The Spanish Riveter: Uncovering the Past: Historical Memory in Contemporary Spanish Fiction by Jacky Collins

Surveying the panorama of Spain’s literary production, it soon becomes clear that one of the key themes growing out of the 1970s Transition to Democracy, particularly since the beginning of the twenty-first century, has been that of recovering and conveying historical memory. Indeed, the passing of the Historical Memory Law in 2007 has made it even easier for Spaniards to examine the difficult years of the Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. This legal development and its ramifications have also provided a wonderful incentive for storytellers, with contemporary authors opting for a blended format of reality and fiction to tell their stories.

This literary boom includes some of the country’s most renowned fiction writers, several of whom have adopted a narrative strategy rarely used to explore the nation’s contentious past: metafiction in all its variations. This work seeks to bring the socio-political violence of the past into the present and preserve those experiences for future generations.

While there are many texts to choose from, for this article I have made a small selection of key authors (from different areas in Spain) who, to my mind, best capture this cultural trend and whose work offers the reader challenging, informative and enjoyable reads.

In the first-person narrative La fuerza del destino (1997), Josefina Aldecoa (from León) provides a beautifully sensitive treatment of the experience of exile and returning, and how it can be felt as an enormous loss of self. Gabriela looks back on her life before and after the Civil War and her subsequent years in exile in Mexico. This is the final instalment of a trilogy spanning generations that can be read as a depiction of Spain’s twentieth-century history. What stayed with me most strongly is how this personal testimony highlights the importance of reclaiming the memory of mothers and older women – voices so often absent from officially recorded history.

Rosa Règas’s Luna lunera (1999) tells the story of four children, narrator Anna and her siblings, whose parents were Republicans in the Civil War and fled with them into exile as the Franco’s Nationalist troops reached Barcelona. Like Aldecoa, Regàs addresses intergenerational relationships and how these are disrupted, especially following the loss of a mother. She also addresses the repression of political and regional identities that followed the war, and how successive generations felt the repercussions of this. Regàs draws on aspects of her own parents’ and grandparents’ lives here, using active memory to explore both a family and a nation divided.

In La mitad del alma (2003) Carme Riera (Palma de Mallorca), another Catalan author, skilfully weaves fiction and documentary sources in an emotional thriller, combining two threads, past and present. The novel also addresses the instability of memory and how we cannot rely on it to recover the past and establish historical truth. Unlike other works published in Spain dealing with this theme, Riera avoids historical binaries. Instead, she invites us to recognise the integration of diverse histories and the complexity of lived experiences. I particularly enjoyed how the protagonist, in discovering aspects of her mother’s life, also encounters ways in which it was possible to disrupt the Francoist ideals of femininity.

These lived experiences are also at the centre of Dulce Chacón’s (Extremadura) La voz dormida (2002), based on the testimonies of women who were imprisoned during the Franco regime or who died resisting the dictatorship. This novel shows how trauma is passed down from one generation to the next. Some of the most moving examples of this are in its depiction of female solidarity and various forms of motherhood, portraying not just ways of sharing trauma, but also different sites of resistance and transgression. Chacón’s use of authentic testimonies and historical documents means that generations of readers are afforded a chance to hear voices previously silenced.

Any consideration of this theme must contain reference to author and journalist Almudena Grandes (Madrid), whose work, both fact and fiction, has been instrumental in progressing the cause of the recovery of Spain’s historical memory. In El corazón helado (2007), Grandes shows how the past disrupts the present, especially the impact it has on those living in exile. She expertly represents Spain’s struggle to reconcile with its past, both for those who left the country and those who remained. A key element of this novel is the depiction of deep-seated divisions around historical memory pre-2007, with Republicans being denied their grief and memorials, while Nationalists were able to commemorate theirs freely.

My final choice, in among all the women’s voices, is Javier Cercas’s (Extremadura) controversial bestseller and a hybrid ‘historical novel’ Soldados de Salamina (2001). First, I felt it important to include it, since following its release at the turn of the millennium, Soldados has acted as a catalyst for many more novels dealing with Spain’s historical memory. Second, I very much enjoyed the shift in the attitude of the investigative journalist narrator, which mirrors the way we are invited to consider historical events not as cold facts, but as a series of individual personal experiences.

Historical memory seeks to transmit not the version of the victors, but rather to convey what happened through the eyes of the defeated, of those who suffered the repression of the victorious, and to bring forth the voices of so many whose stories went unheard or were not allowed to be told. The texts discussed in brief here, particularly those dealing with women’s experiences, offer readers a wonderful opportunity to hear such stories and understand Spain’s troubled years from a rich array of perspectives. 

By Jacky Collins

The Sleeping Voice by Dulce Chacón, translated by Nick Caistor, Random House UK, 2006
The Frozen Heart by Almudena Grandes, translated by Frank Wynne, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010
Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, translated by Anne McLean, Bloomsbury, 2004

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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