Spain’s Unending War

Barbara Morris

The best seller El lector de Julio Verne (The Reader of Jules Verne) by Spanish author Almudena Grandes is the second novel in a planned series of six, Episodios de una guerra interminable (Episodes of an Unending War), a large-scale narrative project that will aim to convey the devastating trajectory of the first twenty-five years of General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship (1939–1964), a period, according to Grandes, that has been largely forgotten. Nine-year-old Nino, the protagonist of this coming-of-age tale, is the son of a guardia civil, one of Franco’s feared military police. Between 1947 and 1949, Nino witnesses reprisals against the still-active Republican guerilla movement in the southern province of Jaén, near Granada. In a countryside where families are so poor that mothers heat rocks and bottles to warm their children’s hands, books are a luxury. Nino, initiated into literature by two older village friends, discovers the marvelous worlds of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson; at the same time, he becomes acutely aware of the brutal political reality of Franco’s Spain, during which upwards of 150,000 people were executed, in addition to the 500,000 who died in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939).

With the first, award-winning novel of the series, Inés y la alegría (Inés and Mirth), Grandes proclaimed her allegiance to the prolific nineteenth-century realist writer Benito Pérez Galdós, author of forty-six historical novels collectively known as Episodios nacionales (National Episodes). Like Galdós, Grandes ably mixes historical personages in among her fictional characters, resuscitating, for example, the legendary and elusive anti-Franco guerilla fighter known as Cencerro. Focusing on what philosopher and novelist Miguel de Unamuno called la intrahistoria, the intimate stories of anonymous people, Grandes tells the tales of those who lost the war and continued to fight.

Grandes’s novel brings to life and offers insight into some of the previously untold and unspoken events of the period, just as today families search for and exhume the bodies of relatives who were executed and dumped into unmarked graves decades ago.

El Lector de Julio Verne arrives on the crest of a decade-long wave of hundreds of books, articles, television shows, and films focusing on the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship. It is a theme whose potency has not abated, as evidenced by how the Law of Historical Memory, passed by Zapatero’s Socialist government in 2007, has rekindled the old enmities narrated by Grandes. The law recognizes the victims of both sides of the Civil War; gives rights to the victims, and their descendants, of the war and Franco’s dictatorship; and formally condemns the Franco regime. Grandes’s novel brings to life and offers insight into some of the previously untold and unspoken events of the period, just as today families search for and exhume the bodies of relatives who were executed and dumped into unmarked graves decades ago.

Author of a dozen novels and collections, Grandes caught the public’s eye in 1989 with her first publication, the erotic novel Las edades de Lulú (The Ages of Lulu, first published in English in 1993), which has sold more than a million copies worldwide. With Episodios she embarks on a much more ambitious project, one which sometimes falls short of its aims. In El Lector, as in Inés y la alegría, her often prolix prose and tendency to clumsily foreshadow climactic plot points can be frustrating, and the final chapter, a coda relating Nino’s life from 1949 to 1977, dilutes the impact of the story. Fortunately, these limitations are offset by a group of sharply rendered characters—the curious boy Nino; Pepe the Portuguese, a fixer for the guerrilla fighters and Nino’s mentor; Catalina la Rubia and other village women who have lost husbands, siblings, and fathers; and the handsome civil guard Sanchís, in putative pursuit of the guerillas even as he secretly works for them.

Both the terror imposed by the civil guards on the villagers and the guerilla fighters’ heroic opposition are wrought in vivid detail by Grandes, leaving the reader with a powerful sense of the characters’ sorrow and tremendous loss. In her fictional witnessing of the men and women executed, jailed, or exiled, of their fight against fascism, and of the rending asunder of the nation, Grandes provides an extraordinary vision of a tragic era in Spanish history and deftly illustrates the profound role that historical fiction can play in a nation’s struggle to deal with its most dreadful secrets.