Memory Politics: On ‘Franco’s Crypt’
In August 1954, the American writer Richard Wright traveled to Spain after having spent the better part of a decade “shunning” all thoughts of the country like “the memory of a bad love affair.” His friends had long been urging him to visit. As Wright recounts in his travelogue Pagan Spain, published in 1957, it was Gertrude Stein who told him: “Go to Spain. You’ll see the past there. You’ll see what the Western world is made of.” In her view, Spain beckoned as a kind of African corridor, a hinterland jutting out of Europe. Wright shared Stein’s entrancement with the place. Driving south from France, he surveyed the Pyrenees like they were an outer boundary of the continent: “the look of the world darkened; a certain starkness of mood hovered over the landscape.” Wright was developing a stormy regard for the Western tradition and all that it implied, which made Spain even more alluring. Still, something held him back—what he called a perplexing “state of mind.” “Totalitarian governments and ways of life were no mysteries to me,” he wrote. “So why avoid the reality of life under Franco? What was I scared of?”
When Wright penned these lines, sometime during a string of visits between 1954 and ’55, Spaniards were wilting amid the airless gloom of Gen. Francisco Franco’s totalitarian rule; the country was mired in poverty and hounded by repression. Wright wanted his book to bring this suffering to light, but in the end he settled for a more schematic appraisal. Spanish life under Franco, he argued, was the apogee of centuries of national character formation and idiosyncrasy. The country was shaped by proto-religious superstitions, ritualistic hang-ups, misogyny, cultish mysticism and a love of gore. Spain was just so Spanish, he concludes.
With Franco’s Crypt, the British critic Jeremy Treglown seeks to put the Spanish back in Spain. Treglown wants to “make more sense” of contemporary Spain by analyzing “Franco’s influence on Spanish culture” during the nearly four decades of his rule, which ended with his death in 1975, and up to the present day. Treglown’s conceit is to have Spaniards reclaim their own story—to tell it to us, for a change. For all the international light shone on the Spanish Civil War, the view of Spain from outside its borders typically blurs during the era of one of Europe’s longest dictatorships. Treglown repeatedly stresses the need to counter what he calls the “Franco effect.” Artistic and intellectual work done in Spain during the dictatorship “was tainted by association,” he writes, and therefore is often overlooked. As a corrective, Treglown studies the Spanish art, literature and public works produced during and just after Franco’s rule and which he rightly thinks have been neglected by critics and journalists outside Spain.
Treglown has written about Spain for Granta, and he lives there on a remote finca for part of every year. Like others before him—including The Guardian’s Giles Tremlett, author of the intellectual guidebook cum travelogue Ghosts of Spain (2007)—Treglown makes all the obligatory stops. The book opens with a visit to the recently disinterred fosas comunes (mass graves), in which the unidentified corpses of Republicans and their sympathizers were hastily buried by opposing partisans during the civil war. Battles rage to this day about excavating and identifying the remains. For any student of the country, these sites are ideal crucibles for analyzing the wars of so-called “historical memory.”
Treglown also visits the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a massive crypt that Franco forced withered Republican prisoners to erect after the war as a monument to him and the Nationalist cause. A standard set-piece in English-language books about contemporary Spain is a visit to this bleak landmark on November 20, the day of Franco’s death and, in an eerie coincidence, also that of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange. It is a chilling occasion in every telling. Rabid right-wingers turn out at the Valle de los Caídos, along with skinheads and a motley cast of thugs, and there’s a lot of whooping and hollering and general menace-making. Treglown builds a chapter around the annual melee—his book’s title alludes to the Valley of the Fallen—but Tremlett’s account is better.
Franco’s Crypt is a well-intentioned book whose author seems exceedingly aware that for all his research, he remains something of an outsider. His acknowledgments page reads, perhaps a bit self-consciously, like a Who’s Who of the Spanish intellectual establishment. On occasion, especially when Treglown is explaining knotty contemporary debates and squabbles, prominent figures like the novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina are given key cameos, and Treglown hews fairly closely to their line. To Hispanophiles, his heedfulness may be a welcome sign of authorial scruples. However, his approach also renders somewhat predictable the juiciest part of the book: his exposition of the “politics of memory.”
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“In trying to identify what’s special about Spain, I soon found that much of it is related to a politically manipulated, culturally amnesiac obsession with ‘memory,’ ” Treglown writes. The history of the civil war and the Franco years is a source of great acrimony in Spain—that much is uncontroversial. On one side is a movement calling for redoubled scrutiny of the past. At its head are descendents of the civil war dead, coupled with activists and anthropologists who together have crisscrossed the country looking for answers to the crimes and atrocities committed by Franco and his forces. Though their cause predates it, they have been empowered by a 2007 law, passed by the Socialists, that’s made it easier to excavate mass graves; nevertheless, political support for their project—while spirited in some quarters of the Spanish left—has been unsteady, for the most part. At the other end of the political spectrum is the renewed recalcitrance of Spanish conservatives, who see the activists’ fact-finding as a kind of open-ended prosecution. To them, the quest to restore “historical memory” is partisan and opportunistic—a headlong rush to blame—or, worse yet, a threat to the social order.
The controversy shows few signs of abating, even as “digging up the past can seem like a new version of burying your head in the sand,” as Treglown notes in regard to Spain’s tanking economy. Not that a disgruntled Spaniard should have to choose between outrage over unemployment and indignation over the unresolved crimes of the Franco era. Treglown is more of a tourist when it comes to laying out the context and stakes of the memory debate. He notes trends such as how many Spaniards today harbor a negative view of Franco (about 50 percent, according to a footnote). That presumes, of course, that everyone is thinking about the same Francisco Franco. To a 30-year-old Spaniard in 2013, Franco is not necessarily the caudillo revered or despised by her father or grandfather. It’s not that either conception of the dictator is wrong or fabricated, just that the subject is, for better or worse, evolving. “The older generation,” Treglown writes, “does by and large have a juster, more complex understanding of the mid-twentieth century than do younger people.” But in what country wouldn’t that be true? That Spain has never stopped living with Franco is the point, and all that he left in his wake—bodies, crimes, eternal grievances—has become the pockmarked terra firma of contemporary Spain. It is why younger Spaniards sound, by turns, brasher and more flippant about the past; why the dictator, with time, has come to mean both more and less than he once did. This all makes the country a good deal harder to explain.