An architectural folly of colossal proportions, combining the monumentalism of Albert Speer with the Catholic bombast of a narco graveyard, the Valley of the Fallen—a basilica, Benedictine abbey, and memorial surrounded by a three-thousand-acre national park near Madrid—aptly embodies many of the contradictions of historical memory in Spain. Planned as an homage to Nationalist soldiers who gave their lives in the “glorious crusade” to rescue Spain from a cabal of Marxists, Freemasons, and Jews, it is emblematic of the fascist ideal of unity by fiat: the bones of executed Republican soldiers mingle with those of their killers in its catacombs, and political prisoners participated in its construction as an act of state-sponsored “atonement.”
A comparison of tourist brochures, one from its inauguration in 1959 and one from 2000, is instructive: the first speaks of “our heroes, just and upright men of immaculate purity, distinguished in name by the principles of the unity of religion, of human equality, of the exaltation of the Fatherland.” The second perpetuates a falsehood still current on the Spanish right, casting a conciliatory light on Francisco Franco, despite his dismissal of amnesty for Republicans as “suicidal” and his authorization of experiments on prisoners of war to search for a genetic susceptibility to communism: “The express desire of its founder was to build a final resting place for the fallen from both sides during the Civil War of 1936–1939.”
Though never seen in Carlos Rojas’s 1978 novel The Valley of the Fallen, the complex looms over the narrative, and televised reports of the final days of its most notorious occupant, the Generalissimo himself, provide background noise to the two major strands of the plot: the life of Goya from 1800 to his death in 1828 and the attempt of Sandro Vasari, a Spanish professor returned home in the 1970s from his teaching position in America, to overcome his alcoholism and his grief at his divorce and the death of his children and to complete a biography of the painter from Zaragoza. Rojas, a writer of unusual range, now largely forgotten in his native Spain, last appeared in English in 2014, with the novel The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico García Lorca Ascends to Hell. Its readers may recall Vasari’s conversation in that book with Ramón Ruiz Alonso, the Falangist politician instrumental in Lorca’s imprisonment and subsequent assassination. When Ruiz asks Vasari why he keeps returning to past miseries, disturbing the bones of the dead instead of letting them rest before the Final Judgment, Vasari replies that he wants to write not a book, but a dream. The oneiric plays a fundamental part in much of Rojas’s work, and in The Valley of the Fallen it is a permeable membrane through which history and the present communicate, at first in snatches, until reality breaks down and the characters grow aware of their frailty, their subservience to the hidden whims of a friend they call R., a stand-in for Rojas himself.
The novel opens with a painstaking description of what must be among the least flattering of commissioned portraits ever executed and paid for, Goya’s The Family of Carlos IV (1800). It is difficult to say who comes out worse in it: the sclerotic, bug-eyed king, who seems to have been poured like a pudding into his flamboyant finery; Queen María Luisa, of whom the best that can be said is that she looks less bad than in other likenesses, above all a grotesque one from 1789, in which her flesh has the cadaverous glow of boiled pork; or the infanta María Josefa, the king’s sister, by then close to death, with her vulturine face and an enormous—possibly artificial—mole on her right temple. Rojas follows a long tradition, dating back, perhaps, to Lion Feuchtwanger, of attributing “moral purpose” to Goya’s aloofness. The thought is a charming one, and an impeachment of the monarchy’s decadence would be consonant with the pessimism that suffuses his great etchings, The Caprices and The Disasters of War; but to all evidence, the family was pleased with the portrait, and Goya had worked too hard to attain the post of First Painter of the court to jeopardize his career through veiled sedition.
Compared with Velázquez’s Las Meninas, whose composition it echoes, The Family of Carlos IV lacks height and depth, giving it a claustrophobic feel. The figures crowd together and look outward, and some scholars have suggested that their eyes turn toward an unseen figure in the foreground: Manuel Godoy, the captain general, a sort of Iberian Talleyrand, who governed Spain as prime minister from 1792 to 1798 and again from 1801 to 1808. Godoy, paramour of the queen and rumored father of her two children, who stand at the center of the picture, appears explicitly in The Valley of the Fallen’s second chapter, in a capsule biography drawn from the work Sandro is composing. His presence also offers the first indication that the novel will break with conventional realism, when his specter in exile, sunning in the Tuileries and watching children play, comes to Goya in a dream in 1828. The episode is drawn from the memoirs of the journalist Ramón de Mesonero Romanos, who met Godoy more than a decade after Goya’s death.
The rent in chronology opens further when Goya, now an old man living in self-imposed exile in France, meets Claude-Ambroise Seurat, the Living Skeleton or l’anatomie vivante, whom Dickens described in an unsigned essay, “Fat People,” from 1864. Seurat reads Goya’s fortune, sees a woman in the distant future and a man who will write the painter’s life, then pleads, in apparent distress, “Give me ten sous, Maestro, so I can drink a thimbleful of burgundy.” The woman is Sandro’s lover, Marina, who is recovering from a botched abortion. The procedure leaves her infertile, and Sandro drinks himself into a stupor, scrawling down a phrase evoking Goya’s remorse at the thought of his seven children who died in infancy: “Saturn is my self-portrait and only tonight did I come to understand that.” The slow interpenetration of Sandro’s world with Goya’s allows Rojas to expound a dire vision of Spanish history as an eternal return of the same. In the words of the fictional Goya:
The truth is I began to think that our country, now so distant because of my exile, was alternatively the land of the monster or the moron. Their moments followed one after the other, ravaging or retarding our history. At times the bull attacked the puppets brutally and destroyed them, as if they hadn’t also been men. On other occasions, when it was the time of the simpletons, he meekly licked their hands when they offered them to be kissed.
Rojas’s chronicle hinges on two conflicts: the Peninsular War, from the brutal French invasion of Spain in 1808 to the restoration of the Felon King, Ferdinand VII, in 1814, cheered on by earnest shouts of “Long live our chains”; and the Spanish Civil War. Neither was a discrete event—the clash between centralization and devolution of powers, a point of contention between Republicans and Nationalists and the source of grievances in the Basque Country and Catalonia to this day, had its origins in domestic rebellions during the Thirty Years’ War. The civil war, in turn, is something of a misnomer, being the culmination of a series of uprisings and coups pitting liberals against self-styled traditionalists that began with Charles III’s expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767 and continued into the Carlist Wars of the nineteenth century, whose causes Miguel de Unamuno analyzed in his first novel, Peace in War.
To Rojas’s credit, he eschews the argumentum ad temperantiam that predominates in many contemporary accounts of the civil war in Spain, making clear that enlightened ideals lay to one side and reaction to the other. At the same time, he emphasizes a violent current in the country’s history that transcends ideology or creed. If the gruesomeness of The Disasters of War is hardly recognizable in present-day Spain, with its Michelin-starred restaurants, tower-lined beaches, and busloads of tourists clogging its photogenic squares, it is worth recalling the price at which this tranquility was achieved. The war’s end brought as many as 100,000 summary executions, the purging of the civil service, and huge numbers of people imprisoned; nearly half a million Republicans went into exile, and the failure of autarky, a sort of half-baked “Make Spain Great Again” program that pushed per capita wages below their 1900 level, would lead another two million of the country’s citizens to emigrate in the 1950s.
Women, now exalted in their “sacred” role as mothers and helpmeets to the state, were “liberated” from factory work and stripped of legal capacity. Divorce was outlawed, and husbands were granted the right to murder their wives in cases of adultery. The loss of human potential the country suffered, combined with four decades of state-sponsored propaganda, the virtual excision of the left, and the persistence not only of fascist sympathizers but of direct descendants of Franco-era politicians at the highest levels of government, help explain the irresoluteness of Spain’s reckoning with its past after Franco’s death in 1975, and the fact that the most trenchant—and most honest—analyses of its postwar malaise have come from Anglo-American scholars and from exiles like Agustín Gómez Arcos, Juan Goytisolo, and Rojas himself.
If much of the history Rojas relates will prove unfamiliar to general readers, its broad outlines come through in his inspired survey of Goya’s paintings, which he interprets as a secular via crucis advancing from naiveté to despair. The series begins with Blind Man’s Bluff, a Rococo tapestry cartoon depicting young aristocrats dressed as majos—dandies of the lower classes. Holding hands, eight of them skip in a circle around a man with a ribbon over his eyes, who reaches out to try to tag them with a wooden spoon. “Like a music box in which the hours of a dead century were struck,” to quote one of Goya’s biographers, it shows a world of frivolous ease that events would soon eradicate, and might feel elegiac, were it not for the doll-like abstraction of its characters.
Curiously, The Third of May, 1808, one of the most famous representations of the resistance to Napoleon’s occupation of Spain, may well have been an attempt by the artist to ingratiate himself with the newly restored monarchy, whose outlook and conduct Goya found so inimical that he would leave his country (with the excuse of taking the waters in France) and live out his final years in Bordeaux. Myth has long held that Goya painted the execution of Spanish rebels from memory; in all probability, he took the theme from a patriotic play of the same title that had a successful run a month before he proposed “perpetuating with a brush the most noble and heroic exploits or scenes from our glorious insurrection.” Having sworn allegiance to Bonaparte and accepted commissions and decorations from the French court, Goya may have felt the need to publicly confirm his loyalty to his homeland at a time when the afrancesados—liberal admirers of the French administration, including many of Goya’s friends—had gone into exile by the thousands or were cruelly persecuted at home.
For all that, the painting cannot be called hypocritical. There is no doubt that Goya was haunted and disgusted by the savagery of French reprisals against the Spanish; then again, his late works, among them the enigmatic Black Paintings, which were painted directly on the walls of his house and never meant for public display, show his contemptuous resignation before a human benightedness unaccountable to Enlightenment values. Goya knew well that the men facing death in The Third of May were likely killers themselves; their suffering does not absolve them of their crimes, but neither do their crimes obscure the truth of their suffering.
The man on his knees left of center, in a white tunic and yellow pants, is often compared to a crucifixion, and his posture does recall the X-shaped crux decussata in numerous depictions of the martyrdom of Saint Andrew. His right hand bears a puncture wound from a bullet or bayonet. One of the great writers on Goya, Folke Nordström, claims to see in his face “the courage of desperation.” To me, he evinces nothing but horror on the threshold of doom. Past, present, and future are exemplified in the bleeding corpses piled to one side, in the five men in the center frozen at the very moment of death, and in the line of shocked and despondent figures whose turn is soon to come. The French soldiers, stiff and faceless, more mechanical than human, dispatch them with an indifference as implacable as divine judgment.
The viewer’s gaze inevitably lingers on the wide eyes of the man in the tunic, white streaks with black irises under impossibly slanting brows. These eyes have a genealogy, Rojas notes: we see them first in the Toro Bravo, the fighting bull Goya painted while recovering from the illness that would cost him his hearing. Two barbs dangle from its shoulders, blood suffuses its sclera, and its tongue hangs from its mouth, as is typical when the animal approaches death. They show up again in the face of Saturn in Saturn Devouring His Son, though there the emotion is inscrutable. Is the god aghast at his own depravity, is he watching over the children yet to be consumed, or is his stare meant to bore into the viewer, as if he were a likeness in a mirror?
Early on, Sandro asks Marina to leave her husband and return with him to America. “If we can’t escape our history, at least let’s run off its stage,” he says. What holds him back is the life of Goya he’s been contracted to write. The biography is a disparate, a folly, like Sandro and Marina’s relationship, which she admits has “never made any sense.” Panic sets in as Marina realizes that he will never finish it—she intuits that Sandro’s writing is the thread that binds them to the larger story, a story forged in the imagination of the author of The Valley of the Fallen—and that they will die if they can’t break free before the novel’s end.
Reality fractures definitively one snowy morning when Sandro and Marina see the figures from Goya’s Blind Man’s Bluff frolicking in a meadow. Sandro approaches the hallucination philosophically: what they are witnessing is a dance of death, or else a celebration on the eve of the revelers’ transformation into the monsters the sleep of reason produces. But for Marina, something deeper is at play, and she begs Sandro to accept that neither they nor the dancers are present, that even her madness isn’t real, that R., who introduced them, who arranged the book contract for Sandro, is a demiurge posing as a friend:
Everything’s a lie, what’s seen and the eyes that see it! If R. hadn’t thought of Blind Man’s Bluff, these people in costume wouldn’t appear in the meadow. He’s the one who dresses them like the figures in the cartoon, the one who makes them laugh and dance in the snow. When he decides to forget them, they’ll disappear into thin air, as if they never had existed!
Their lives fall to pieces as Franco’s body slowly shuts down. The reality of death is like the ever-expanding corpse in Eugène Ionesco’s Amédée, which the characters onstage struggle to ignore, even if televised bulletins speak of well-tolerated interventions and satisfactory postoperative evolution. In 1975 Franco was eighty-two, senile, and afflicted with Parkinson’s, phlebitis, and ulcers. The drugs he took for one condition inevitably exacerbated another; that his final days proved dramatic is a testament to the abject delusions that engrossed Spain under the dictatorship. Rojas recounts, to stress this point, bizarre acts of homage paid to the Caudillo in his last days: women brought medallions, crosses, flags, and jewels; a stevedore crossed Madrid carrying fifty kilos of cement on his back; an air conditioner installer born ten years after the war offered to donate his kidney in gratitude for “so many years of peace.”
Here, as elsewhere, Rojas has a keen eye for anecdote, and draws on an astonishing number of primary and secondary sources. In his pastiches it is often impossible to tell what is fact and what invention. For example, he cites a letter from Goya’s friend the poet and freethinker Leandro Fernández de Moratín, which says of Ferdinand VII, “his despotism is a form of weakness.” These words serve just as well for Franco, whose survival owed much to his willingness to put repression at the service of the church, the landed elites, and state-championed industrial concerns that functioned as virtual monopolies. According to Rojas, the letter became the property of Ramón Serrano Suñer, a fanatical rightist and admirer of Himmler who would nonetheless write to Franco in 1945 advocating a transitional government of liberal intellectuals to remedy Spain’s postwar squalor. Suñer’s missive is preserved with Franco’s annotations: “No,” and alongside a list of suggested names, including Ortega y Gasset, the words, “Ha ha ha.”
The shrill sound of a finger drawn across the rim of a wine glass announces the book’s end. It belongs to Ferdinand VII, who is drinking and conversing with Goya, but it penetrates Sandro’s dreams on the day following Franco’s death. As Sandro and Marina watch the masses file past the leader’s coffin on TV, Sandro recalls, word for word, Goya’s hallucination on his deathbed, which was in turn a revelation of the future Sandro now inhabits:
Their [faces] are not unknown to me. I see in all of them the same crowds that cheered Godoy, the Desired One, the Intruder King, Riego, the Obstinate One. They’re also the ones who dragged Godoy along the ground in Aranjuez, stabbing his legs; the ones who brought Riego to the scaffold in a charcoal seller’s basket and then stoned the quarters of his body, hacked to pieces by axes and displayed on the pillars of twenty cities; the ones who gutted the Obstinate One with goads and razors when he was handcuffed in a cage, and danced with joy as the executioner burned his remains; the ones who invaded the Palacio de Oriente with ropes to hang the Desired One, and on the road to Cádiz obliged him to kiss the windows of his coach in order to spit in his eyes.
The Valley of the Fallen lays many pitfalls before the translator, from the vast vocabulary of tauromachy to the shifts into eighteenth-century Spanish to Rojas’s own ornate idiom. In Edith Grossman’s translation, the results are inconsistent. Passages of great beauty alternate with others that are clunky or simply wrong. In Spanish, a report of Godoy’s philandering during his private audiences with courtier’s wives begins, “Men never came to these”; the English version states the very opposite. In one place, a misreading of verb tenses makes Franco’s regime fall months before his death; later, Saint Teresa’s incorrupt arm is demoted to merely “chaste.” This last detail is significant, as Franco had a special dispensation from the church to display the mystic’s hand in his private chapel.
Since the fall of the Popular Party government this past June, following a corruption trial that resulted in the conviction of twenty-nine politicians and businessmen, the Valley of the Fallen has been back in the news. Pedro Sánchez, the new Socialist president, has promised to exhume Franco’s remains; the destiny of the monument itself remains unclear. Podemos, the left-wing party that emerged from the Indignados movement in 2014, has called for the five-hundred-foot cross towering over the complex to be demolished; leaders of the right-wing Ciudadanos have proposed it as the “perfect” site for a memorial to reconciliation, modeled on Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Though the center has held better in Spain than in Hungary or even Italy, the resurgence of centuries-old enmities amid persistent economic malaise remains troubling, particularly in Catalonia: before the failed independence referendum, Pablo Casado, a rising star on the right, warned that then Catalan president Carles Puigdemont might “end up” like Lluís Companys, who was tortured and executed by firing squad in 1940 after declaring a Catalan state six years earlier. Many conservatives cheered the violence inflicted on voters, with one politician from Aragon enthusing, “Those seditionists, those insurgents, have woken the bull, that Spanish bull that represents the essence of a people forged through the centuries.” Reading such remarks, and the often histrionic responses to them—most notably Catalonia’s president Quim Torra’s comparison of the independence movement to the civil rights movement in the US, which received a rebuke from Clayborne Carson, director of the King Institute—it is hard not to recall Goya’s great Fight with Cudgels, one of the centerpieces of Rojas’s novel: “The inhuman battle had a beginning but lacks an ending, like life sentences.”