Letting the past lie: Spain's Javier Marías

Letting the past lie: Spain's Javier Marías
Javier Marias, 67, has long been considered a contender for the Nobel Literature Prize. Picture: Martin Schalk/Getty

Javier Marías, Spain’s most celebrated living writer, has chronicled its long-deferred reckoning with its violent, fascist past, but is curiously indifferent to plans to rebury dictator Franco, writes Giles Harvey.

By Giles Harvey

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, one of the few fascist dictators to die peacefully, in his bed, imposed himself on Spain for so long that people feared he would live forever.

Since the caudillo’s grand funeral, in 1975, his remains have been interred at the Valley of the Fallen, a colossal memorial to the victims of the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Thirty miles north-west of Madrid, the site consists of a vast basilica, carved into the side of a granite mountain ridge and topped with a 150m-tall stone cross, the tallest in the world.

The regime claimed that the memorial, which houses the remains of some 34,000 civil war dead, was intended to honour all who fell in the conflict, but this was gaslighting on a world-historical scale: Tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of them former Republican soldiers, laboured between 1940 and 1959 to build what would become their tormentor’s final resting place.

In June 2018, Spain’s ruling Socialist Party announced it would exhume Franco’s remains and rebury them. For the past decade, the country has been removing symbols of the dictatorship from public spaces, in accordance with the 2007 Law of Historical Memory. Not everyone agreed that the government’s decision was long overdue.

That July, 1,000 pro-Franco demonstrators gathered at the Valley of the Fallen, and raised their arms in the fascist salute and sang the anthem of the Falange, the Spanishfascist party; in December, the ultra nationalist Vox party, a bastion of Francoist nostalgia, won significant victories in regional elections.

As the 80th anniversary of the end of the civil war approached, the fault lines that divide the country were being thrown into disquieting relief. Earlier this year, I wrote to Javier Marías, Spain’s most celebrated living novelist, to ask if he would be open to attending the exhumation ceremony with me.

In Spain, and in much of Western Europe, María senjoys a kind of cultural authority and prestige that makes even America’s most successful literary writers look like obscure hobbyists. His books have sold 8.5m copies. For years, he has been given inviting odds to win a Nobel Prize, and will likely be among the favourites again this year. He also writes a widely read, often controversial, weekly column for El País, Spain’s paper of record.

In both fiction and polemic, Marías has keenly attended to the effect sof Spain’s long-deferred reckoning with its recent past. In the last few years of Franco’s reign, there were a growing number of public demonstrations, but the rapid transition to liberal democracy that followed his death was largely a top-down affair.

In 1976, as part of an unwritten agreement, known as the ‘pacto del olvido’, or pact of forgetting, the fascists agreed to cede power on the condition that no-one would be held to account for crimes committed during the civil war and the dictatorship.

“Everyone accepted this condition, not just because it was the only way the transition from one system to another could proceed more or less peacefully, but also because those who had suffered most had no alternative and were in no position to make demands,” Marías wrote in his 2014 novel, Thus Bad Begins, which centres on a long, unhappy marriage that comes apart in the post-Franco thaw.

The promise of living in a normal country was far more alluring than the old quest for an apology or the desire for reparation.

This moral trade-off, and the culture of silence it inaugurated, has been an enduring imaginative incitement for Marías. His novels often revolve around those for whom forgetting, or willed ignorance, has become a way of life.

To go with Marías to Franco’s exhumation thus seemed altogether fitting and proper. As I awaited his response, I imagined a scene of historical exorcism or catharsis, Spain’s laureate of silence and denial looking on as his country finally faced what, for decades, had been off-limits. When it arrived, his answer promptly shattered this fond vision.

“I couldn’t care less what happens to Franco’s remains,” he wrote, “whether they are smashed, thrown away, or simply left where they are.”

He agreed to talk, but said he had never visited the Valley of the Fallen and wasn’t about to do so now. Marias, who is 67, doesn’t do email; he fires off his correspondence on the same model of electric typewriter on which he’s been composing his books and columns for decades.

Because he cultivates the role of what the Spanish call a ‘cascarrabias,’ or curmudgeon, it can be hard to tell just how seriously to take him. He has heaped scorn on everything from bike lanes and noise pollution to the latent tyranny of virtue signaling — “one of the greatest dangers threatening humanity”.

I arrived at Marías’s apartment in central Madrid one afternoon in late May. He speaks very good — if, at times, somewhat antique — English. He has fine, receding hair, heavy-hooded eyes, a thoughtful mouth. In his youth, and middle age, he was movie-star handsome; the friends of his to whom I spoke made allusions to an energetic bachelor lifestyle.

Marías is charming, warm, and attentive. Last year, he married Carme López Mercader, his partner of more than two decades. Mercader, an editor, lives in Barcelona and has two grown children from a previous relationship. They typically spend two to three weeks together and four to five apart.

Several of Marías’s previous relationships have been with women who live in other cities, or even abroad.

“It’s harder to get tired of each other,” he has said. “There’s time for longing.”

Marías began laying the groundwork for his career at an early age. In 1969, when he was 17, he ran away from Madrid, where he grew up, to spend the summer in Paris, at the apartment of his uncle, Jesús Franco, the B-movie auteur and sometime pornographer behind such productions as Vampyros Lesbos and AVirgin Among the Living Dead.

Marías was drawn to the French capital less by the political ferment of the time than by the Cinémathèque Française, whose summer programme that year was heavy onclassic American noir. In six weeks, he watched more than 80 films. They were the inspiration for his first novel, The Dominions of the Wolf, a draft of which he had almost completed by the time he returned home, in the fall.

It was published two years later, when Marías, then an undergraduate at Madrid’s Complutense University, was still only 19. The novel takes place in a kind of hard-boiled America of the mind, fabricated from movies, books, and popular music.

People make the fascist salute at La Basilica The Valley of Fallen in San Lorenzo del Escorial near Madrid on July 15, 2018, as they protest against the removal of Franco's remains from The Valley of Fallen. (Photo: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)
People make the fascist salute at La Basilica The Valley of Fallen in San Lorenzo del Escorial near Madrid on July 15, 2018, as they protest against the removal of Franco's remains from The Valley of Fallen. (Photo: JAVIER SORIANO/AFP/Getty Images)

Yet it still signalled its contempt for the insular monoculture of Franco’s Spain, obsessed, as it was, with questions of national identity and belonging. However, its content was less provocative than what it did not contain, and what that elision suggested: Not everything has to be about Franco.

But Marías also had ample first-hand experience of America. He had been there. His father, Julián Marías, a prominent philosopher and public intellectual, had spent the civil war writing and broadcasting Republican propaganda; in 1939, a few weeks after the conflict ended, he was caught up in Franco’s systematic purge of the defeated opposition and escaped the firing squad only aftera witness called by the prosecution testified on his behalf.

His experience under the regime was formative for his son. Because Julián was barred from teaching at universities in Spain, he would periodically accept short-term academic posts abroad, including at multiple colleges in the States. Javier, his three brothers and their mother,Dolores, a translator, would follow.

It was in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father was teaching at Yale for the academic year 1955-56, that Marías heard English spoken for the first time, a language that would play a decisive role in his life.

After publishing his second novel, at the age of 22, Marías took a six-year hiatus from writing fiction and dedicated himself to translationprojects — that is, to rewriting the fiction of others. He credits this period, during which he rendered Laurence Sterne, Thomas Hardy,Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov, and others into Spanish, as crucial in his artistic development.

Marías’ protagonists are often people who live vicariously through the words of others. Juan, the narrator of A Heart So White — the book that made Marías a European celebrity in the ’90s — is a translator and interpreter.

San Lorenzo del Escorial, near Madrid of the Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), a monument to the Francoist combatants who died during the Spanish civil war and Franco's final resting place.  (Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)
San Lorenzo del Escorial, near Madrid of the Valle de los Caidos (The Valley of the Fallen), a monument to the Francoist combatants who died during the Spanish civil war and Franco's final resting place. (Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP/Getty Images)

In one of the novel’s showstopping comic set-pieces, he serves as mediator between two politicians, who are recognisable as Felipe González, the prime minister of Spain, and his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, at a private meeting. By intentionally mistranslating parts of the dialogue, Juan draws out the participants’suppressed authoritarian longings. Marías often suggests Europe hasyet to fully free itself from fascism’s lingering embrace.

His latest novel, Berta Isla, (which will be released in translation in the US this week), tells the story of a marriage founded on a kind of private pact of forgetting, and offers a disturbing examination of how history seeps into, and contaminates, our most intimate relationships.

WHEN I asked Marías what he felt when he learned Franco had died, he didn’t hesitate. “Joy,” he said. “Relief and great joy.”

When it became clear that no-one would be brought to justice, he also felt great anger. He wasn’t alone. One feature of post-transition Spain that was especially maddening to those who suffered under Franco was the way in which certain former supporters of the strongman began toreinvent themselves as lifelong liberals.

Such brazen self-refashioning went largely unchallenged at a time when making accusations was seen as petty, vindictive, or a threat to the delicate social order. As recently as 1999, Marías received a blizzard of hate mail for a column that attacked the writer Camilo José Cela, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1989, the last Spaniard to do so.

Cela had fought on the nationalist side in the civil war and worked as a censor; according to one scholar, he also informed on many in his literary milieu under the dictatorship. Since the late 1970s, however, he had been playing down his fascist past, claiming he was a victim ofcircumstance or the puppet of more powerful actors.

Marías, whose parents knew Cela and could attest to the fraudulence of these exculpatory contortions, broke the conspiracy of silence when the Nobel laureate responded highhandedly to an interviewer who asked him about his collaboration with the old regime.

In his column, Marías didn’t even name Cela, but it was clear to whom he was referring, and this violation of the social contract led to an outcry from readers across the political spectrum.

“Oh, come on!” was how Marías summarised the response.

You’re bringing this up now?

Thanks in no small part to grassroots activism undertaken by the children and grandchildren of Franco’s victims, 21st-century Spain has gone a long way to overturning this morally suffocating consensus.

The 2007 Law of Historical Memory not only officially condemned the Franco regime for the first time, it also provided state assistance to those seeking to trace, exhume, and formally rebury relatives who were killed under the dictator, many of whom were buried in mass graves.

Even as he welcomed these developments as necessary and humane, Marías saw new prevarications behind them.

Last year, he wrote a column forEl País, titled ‘A Dictatorship, Fools’, in which he castigated those who had begun to attack people his age forletting Franco and his cohort off the hook. Such accusations, Maríasargued, betrayed a “criminal ignorance” of history, which, in turn, made Spaniards susceptible to the “fairy tale” that “the establishment of democracy was the work of the ‘people’, when, in reality, the ‘people’, with some exceptions, were devoted to the dictatorship and cheered it on”.

Had it not been for the leaders of the day, most of them holdovers from the Franco era, “it is possible that this dictatorship would have survived another decade, with the consent of many compatriots”.

The giant cross at the summit of the Valley of the Fallen is visible from the northern outskirts of Madrid.

As the tour bus wound its way up the wooded mountainside leading to the monument, our guide told us that the underground basilica we would soon enter was larger than St Peter’s in Rome, something forbidden by the Catholic Church.

Before it could be consecrated, a partition had to be built in the entryway, creating a small, unsanctified vestibule and bringing down the overall dimensions to an acceptable size.

When we arrived, I discovered that space to be partly occupied by a small gift store. Here were Valley of the Fallen mugs, Valley of the Fallen fridge magnets. Browsing the merchandise, I didn’t have trouble grasping the figure reported in a recent poll: 38% of Spaniards believe Franco should stay just where he is.

They got their way, at least for the time being. On June 4, less than a week before the ceremony was to take place, Spain’s Supreme Court ordered the government to suspend its plans to exhume Franco’s remains; his family had filed an appeal months earlier, arguing that the removal would constitute the violation of a burial site, and were still awaiting a decision. The legal battle looks likely to drag on for months, if not longer.

Inside the church itself, people were praying, inspecting the hooded military effigies along the wall, standing around with the awed and indecisive air of tourists unsure just what to make of their surroundings.

A marble slab in the floor behind the circular high altar marks Franco’s crypt. Someone had carefully placed a bouquet of red and white carnations at the centre of it. An attendant told me that the National Francisco Franco Foundation, whose mission is to glorify the dictator, leaves a new one there every week.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine

Copyright .2019 The New York Times

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