Ghosts of Spain: Giles Tremlett
Back in the mid 1980s, I spent a year living in the remote provincial city of Teruel. So remote is Teruel that, even just 10 years ago, the city authorities mounted an advertising campaign to tell the world that “Teruel también existe” (Teruel exists as well). Mention the name of Teruel anywhere in Spain, and they will smilingly repeat the 10 year old slogan……
One day, on a trip out to the nearby historic pueblo (village) of Albarracín, I noticed what looked like a bouquet of plastic flowers by the road side. I stopped the car to investigate, expecting it to be one of the frequent roadside memorials to the scene of a road accident, but what I found was a crudely hand-painted piece of wood telling me that the bodies of 1,006 Republican victims of assassination were lying in mass graves in that area, many dropped down a deep artesian well. Back in Teruel, I tried to find more information about the allegation, but always drew a blank. There was obviously a wall of silence, a ‘pact of silence’ as mentioned by Giles Tremlett in his Ghosts of Spain.
Tremlett was the Guardian correspondent in Spain (he now works for the Economist), and he has been living there for over 20 years. The early chapters of his book are an effort to unearth the truth of what really went on during the immensely destructive years of the Spanish Civil War 1936-39. Both the Nationalists (Franco’s side) and the Republicans were guilty of war atrocities, but amongst the 160,000 political assassinations, by far the majority were committed by the Nationalists.
With the death of Franco in 1975, and the establishment of a democratic constitution in 1978, one might have thought this would have been the start of something akin to what happened in South Africa, a ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ commission. But quite the reverse. For more than 30 years, the unofficial ‘pact of silence’ meant that nobody, from both sides of the divide, ever discussed the consequences of those terrible years.
Now that the war generation has mostly passed away, we are now seeing a plethora of interest in the Civil War, and authors and film directors are stumbling over each other to address some of the painful issues.
But Tremlett’s book is much, much more than a review of the war years. He goes on to pry into many hidden corners of contemporary Spain, from the inner sanctum of flamenco, to the politically contentious issues of regional independence for the Basque country and Catalonia; from education to health matters; from Spaniards’ macabre attitude to death to the iconoclastic films of Almodóvar. For me, a keen hispanophile, it gave me a contemporary ‘state of the nation’ perspective, even though this was published some 18 months before the financial crisis of 2008. So the glowing reports of a Spain in headlong rush to build roads, airports and shopping centres……… well, that’s all history now.