Monday, May 07, 2007

Spain and the Civil War, part two

Part one, which discusses Javier Marias's Your Face Tomorrow, is here.

A similar sense of uncertainty and secrecy runs through Carmen Laforet's Nada (1945), which was just issued in a new translation by the Modern Library. Written a few years after the civil war, when Laforet was only twenty-three, it tells of Andrea, a nineteen-year-old girl, orphaned by the war, who moves to Barcelona to live with her grandmother and aunts and uncles. The family has been impoverished and is clinging desperately to their run-down old house, reduced to selling off pieces of furniture to buy insufficient food. The war is rarely mentioned, but its effects are everywhere, from the poverty plaguing Barcelona to the psychological damage that has nearly destroyed the girl's aunts and uncles. Andrea's arrival at the house sets the book's gothic tone of secrecy and decay:
The old woman still couldn't understand very much, and then through one of the doors to the foyer came a tall, skinny man in pajamas who took charge of the situation. This was Juan, one of my uncles. His face was full of hollows, like a skull in the light of the single bulb in the lamp.

As soon as he patted me on the shoulder and called me niece, my grandmother threw her arms around my neck, her light-colored eyes full of tears, and saying "poor thing" over and over again. . . .

There was something agonizing in the entire scene, and in the apartment the heat was suffocating, as if the air were stagnant and rotting. When I looked up I saw that several ghostly women had appeared. I almost felt my skin crawl when I caught a glimpse of one of them in a black dress that had the look of a nightgown. Everything about that woman seemed awful, wretched, even the greenish teeth she showed when she smiled at me. A dog followed her, yawning noisily, and the animal was also black, like an extension of her mourning. They told me she was the maid, and no other creature has ever made a more disagreeable impression on me.

Over the course of a year, Andrea tries to grow up and establish a normal life, all the while watching as the family slips deeper into poverty and spins further out of control, driven apart by a variety of poorly kept secrets. Hints are dropped of betrayals, denunciations, affairs, violence, but nearly everything remains a bit cloudy, partially apprehended. As in the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, characters damage themselves by intentionally closing off thought, by pretending not to know things they know--in this case, about the civil war and who did what to whom. The gravity of that hidden topic warps everything in the house and the novel, making for an atmosphere so claustrophobic that, when Andrea finally escapes, it's as if we've escaped, too.

Andrea is able to leave behind her obviously damaged family members, but in reality, Spain itself can't quite do the same. Many veterans of that brutal war survive, and Franco himself ruled until his death just over thirty years ago. Spain's almost immediate transition to democracy, spearheaded by Franco's handpicked successor, King Juan Carlos I, was remarkable, but it was built on an implicit understanding that no one would inquire too closely into the war years. Moving on peacefully, it was argued, required that there be no truth commissions, no war crimes trials, and no assessment of guilt. A silence that under Franco was enforced by law continued under democracy, enforced by custom--and of fear of what might be learned.

Yet can such important questions be suppressed forever? I think Javier Marias and Carmen Laforet would surely argue that they cannot. For a person to hide truths, especially painful ones, is to risk real psychological damage; who knows what it can do to an entire culture?

1 comment:

  1. Steve3:42 PM

    Levi, you raise some interesting questions but I think there are a few things working against "truth and reconciliation." Briefly, the war in Spain was super-political. That statement may seem obvious but There's a fairly well documented history of the actions of both the right and the left and neither come off particularly well. Next, Spain is flourishing. Supposedly their economy is about to pass Italy's in size. It's completely transformed from the backwater of Europe that it was before the Civil War--really agrarian and highly impoverished. It's a totally different country. These days, with the socialists in power you would think they might be interested in this sort of exercise but they have enough on their plate dealing with immigration, the Basques, and keeping the country growing. With the 70th anniversary of Guernica there's a lot of new scholarship coming out but unfortunately it's still fighting the battles of the 30's and not a pretty sight.