Javier Cercas on Spain’s battles with memory

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 2, 2022

Photos from the Spanish civil war of 1936 to 1939 by modificata da HominisCon dall’originale . CC BY-SA 4.0

We started this examination of memory and forgetting with Pedro Almodovar’s film on the Spanish civil war, as well as Spain’s ongoing historical-memory movement. The reality is countries remember when they can — and what they can.

That’s a point Javier Cercas, a Spanish writer and professor of literature at the University of Girona, recently made about Germany, in conversation with Yascha Mounk of Persuasion. “It is not completely true that Germany, for instance, changed everything after the war,” he said. “I mean, Germany only began to look seriously at its past in the 70s. That’s the moment in which a new generation of Germans began to digest Germany’s own terrible past. Spain was similar, in fact.”

The Professor suggested that Spain’s civil war, which the history books say raged from 1936 to 1939, didn’t last three years but 43, right up to Caudillo Franco’s death in 1975.

With renewed interest in the Spanish civil war (read my blogs here and here), Professor Cercas’s views on how to come to terms with a country’s past are worth reading.

He said: “When I was young, I thought that my country was different from all countries, and only my country had problems with its past. But this is not true. All countries have problems with their past, all of them, because we all have wars, we all have blood, we all have real problems. That’s one of the main questions in my books: What do we do with this past? What do we do with our bad heritage? Do we conceal it? Do we invent a different past? Or do we look at it seriously?”

He goes to say that it is “necessary to acknowledge complexities and to understand them” in order to come to terms with the past. “To understand doesn’t mean to justify. It means exactly the opposite: it gives you the instruments not to repeat the same mistakes. In Spain, it was logical that people didn’t want to look back. But in the end, you must do it, because the problem is still there.”

He quotes Faulkner in ‘Requiem for a Nun’: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past”. The Professor then finishes off Faulkner’s sentence: “Past is always here. Past is a dimension of the present without which the present is mutilated.”

The Professor notes that the Spanish people “began to deal with the past almost 20-30 years after the end of Franco’s dictatorship. Our problem is that we didn’t do it very well. That’s our problem. We have not done it in a serious way. There’s a book called The Impostor, in which I deal with the problems we have with our past. We invented a different past. The Impostor is about a real man called Enric Marco who invented a biography for himself—a biography of a hero of anti-Francoism, a victim of the Nazis, etc.—and it was completely false. He was for me a symbol of what we were doing with our past, which was to invent it.”

‘The Imposter’, published in 2018, is a quite fascinating novel, by the way. Professor Cercas has described it as that ultimate paradox: A “novel without fiction”.

The dangers of historical revisionism – writing a novel without fiction when it should be a textbook – are always there when countries seek to come to terms with their past.