The Sleep of Reason

The Valley of the Fallen

by Carlos Rojas, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Yale University Press, 296 pp., $26.00
Franco t the inauguration of the Valley of the Fallen, Madrid, April 1959
Francisco Franco (center) at the inauguration of the Valley of the Fallen, Madrid, April 1959

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.