Spain much more than its political divisions suggest

Ghosts of Spain

Giles Tremlett

Faber and Faber, €12.45;

Kindle, €6.15

Review: Dan MacCarthy

The films of Spanish director Pedro Almodovar in which nuns inject heroin into their arms, where transvestites prowl Madrid’s nightlife, and where women form relationships with rapists, is an extreme example of the post-Franco cultural scene. It is an unique space according to the former Guardian Spain correspondent John Hooper where the extremity of the art was observable through the level of state repression that preceded it — a kind of isostatic response.

Life in post-war Spain was pretty repressed under El Caudillo — alias Franco — as repeatedly underlined in this account of contemporary Spain by current Guardian correspondent for Spain, Tremlett. Arcane laws such as women having to seek permission from their husbands to leave their home for even a night out meant a fossilised society didn’t develop. Then in 1975 the dictator died and a new era under King Juan Carlos was ushered in.

Expanded to take into account Spain’s sinking position in the current economic quagmire, Tremlett’s account of Spanish life is part memoir, part history, part finger on the pulse of this dynamic country. Picking up the tale of this much changed country he follows the trail of three republican villagers abducted and murdered by Francoists during the Civil War of 1936-39. Eighty years after their deaths the village of Poyales del Horo is still divided along republican or nationalist lines. Then many other cases of hidden graves and dusty stories began to appear from all over Spain. The ghoulish earth gives up its dead. Stories even Almodovar himself couldn’t conceive became ‘mortal’.

An old man who Tremlett encounters advises against this unearthing of the past: “If you stir shit, stink rises,” he said. The right-wing mayor of the right-wing Partido Popular party refuses to co-operate with the exhumation in another village. Huge controversy erupted and old and deep wounds had salt poured on them.

Enter muslim fundamentalists and their bombs to the Madrid metro one morning in 2004. The devastation of 191 deaths and many more mutilations ironically led to a kind of detente among the country’s divided citizens, according to Tremlett.

But Spain is much more complicated than its political divisions would suggest. Tremlett meets the man who gave the world Benidorm and, in a sense, mass tourism. His moving chapter on the brilliant exponent of flamenco music, Camaron, is indeed moving, but too long.

To ascertain how far Spain has come in a few decades with its Almodovars, its millionaire footballers, its skyscrapers, you just have to look at the words of surrealist director Luis Bunuel who declared that in his village the Middle Ages lasted until World War I.

Spain, as illustrated by Tremlett, is very European — lengthy tunnels burrow beneath the Pyrenees to provide a link northwards. However, it is distinctly Spanish as well, having being occupied by the Moors for 700 years or so. In many ways, it is a country in the process of being born and its greatest challenges may lie just around the corner.


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