When I met my wife, it was love at first sight. What I didn’t know at the time is that she came as a package deal. I married into a very Spanish family and had to start from scratch in making sense of a new culture.
Fifteen years ago, Spain represented a blank spot on my mental map. I’d travelled Asia and the middle east extensively. I’d lived and worked in Ireland, Hungary, Czech republic, Bulgaria, all over the Balkans and not least France (I remain big on France), but anything west of Toulouse was Terra incognita.
Apart from Ferdinand the Bull and a big painting by Picasso called Guernica, I had little to build on. I also didn’t speak a word of the language.
So I started doing what I tend to do when faced with the unknown, I turned to literature.
At first it was children’s books. I have especially fond memories of one about a fire engine, that I used to read to my daughter in the bathtub.
I also ripped through many of Haruki Murakami’s novels, the translations of which I highly recommend for anyone trying to learn a new language. His writing is a wonder of clarity and the vocabulary is so pared down.
(Only years later, as I read an interview with the Japanese maestro, did I learn how he found his style: He used to write the first drafts of his stories in English, a language he didn’t fully master. That way he imposed a complexity-budget on himself, which he took great care to preserve when he went on to translate his own work back into Japanese.)
It took a while before I graduated to non-translated works.
Local literature had been a great way of approaching the two places where I’d spent most time up until that point; France and Ireland (both the Republic and the Northern part). I quickly found however, that Spain was different. It might well be that Cervantes wrote the first modern novel, still most of the writers I happened to stumble upon felt distinctly unmodern.
I went through: Emilia Pardo Bazán, Jorge Luis Borges, Carmen Laforet, Carmen Martín Gaite, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabelle Allende (no distinction made here between the heartland writers and their South American cousins), Eduardo Mendoza, Juan Madrid, Enrique Vila-Matas, Rosa Montero, José Calvo Poyato, Julia Navarro, Roberto Bolaño, Fernando Aramburo, Javier Cercas, Antonio Orejudo, Maria Dueñas, Lorenzo Silva, Jorge Volpi, Máximo Huerta, Sergi Escolano, Núria Añó, Andrés Barba and Samanta Schweblin.
There were a few of them I appreciated. Like the dark sci-fi of Rosa Montero and the funny sci-fi of Sergi Escolano.
I was also absolutely blown away by Roberto Bolaño, a writer who creates his own weather system and can’t be pegged to any one tradition (as he beatifully puts it in the preface to the strange novel 2666: “Mi única patria son mis dos hijos, Lautaro y Alexandra. Y tal vez, pero en segundo plano, algunos instantes, algunas calles, algunos rostros o escenas o libros que están dentro de mí y que algún día olvidaré, que es lo mejor que uno puede hacer con la patria.”)
As much as I liked Bolaño, Montero and Escolano however (I’ll also throw in Andrés Barba and Eduardo Mendoza for good measure), the overall impression of Spanish literature remained underwhelming.
Too often, the writers I encountered seemed to be so smitten with their ability to form flowery complex sentences, that they forgot to tell a compelling story.
I started thinking that maybe Spanish culture doesn’t express itself well in the form of literature.
[Side-note on this note: It’s funny how one of my most pleasant literary experiences that has to do with Spain, is American writer Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station. It’s about this young poet from Kansas who gets to spend a year in Madrid on a scholarship, the purpose of which is to write something about the civil war. In reality however, he mostly smokes hasch and fool around with women. The story takes a darker turn as the protagonist live through the train bombings of 2004, that killed 193 people and injured over 2000, an incident which is known in Spain as 11M (for March 11th). I really loved that book, not least for its supremely funny renderings of what it’s like to live life in a country where you’re never quite sure what’s going on around you.]
[Second side-note, also sort of on the same note: It’s funny how my favourite writer who feels the way Spain ought to feel, is Swedish author Lina Wolff. That’s no coincidence though, since before starting to write her own novels she translated the work of Roberto Bolaño.]
So. Underwhelmed. That’s how I felt, until I came upon the works of Almudena Grandes.
Her novel Inés y la alegría, from 2010, is the first instalment out of six, in the series titled Episodios de una guerra interminable.
In this massive thousand page tome, Grandes tell the story of a young Madrileña who, in spite of growing up in a privileged family (her brother is a fascist leader), joins the armed resistance and devotes her life to fighting Franco.
I loved this book not so much for its style – which is naturalistic and a bit wordy – but for the fact that it tells a story which needs to be told.
Everybody knows there was a civil war in Spain. The fact that the bad guys won and were never held accountable, however, seems to somehow have been pulled into a vortex of collective amnesia.
To paraphrase Basil Fawlty; it’s not so much “Don’t mention the war” as “Don’t mention the aftermath of the war”.
Meaning: don’t mention the 51,266 infants who were systematically stolen at the hospital from their republican parents, to be given away to nationalist couples.
Meaning: don’t mention the fact that some 50 000 republicans were executed after the war ended and half a million Spanish men and women had to flee to France, where many of them ended up in nazi concentration camps.
Meaning: don’t mention how France and Great Britain took Franco’s side – for callous real-political reasons – and sabotaged the invasion of the Valle de Aran, where eight thousand Spanish guerrilla soldiers tried to reclaim their country in October of 1944.
The disastrously failed invasion of the Valle de Aran, is where most of Inés y la alegría plays out. It’s clearly a pivotal moment. Hitler and Mussolini is about to fall and it would make perfect sense for Franco to go down with them, only he doesn’t. Instead he stays in power until he dies of old age, thirty one years later.
Almudena Grandes notes in her afterword that most Spaniards remain oblivious to this day, that the invasion of the Valle de Aran even happened. She did her best to change that. Sadly she passed away last year, much too young. But still she managed to do what many of her compatriots had failed to do before her, she managed to mention the war.