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Apparently Irreconcilable Versions of the Same Innocuous Event


by Curt Eriksen


The Montreal Review, February, 2011


Eduardo Mendoza

Eduardo Mendoza received the Planeta Novel Prize for his book "Riña de gatos" (Catfight). The 67-year-old Barcelona native described Riña de Gatos as a "mystery, but also a reflection on a historic moment."




Eduardo Mendoza has won the Premio Planeta for 2010, the Spanish literary prize that is second, in terms of its value (€601,000), only to the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mendoza was born in Barcelona and has set most of his previous twelve novels there. But in this case he submitted an unpublished novel under a pseudonym, as the Premio Planeta requires, that - he explained upon acceptance of the prize - is set in the Spanish capital, only a few months before the Spanish Civil War began with a military uprising on the 18th of July, 1936. The novel is called Riñas de gatos; - literally Cat Fight - Madrid 1936.

Mendoza was trained as a lawyer but has often earned his living as a translator, including a decade working for the UN in New York. That's where he was when his first novel was published in 1975. A multifaceted and technically proficient political murder mystery set primarily in Barcelona in 1918, depicting the internecine strife between the same factions-anarchist and socialist trade unions, Catalan nationalists, industrialists, police and hoodlums-that would later form the jigsaw puzzle of forces struggling both with and against each other during the Spanish Civil War, the novel was originally titled Los soldados de Cataluña, or The Catalan Soldiers. But Mendoza was obliged by the censorship of the time to change the title to La verdad sobre el caso Savolta, or The Truth About the Savolta Case.

A few months after the publication of this novel Franco died, and the novel was awarded the Premio de la Crítica, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Spain, despite the fact that it doesn't pay anything. Since then The Truth About the Savolta Case has come to be regarded not only as a precursor of the radical changes that were about to take place in Spanish society, but as the first novel of what the Spaniards refer to as la transición, the historical period between the death of Franco and the formal establishment of a constitutional monarchy in December of 1978 (or, as some historians prefer, the end of the rule of the transitional government of the UCD in 1982; or, as still others prefer, the entry of Spain in the European Economic Community in 1986).

This discrepancy is indicative of the penchant for Spaniards not to agree, and what is curious about this year's Premio Planeta is precisely the difference in the headlines announcing the winner of the prize that El País, the country's most widely distributed left of center daily ran, and that which El Mundo, the country's most widely distributed right of center daily, ran.

Perhaps it should be mentioned that El País played a historic role in the transition to democracy following Franco's death in 1975 1, but later allied itself too closely with the PSOE government of Felipe Gonzalez, which ended losing the elections of 1996 largely as a consequence of a pair of scandals involving corruption on the part of some socialist ministers and the government's involvement in a campaign of state terrorism (part of their effort to confront and defeat ETA); and that the investigative reporting of El Mundo-founded in 1989 by a journalist who remains a very controversial figure-was responsible for uncovering the Socialist government's dirty war against the Basque terrorists, revelations that the Partido Popular, or PP-analogous to our own GOP-used to help win those elections.

At any rate the Premio Planeta-unlike the Nobel Prize, where the winners are announced long before the award ceremony, allowing them plenty of time to prepare a speech that is likely to be archived and referred to for years to come-is a glitzy gala dinner, more akin to the Academy Awards, where the winner might not be completely surprised (there have been accusations of winners being chosen before they even submitted their presumably anonymous manuscripts 2), but will nonetheless have to think on his feet.

Mendoza-who was born in 1943-did not so much deliver an acceptance speech as answer questions put to him by a young blonde woman wearing a black and white designer tubetop-style cocktail dress. And one of the first things he said to her was that, although he didn't look like it, he was very nervous, "nerviosísimo."

Mendoza's work is famous for its sometimes hilarious parody, and blending of certain genres (gothic, black comedy, mystery, and suspense). Among his novels are a trilogy featuring a detective named Ceferino who is locked up in a mental hospital. But he assured the woman with the microphone that this was a serious work, involving moral dilemmas, the story of a young English specialist in Spanish painting who comes to Madrid in the spring of 1936, entrusted with the task of determining the value of a possible, yet previously unknown, work by Velazquez, and ends up becoming a witness to, and perhaps involved in-Mendoza didn't want to give too much away-the plotting and conspiracies that were rife on the eve of the civil war.

And though Mendoza tried to say as little as possible about his story, in order not to undermine the mystery and suspense in it, the two major newspapers seized upon the sobriety of an issue which continues to divide Spanish society.

The headline for the El País article quoted Mendoza as saying, "Tenemos que asumir la Guerra Civil entre todos." Or, "We have to assume responsibility for the civil war amongst all of us." Whereas the headline in El Mundo stated simply that Medonza had won this year's prize, and then followed by quoting him as saying, "No tiene nada que ver con la Guerra Civil." Or, "It doesn't have anything to do with the civil war," a comment he tagged on to his purely descriptive declaration that the novel was set during the months preceding the civil war.

Many readers unfamiliar with Spain and Spanish history will wonder how this nuance can matter today, but I assure you, here in Spain it does matter today, and very much so.

Franco was merely one among several other generals involved in the planning and execution of the uprising which-since it didn't result in the quickly resolved military takeover that had been hoped for, and developed instead into a bloody three year civil war, complete with significant international intervention, particularly on the side of the rebels, or, as they referred to themselves, the Nationalists-led to the establishment of his forty year dictatorship. By the time Franco died a natural death in November of 1975, his regime had begun to 'soften up' a little, though Franco was still capable of signing the last death sentence (and execution order) with a shaky hand (he suffered from Parkinson's) while lying on his deathbed.

It is estimated that about half a million people died as a result of the civil war, out of a total population of roughly twenty-three million. These casualties include thousands of foreigners who volunteered or were sent to fight for either side in the conflict, but don't include the victims of post-war Francosist society.

As many as 500,000 Spaniards spent time in one of the 190 post-war prison camps from which, upon release, they had little or no prospect of finding a job as a consequence of being blacklisted. Another 90,000 were organized into 121 forced labor battalions which were used by the army or hired out to private companies (just as the SS hired out the slave labor provided by the inmates of its network of concentration camps). Another 8,000 Spaniards were put to work in military workshops, and hundreds of thousands more were intimidated and cowed into silence and submission to the new order.

Among the total victims of the war, an estimated 30,000 people simply disappeared, often during the night, after regular and irregular forces loyal to Franco took them from their homes and families, or found them at work in the fields, or in the factories, or wherever they came across them. No one knows with any certainty what became of these people, though everyone assumes they were murdered. 3

Recent research in over half the fifty provinces of Spain indicates that there were a minimum of 35,000 official executions during and after the war, though the total deaths from execution, suicide, hunger and sickness in prison could be as high as 200,000. 4

It is not known how many 'lost children' there were but some of these, who were taken from their imprisoned mothers and raised by families loyal to the regime are still trying, before they too pass away, to find out who they really are. Thousands of working class children were also sent to state institutions, governed and run by the Church (one of Franco's most reliable allies), where they were meant to be 'protected' from the ideas of their 'red' parents and raised in strict accordance with Francoist values-unconditional allegiance to the dictator, the Church and the patria, or fatherland.

In a recent article in a small circulation newspaper 5 Antonio Avendaño points out that by the time Franco died his regime was like the elderly SS men, finally caught decades after they had been in charge of running the extermination camps, whose innocuous appearance upon detention camouflaged the ruthless ferocity that had enabled them to rise in a system as cruel and unforgiving as that of the Nazis. It is this "toothless and almost venerable Francoism" that the political right in Spain recalls and perhaps even reveres, a mask that continues to hide the whole truth about what really happened.

The thousands of Spaniards who fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War, escaped to France after the fall of Catalonia and provided the backbone for the maquis resistance to Hitler's occupation there, or survived as best they could the torture and internment of his concentration camps, expected throughout their long decade of ordeals that the Allies would eliminate Franco as well. But with the end of World War II the Cold War began, and Franco was allowed to remain in place and eventually die in his sleep. And in this way the Democracies of the West bought into the fallacy of a mild or even benevolent dictatorship-preferable at any rate to a Soviet-sponsored government-and the intellectually impoverished and self-satisfying distinction between such a dictatorship and totalitarianism.

Yet Franco's rule and the society he imposed upon the Spanish people after the war was totalitarian, and "integral to the totalitarian aspirations of victorious Francoism was an attempt to obliterate the memory of the defeated." 6

And this is the main problem today, and perhaps the most enduring legacy of Franco and his regime. Because Franco censured all versions of what happened during the war save his own and erected memorials only to those who had fought on his side (using some 20,000 republican prisoners to carve his Valley of the Fallen out of the granite outcrop which provides the base of the towering monument); and because his regime-like that of the Nazis-successfully implicated as many Spaniards as possible in the complicity of terror and repression (via the rewards for conforming and denouncing one's neighbors, etc.): no real opportunity for coming to terms with what happened has ever existed in Spain. And it is the political right in Spain which, as the El Mundo report on Mendoza's winning of the Premio Planeta suggests-and whenever any question related to the civil war arises-insists that by investigating what happened we will only open old wounds and make them bleed again.

They don't seem to understand that only those wounds that heal properly can be forgotten. And until and unless Spaniards are allowed to know what really happened, regardless of how much the truth may hurt, the wounds created by Franco's uprising, the horrors of the civil war, and the forty years of his totalitarian dictatorship, will never heal.

And that means that the most innocuous of events, the awarding of a literary prize for a novel that just happens to be set on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, will still-over seventy years after the event-cause both sides to present that news in a highly politicized manner. And it is in this way that the Spanish Civil War never ends.


1 Its editors showed considerable courage in response to the failed coup d'état when, on the night of the 23 rd of February 1981, a renegade Civil Guard named Antonio Tejero held the whole Spanish parliament hostage at gun point, while the tanks of army officers involved in the plot to overthrow the government roamed the streets of Valencia. Without waiting for King Juan Carlos' historic television address, in which he declared his support for the nascent democracy, El País published a special edition that was on the streets that same night, calling on citizens to demonstrate in favor of democracy, which is precisely what they did.

2 Both Miguel Delibes and the Argentinean writer Ernesto Sabato stated that they were offered the prize in 1994 by José Manuel Lara Hernández, the man responsible for founding Editorial Planeta and eventually creating Grupo Planeta, one of the world's largest media conglomerates, with over 70 publishing houses and an estimated one billion dollars of revenues in 2008.

3 I don't mean to attribute responsibility for all of these disappearances to forces loyal to Franco. During the first heady and chaotic days of the war, murders and atrocities were committed by leftists of all shades against people representative of the a ncien régime of landowners, their overseers and priests. But these excesses were not committed with the blessing of the reigning and democratically elected government which, as soon as it could maintain order again, put an end to the abuses. In addition, the overwhelming majority of the disappeared did-presumably-die at the hands of the fascists.

4 Anthony Beevor, The Battle for Spain.

5 El Público, 10 October 2010. This is the nation's seventh most widely distributed newspaper, and the most left-leaning of all of them.

6 Helen Graham, The Spanish Civil War, A Very Short Introduction.


Curt Eriksen is writing a novel set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in the U.S., U.K., India and Spain, in Orbis, Blackbird, Rosebud, New Madrid, 34th Parallel, Contrary, 42opus and Alba among many other print and online journals. You can read Eriksen's essays, poetry and short stories at: http://clerik.weebly.com/


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