirely dead.

Writing the story of Sánchez Mazas’s fate in the civil war as a parallel to that of Machado allowed the narrator to imagine

that the symmetry and contrast between these two terrible events [the death of Machado and the attempted execution of Sánchez Mazas]—a kind of chiasmus of history—was perhaps not coincidental and that, if I could manage to get across the substance of each within the same article, their strange parallelism might perhaps endow them with a new meaning.

There were years after the civil war when the story of Antonio Machado would have attracted a novelist. “Of all the stories contained in that history,” our narrator in Soldiers of Salamis writes in his newspaper article, “one of the saddest is no doubt Machado’s, because it ends badly.” Machado, born in 1875, arrived in Barcelona with his mother and his brother in 1938 as Franco’s forces were closing in. Four days before Franco arrived, they made their way toward France in a convoy, accompanied by the Catalan poet Carles Riba, who would soon become one of the great elegists for the world they were losing. They crossed the border on foot in the rain. They had no luggage and no money. A month later Machado died of natural causes, but his death was indirectly caused by the exhaustion of making his way in winter and by foot across the border without food or money; his mother survived him by three days. In the pocket of his overcoat, his brother found what must have been the sole first line of Machado’s last poem: “Those blue days, this childhood sun.”

The stark tragedy and waste of this, the suffering, the indignity, all of these themes do not interest our novelist at the end of the twentieth century in Girona. A novel dramatizing these aspects of the civil war could not be easily written now, or would not be published. It is not only that the public wishes to forget these events in all their stark tragedy, but a story telling the bravery of the Loyalists and the evil of the fascists, a dramatization of the suffering of the former versus the mindless triumph of the latter, would seem to some too simple, too old-fashioned; and to others too obvious to be of any interest. It would, as Cercas says in another context, be “pointless to add to the tragedy of the war the tale of the tragedy of the war.” Our novelist, on the other hand, who writes about “the chiasmus of history,” not only knows that the story of the Falangist poet is more interesting than the story of Machado, but allows himself to become obsessed by it.

Sánchez Mazas’s is not a story of tragedy, although there is tragedy all around it, but of the irony of history, the quality of mercy and the complexity of each historical moment. The past here is allowed beauty and the possibility of redemption. It is also allowed to be deceptive. Cercas achieves this without sentimentality, using tricks learned from the South American masters and the Spanish comic tradition, managing a tactful narrative ease which induces the reader to accept the idea that the story of the saving of the Falangist poet Sánchez Mazas belongs to us as much as the story of Antonio Machado. And more so perhaps, because of its ironic twists and unlikely turns, its unpredictability, and its clear-eyed aura of reconciliation.

Rafael Sánchez Mazas, who had worked as a correspondent in fascist Italy and been impressed by the regime there, was one of the founders of the Falangist movement, which provided brains and ideology to match Franco’s brawn and brutality. In his early forties when the civil war broke out, Sánchez Mazas was trapped in Madrid and sought refuge in the Chilean embassy, where he spent most of the war. On trying to escape to safety, he was captured and taken to Barcelona. He, too, made his way toward the border as Franco’s army approached, but under arrest and with a very small chance of survival. He faced a firing squad, but the bullets missed him, and he made his way, running, into a nearby wood where he was pursued and finally discovered by a single Republican soldier who was asked by his superiors if he had found anyone. The soldier replied: “There is no one over here.” The Falangist poet and propagandist was looked after then by three young Catalan men, all Republicans, in the forest until the fascists came and released him.

The above has elements of a fairy story, a fantasy civil war in which good luck and much kindness prevailed. It is hard not to see the icy shadow crossing this narrative of the two poets, Machado and Riba, accompanied by Machado’s mother, who must have been in her eighties, and his brother, yoked together by violence, walking wearily to their doom or their exile in these same weeks. In their work, both poets were always on the verge of succumbing to the glorious and ineffable mystery of things. “What has become of that singing heart of mine?” Machado had asked in one of his poems. “For death I no longer need interpreters,” Riba would later write. But the story of the doomed poets will work only in the newspaper article. Soon, the story of Sánchez Mazas and those who rescued him will take over. Detective work, playful asides, much speculation, changes of tone, history lessons, games between fact and fiction, and odd, disconcerting correspondences between the past and the present will mean that Soldiers of Salamis has protected itself from its readers’ antipathy to linear and predictable accounts of the suffering of the civil war.

As soon as our narrator publishes his article, it becomes clear that two of the three young Catalans who looked after Sánchez Mazas in the forest sixty years earlier are still alive now. This story of how they saved the Falangist and how he, in turn, when they were imprisoned after the war, secured their release, has become their version of the war. It is a story they like telling, and they have no problem meeting our narrator. They do not know that they will end up, as a bizarre piece of verisimilitude, playing themselves in David Trueba’s film version of the novel, two old men with country Catalan accents, whose words have to be subtitled into Spanish for the film.

Like a good loser, our narrator writes and rewrites his book, but it is a disaster. He has to go back to work, and, while conducting a set of interviews with outsiders who live in the province of Girona, he meets Roberto Bolaño. Bolaño, the Chilean novelist who died last year at the age of forty-nine, was in real life the most interesting South American writer of his generation. In real life too as in the novel, he had moved to live in the province of Girona. In the novel, Bolaño is ill; in real life, and two years after the novel appears, he will die of his illness. The interviewer in the novel is called Javier Cercas, who has published two novels called The Motive and The Tenant, as he had in real life. The novelists, all four of them—Cercas and his homonymous counterpart, and Bolaño and his, all loved fictional games and using real characters in their novels—must have had a fine old time together.

Bolaño tells Cercas a story which echoes with something our narrator has already been told about a tiny event in those late days of the civil war, when a Republican soldier sang a song and did a dance. Bolaño remembers an old soldier whom he knew at a holiday camp site who sang the same song and did the same dance. Now we are in the world of pure invention or pure reality, but either way, Cercas manages to convince us that he should search for that old soldier who will hold the key to the saving of Sánchez Mazas, because he, in all unlikelihood, is also the soldier who insisted that there was no one there when he was sent to search for the escaped Sánchez Mazas. Could he be still alive? Where is he? Will he talk?

This old soldier, when he finally appears, is called Miralles, and he is perhaps Cercas’s best invention after his own self-invention in this novel. Miralles fought in the civil war and then in Africa and Europe in the Second World War, at the end of which he was badly injured. “You really think,” he asks, “that any of your newspaper’s readers are going to be interested in a story that happened sixty years ago?”

Miralles refuses to be identified either as a hero or as a central figure in a neat plot, but he is as concerned as the novelist with ideas of memory and forgetting. The issue for him in his long, savage, and clear-eyed speech at the end of the book is the same as that for Spanish historians such as Gimeno and Espinosa. How do you remember the war while forgetting the dead of the war, the untold atrocities, the single shots? Changing the names of the streets, putting new heroes on pedestals means nothing to the ordinary dead, just as those who benefit from political change never want to know about them. “Nobody remembers them, you know?” he tells the narrator.

Nobody. Nobody even remembers why they died, why they didn’t have a wife and children and a sunny room; nobody remembers, least of all, those they fought for. There’s no lousy street in any lousy town in any fucking country named after any of them, nor will there ever be. Understand? You understand, don’t you? Oh, but I remember, I do remember, I remember them all, Lela and Joan and Gabi and Odena and Pipo and Brugada and Gudayol, I don’t know why I do but I do, not a single day goes by that I don’t think of them.

Miralles and finally the novelist come to see their names as sacred, or as close to sacred as anything can be, which may not, in Miralles’s vision, be that close at all. It is part of the importance of Cercas’s book for Spain now, and the world outside Spain too, that such issues have been so playfully and powerfully argued and dramatized.

This Issue

October 7, 2004