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.