“Is this Barcelona?” The question sets the tone for the final scenes of Sebastià Alzamora’s novel Blood Crime. It comes from the thoughts of a young religious man, a member of the Catholic group known as the Marist Brothers, who is making his way through the streets of the Catalan capital’s old city. The year is 1936, just months after Francisco Franco launched the coup d’état that inaugurated the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona had become a hotbed for left-wing organizing against Francoist forces. The Brother comes to the realization that he’s a stranger in his own city. Anti-religious fervor was now palpable, unlike before the war. When he asks himself whether he is in Barcelona, it is to try to wake himself up from what he thinks is a nightmare, a nightmare of hostility and exile. But “he knew full well it was Barcelona. What remained of it, in any event: the ghost of its former self.”
On August 17, as I glanced at my phone in the middle of a food court in Baltimore, blending into a crowd of dozens doing the same thing, I asked myself the same question: “Is this Barcelona?” Just minutes before, a white van driven by a 22-year-old man named Younes Abouyaaqoub had slalomed its way down La Rambla, Barcelona’s central pedestrian thoroughfare, claiming the lives of 13 people and injuring dozens more. I immediately felt “dazed and bewildered,” like the young religious man in the novel. I scrolled through a dozen variations of #Barcelona on Twitter and looked on in horror at the images appearing on my four-inch screen.
Just as the young religious man in the novel “plodded along, his faltering steps taking him through a landscape of ruin he did not recognize,” I looked at the landscape of ruin captured by iPhone videos in the aftermath of the attacks in Barcelona. As I was scrolling through Twitter, I remember the moment I stopped looking at the images and videos. It was thanks to a tweet from a journalist in Madrid. “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves?” he wrote, condemning news outlets for publishing images of victimized children. I suddenly woke up to an ethical reality from which I’d briefly dozed off.
Days later, a half million people marched together down Barcelona’s famous Passeig de Gràcia in one of the largest demonstrations in the city’s storied history of rebellion. “No tinc por” (I’m not afraid) read the large banner at the head of the march. In attendance were a collection of dignitaries who looked almost as somber as they did uncomfortable standing next to each other: King Felipe VI, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, and Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau.
Rajoy and Felipe represented Madrid, the center of a Spanish state that, in many ways, still operates as though it believed the myth of the pure-blooded Spaniard, untainted by Muslims or Jews, it created in the 18th century. Puigdemont and Colau represented Barcelona, the center of a Catalan region whose national identity goes back hundreds of years. But each of them has a different vision of Catalonia’s national identity, with Puigdemont the torchbearer for the region’s push toward independence, Colau the skeptic who nevertheless thinks that the only way to resolve the issue is to hold a referendum in Catalonia. On October 1, a referendum—though not the one Colau envisioned—took place despite the violent attempts of some 12,000 police officers armed with riot gear.
In many ways the Spanish state still operates as though it believed the 18th-century myth of the pure-blooded Spaniard.
The morning after the August 26 march, Spaniards woke up to a striking assortment of headlines at their local kiosk, illustrating the stark divides hidden beneath the seeming unity of the Spanish state. “Independence above the Victims” read El Mundo. “The Independence Movement Boycotts the Unity March in Barcelona” read El País. (Curiously, Madrid’s right-wing papers ABC and La Razón had the wherewithal to qualify their anger above the fold: the independence movement, they wrote, “tried” to boycott the march; but the march was held “despite the attempt.”) On talk radio and TV roundtables, all pundits could talk about were the flags and “insults” directed toward Felipe VI. They obsessed over one of the largest banners, which, covering a sea of a few hundred people, had shown the Spanish King shaking hands with King Salman of Saudi Arabia. The caption, several times larger than the image itself, read, “Felipe VI and the Spanish Government: Accomplices in Arms Trafficking.”
Elsewhere in the world, headline writers appeared to pay little attention to what Madrid’s most important papers had identified as the most significant takeaways from the march. “‘I’m Not Afraid’: Barcelona Holds Peace Rally After Deadly Attacks” read the headline in the New York Times. “‘Without Fear’: Barcelona Gathers Together against Terrorism” read Le Monde. While Madrid painted the march as yet another episode in Catalonia’s history of nationalist troublemaking, the rest of the world viewed the protests as a straightforward act of solidarity with the victims.
Both reactions—from the Madrid papers and from the international press—showcased varying degrees of ignorance. The Madrid papers painted the marchers deliberately and mistakenly with a broad pro-independence brush and stretched the definition of terms like “boycott” beyond recognition. But, less obviously, they also conflated expressions of national identity with advocacy for independence and conveniently swept away the critique many marchers had made: questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy, its coziness with other, Middle Eastern monarchies, and the unconditional support it has received from Spain’s central government since the transition to democracy following Franco’s death in 1975.
The international papers ignored these critiques altogether, sanctifying the march with overtones of purity and righteousness. Certainly, the march was for peace. But for what kind of peace, exactly? To say that it was simply for peace against terrorism belies fundamental tensions within the Iberian Peninsula that are still playing out today.
These cultural, linguistic, and historical tensions have, unsurprisingly, made their way into the North American academy. When scholars of Spanish literature arrived in the United States in the postwar era, many brought their linguistic baggage with them. Trained in Spanish philology, they carried out their scholarship in Spanish. But, of course, Spanish literature is not the same as literature written in (Castilian) Spanish. Though their research was nominally on Spain, these scholars ignored virtually anything written in the country in a language other than Spanish. Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque Country—which together account for more than a quarter of Spain’s population today—enjoyed little representation in North American Spanish departments until very recently. Even today, after such important initiatives as the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, or the North American Symposium of Galician Studies, it is still fairly difficult to learn these languages on this side of the Atlantic.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, scholars of Spanish literature have adopted a more ecumenical approach to their research. Departments of Spanish have become Departments of Latin American and Iberian Cultures. Job announcements in Spanish literature now “encourage applications from scholars who work on one or more Iberian languages besides Spanish.” And volumes in Iberian studies regularly include articles on Galician, Catalan, and Basque literature and culture. (Full disclosure: my current academic position is in “Iberian Studies.”) This move away from Spanish as the dominant language has political implications. “Unlike the national philologies or the national literatures,” writes Joan Ramon Resina, “Iberian studies do not serve a political entity or legitimize a state.”1 While scholarly discourse in North America has made considerable strides, there is still little popular acceptance back in Spain of the country’s linguistic and cultural diversity.
But what about the literature itself? If there were ever an ideal opportunity to showcase Catalan, Basque, and Galician letters, it would be in the current frenzy over the Spanish Civil War novel. Civil War novels have become immensely popular in Spain and contemporary Spanish writers have made a cottage industry of writing about the conflict, so much so, in fact, that one scholar even titled his recent excellent book of literary criticism on the subject “The Spanish Civil War as a Literary Fad.”2
The “fad” includes novels written in Iberia’s non-Castilian languages by major writers, from Bernardo Atxaga in Basque to Manuel Rivas in Galician and even two novels in Catalan by the singer-songwriter Lluís Llach. But so far, few Iberian novels have made their way to English readers. Last year saw the translations of Sebastià Alzamora’s Blood Crime and Cristina Sánchez-Andrade The Winterlings, a pair of the few novels that have.
Set in Barcelona, Alzamora’s Blood Crime, originally published in Catalan in 2012, narrates the preparations of a group of Marist Brothers looking to flee to France during the first few months of the Civil War. The best way to describe the novel is as a Catalan gothic noir, jam-packed with hymnals in Latin, Da Vinci Code–like cliffhangers, and action sequences worthy of the Dragon Ball manga. It’s as if a future film adaptation had already been baked into the story. And, for those with a soft spot for campy subplots, the novel opens with the point of view of someone who we quickly realize is a vampire and ends with a cyborg horse named Hadaly. (No doubt you can imagine what happens in between.) Given its minimal attention to broader aspects of Catalan history, that the novel takes place during the Spanish Civil War seems to be mere coincidence.
Blood Crime, which, by winning the Sant Jordi Prize, placed Alzamora in the company of Mercè Rodoreda, Josep Pla, and other luminaries of Catalan literature, is based on El preu de la traïció (The price of treason), a work of nonfiction published in 2010 by the historian Miquel Mir and the Marist Mariano Santamaria that investigates the execution of 172 Marist Brothers at the hands of anarchists in 1936. Mir and Santamaria recreate in detail the meeting that took place between Aurelio Fernández, an antifascist militant, and the representative of the Marist Brothers at the Plaça de la Universitat, just minutes away from La Rambla and the scene of the young religious man in the novel.
The Marists agreed to pay Fernández 200,000 francs in exchange for immunity and a safe passage to France, but, as both Alzamora’s novel and the nonfiction book recount, many of them were subsequently rounded up and executed by anarchists, in breach of the agreement. In Blood Crime we see all manner of anticlerical violence, much of it carried out by identifiable historical anarchists: in the novel, Antonio Ordaz becomes Antoni Ordaz; Aurelio Fernández becomes Aureli Fernández; and Manuel Escorza becomes, well, Manuel Escorza.
If there were ever an ideal opportunity to showcase Catalan, Basque, and Galician letters, it would be in the current frenzy over the Spanish Civil War novel.
Anti-religious fervor quickly emerges as the motif of the story, part of which follows a detective, a doctor, and a judge as they try to solve the murders of a child, a priest, and even two unsuspecting pigs. But the motif has a motive. The authors of Civil War novels have often ignored the perspective of religious groups during the conflict. And the clearest of Alzamora’s goals is to bring the Civil War novel a step closer to the Civil War historical record.
For all its Catalan ornamentation, Blood Crime doesn’t feel especially Catalan. Although we see “the Catalan flag and the red-and-black emblem of the anarcho-syndicalists,” the novel treats them as empty symbols that are best left ignored. We get little sense of what anarchism means, despite meeting so many anarchists. Nor do we learn anything about the communal and collectivistic activities that anarchists practiced in the early months of the Civil War and that dated back to the late 19th century, when anarchism first took root in Catalonia. The most we know about the anarchists, at the level of ideology, is that they are “taking evil pleasure in the religious [people]’s predicament.” (By contrast, we get a full-bodied picture of ecclesiastic life.)
We have even less of a sense of what Catalonia means, which is vitally important for interpreting sentences like this one: “There must have been few cities in the world now where killing came as easily as in Barcelona.” Without knowing who’s doing the killing—Franco’s fascists, the democracy’s Republicans, or somebody else—it’s impossible to decipher the political valence of “easily,” that vital yet deceptively subtle word. Despite the enjoyment we might draw from some penetrating images—“the drinks and the two guns in the center of the table formed a sinister still life”—we come away from the novel with scarce insight into the political and social world of Catalonia after the outbreak of the Civil War. One is tempted to place Blood Crime in a growing list of Civil War novels that, in wanting to take a step away from ideology, end up promoting the conservative status quo. As we know too well, “hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides” is always an apology for a crime’s true perpetrators.
Sánchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings doesn’t segregate its moral judgements neatly into good and evil. The novel, published originally in Spanish in 2014, tells the story of two sisters, the eponymous “winterlings,” who return from exile in England to their grandfather’s small town in Galicia more than a decade after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The sisters spend much of the novel reconstructing their grandfather’s last steps by speaking to the townspeople, who reveal clues in fits and spurts. The novel’s climactic ending forces the sisters to reconsider their own place in the village and whether, amid Francoist repression in the 1950s, it’s a good idea to stay there. Unlike in Blood Crime, The Winterlings acknowledges the political antagonisms that exist in postwar rural Galicia, and it’s clear from the very beginning that the kinds of questions we will encounter make little sense when boxed into an either/or scheme.
Instead of doubling down on spectacular (and spectacularly bad) special effects, as Alzamora’s Blood Crime does, Sánchez-Andrade’s novel experiments with collective narration of various shapes and sizes. The two sisters often speak in unison and the townspeople often speak to them as one. Their first encounter sets the stage for this collective narration: “‘Winterlings! Open the door, Winterlings!’ … ‘Who’s there?’ they said in unison. … ‘It’s us,’ called the women at the door, again and again, ‘the women from the village.’” What appears at first as a literary device, collective narration, is in fact an important part of how communication occurs in the rural Galician village, Tierra de Chá, whence their grandfather, Don Reinaldo, was forcibly disappeared by Francoist forces in 1936. As the two women venture out of their cottage and speak to the townspeople, we slowly understand how something called “historical memory” might be created and maintained in communities across modern Iberia. We get a synopsis of this process just over halfway through the book:
They had been baking bread in the communal oven. The communal stone oven was a meeting place for all the villagers in Tierra de Chá, especially for the women who didn’t go to the tavern. While they built up the fire at six in the morning, throwing on dry gorse branches, they solved the world’s problems.
The process also clearly echoes what’s been going on in Spanish society for nearly two decades. The year 2000 was a watershed moment for “historical memory” in Spain. That fall, the journalist Emilio Silva published an article in a local paper under the title, “Mi abuelo también fue un desaparecido” (My grandfather was also disappeared), in which he described the murder of his grandfather by Francoist forces in 1936, the difficulty of finding out what had happened thanks to citizens’ enduring fears of state repression, and the process by which he and others located the mass grave and found his grandfather’s remains.
Since the 1980s the term desaparecido, meaning a person who has been forcibly disappeared, has most often been associated with state repression in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala during years of military dictatorship. But, despite the existence of similar conditions on the Iberian Peninsula for the past nearly 40 years, the word, until the turn of the century, had not been uttered in reference to the 114,000 people still unaccounted for in over two thousand unopened mass graves here.
Silva and others founded the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory in December 2000 and have since created a network of volunteers—archaeologists and forensic scientists as well as helping hands—that has opened over 150 mass graves across Spain, recovering more than 1,400 victims of Francoist repression.3
Unlike Blood Crime, The Winterlings gives us a clear picture of how writers might “Iberianize” the Spanish Civil War novel. Despite being written in Spanish, The Winterlings could not be more Galician. The two sisters, like Silva, eventually find out what happened to their grandfather thanks to a mixture of stories and rumors of the Spanish Civil War passed down from generation to generation. Sánchez-Andrade further combines this with oral literature particular to Galicia and northern León, where Silva is from, which has its roots in the 15th and 16th centuries. This historical experience, we see, rather than merely providing a token dash of local color, shaped how the townspeople in Tierra de Chá relate to certain crops. Early in the novel, we’re told that “cabbages, tomatoes, and collard greens were all scarce” during the war. “Only the gorse bushes kept growing, fierce and solitary, unfazed by a lack of cultivation or the privations of war.” Later in the novel, a description of a market haul doesn’t come without an offhand comment referencing the food scarcity of the past and present: “He had requisitioned some fiolla pancakes, bread, a pot of honey, sugar, and a cabbage (did the baker’s wife think she’d get away with little vegetables now?).” Sánchez-Andrade’s novel continually intertwines a political story with a cultural one, both of which are grounded in the midcentury rural Galician experience par excellence.
What, exactly, are the ingredients of Iberianness and how might they change the threadbare tropes still used today in writing about the Spanish Civil War? Sánchez-Andrade’s novel reminds us that thinking in terms of Iberia has a lot to do with the compression of time. Archeologists, historians, and other scholars of Spain’s non-Castilian languages and cultures have been forced by the state to defend their own legitimacy by substantiating the idea that their languages and cultures were not constructs of the present, but components of the Peninsula’s distant past.
To see Iberia instead of Spain, then, is to take the long view of history. To write an Iberian Civil War novel is to spend less time on the exceptionalness of the war itself than on how that moment places the longue durée of the Iberian Peninsula’s regional history—one that doesn’t shy away from its conflict with Spain’s centralism—in perspective. And to recognize the grievances of Iberia’s many regions is to identify their protests, like the “No Tinc Por” march, not so much as expressions of parochial nationalism than as evidence of a desire to force the central government in Madrid to face up to its own imperial past.
Some believe that only the fracturing of the Spanish state will give Madrid the wake-up call it needs; others believe that regional referendums would be enough. On October 1, the central government in Madrid let loose 12,000 police officers with the objective of forcefully prevent Catalans from casting a ballot in the referendum. They managed to injure nearly nine hundred people and infuriate many millions more in the process. Whatever your political stripe, it seems clear that some kind of wake-up call is in order.
- Joan Ramon Resina, “Iberian Modalities: The Logic of an Intercultural Field,” in Iberian Modalities: A Relational Approach to the Study of Culture in the Iberian Peninsula, edited by Joan Ramon Resina (Liverpool University Press, 2013), p. 14. For more on the history of Spanish literature departments in the United States, see Sebastiaan Faber, Anglo-American Hispanists and the Spanish Civil War: Hispanophilia, Commitment, and Discipline (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), as well as the edited collections Ideologies of Hispanism, edited by Mabel Moraña (Vanderbilt University Press, 2005) and Spain Beyond Spain: Modernity, Literary History, and National Identity, edited by Brad Epps and Luis Fernández Cifuentes (Bucknell University Press, 2005). ↩
- David Becerra Mayor, La Guerra Civil como moda literaria (Clave Intelectual, 2015). ↩
- For an excellent scholarly volume on the subject, see Unearthing Franco’s Legacy: Mass Graves and the Recovery of Historical Memory in Spain, edited by Carlos Jerez-Farrán and Samuel Amago (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010). ↩