Franco's Ghosts: The Remaking of Spain

By Eleanor Wachtel

Franco's Ghosts: The Remaking of Spain was a five-part series Writers & Company. Listen to all five special episodes above and read Eleanor's behind-the-scenes account below.


The week I arrive in Spain, there is a story in the papers about the Seventeen Roses. A mass grave had been found near Seville containing the remains of women who were shot by the Falange (the Spanish Fascists) for being mothers, daughters, wives or sisters of trade unionists and leftist politicians. It was considered one of the most symbolic graves of Franco's Spain; for more than a year, forensic researchers had been looking for the remains of these women known as the Seventeen Roses. On the morning of October 12, 1936, they were taken from prison to the church to be excommunicated. Their heads were shaved, they were publicly harassed, then loaded onto a truck and taken to the cemetery in Gerena, where an eight-year-old boy, hiding in an olive grove, witnessed how they were shot.

At the Contemporary Cultural Centre of Barcelona, I go to see a photography exhibition called Desaparecidos (in Spanish), Desapareguts (in Catalan) or Disappeared, focusing on the subject of forced disappearance in 10 countries. Alongside the usual suspects -- Chile, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Cambodia, and so on -- is Spain. As the catalogue notes: "Seventy-five years after the start of the Spanish Civil War and 35 years after the death of Franco, only 231 Spanish graves have been opened and 5,300 victims recovered. Many haven't been identified, their remains meanwhile being stored in a university or private laboratories. Without a doubt, Spain, a country that forms part of the developed world, is light years behind Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Argentina or Guatemala in the search for tens of thousands of persons who disappeared in the civil conflict."

The text goes on to describe the reaction of the granddaughter of one of the victims executed by firing squad in 1936 whose remains were recovered and identified. At her grandfather's reburial, she recalled that he "was more than these bones. His spirit, his voice and his absence still fill our home. We are moved neither by hate nor vengeance, but love for our own." Elsewhere in the exhibit, the words: "Today we close a wound, transforming pain into tenderness."

In Madrid, I pick up a program for the first-ever film festival in homage to the victims of the Civil War and Francoist repression -- 1936: Seventy-five Years Later -- that's being held while I'm there at the museum of modern art, the Reina Sofia, and at other places around the city.

CivilWar.jpgMore than half a million Spaniards were killed during the Civil War and another half million went into exile at the end of the war in 1939. Some 400,000 were incarcerated in concentration camps between 1939 and 1947 and thousands more were executed over the next three decades.

Yet when the Fascist regime of Francisco Franco ended 35 years ago, Spain became a model for other countries making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. For the architects of the transition, moving forward meant not looking back. It's only recently that Spain's younger generation -- whose parents and grandparents suffered through the brutal Civil War and the decades of repression that followed -- is now examining the country's experience from new and different angles. This is what I want to explore through conversations with some of the country's most engaged and dynamic writers, to find out about their work, their experience and their perspective on Spain's history and changing cultural landscape.

Spanish society itself now looks very different, with the flourishing of the country's minority cultures: Catalan, Basque and Galician. It's hard to imagine now what it was like to have your mother tongue banned, as these distinctive languages were for so many years. Bernardo Atxaga, a leading Basque author, tells me how if he spoke his own language at school, he had to spend the day on his knees (echoes of Canadian residential schools). As a kid, he says, it was almost an act of defiance, but when he thinks about it now, it seems unbelievable and so sad. Today, in one of Europe's biggest book-publishing countries, these literatures are thriving, especially in Catalonia, which enjoys a larger population and economic prosperity.

For instance, I notice that Vanguardia, a Barcelona-based newspaper that`s been around for 130 years (founded in 1881), is in the process of launching a Catalan edition with a lot of hoopla, insisting that they are doing it not only for economic reasons -- which means that there is a commercial advantage to their publishing in Catalan in addition to Spanish! (Surprising in a world environment of struggling daily newspapers.)

Eleanor-250.jpgThe influence of new immigrant communities marks another dramatic change. I talk to the Moroccan-born writer Najat El Hachmi, whose novel The Last Patriarch was a bestseller and won the most prestigious Catalan literary prize. Her book has been translated into all the major European languages and also won the Prix Ulysse in France. But she continues to write and publish in Catalan. She describes how at family dinners, she speaks to her mother in their Berber language, to her son in Catalan and to her siblings in Spanish. And we have trouble with French?

Even the opera house in Barcelona, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, has subtitles in at least three languages (Spanish, Catalan and English); that's more than at the Met in New York. And Canada's own soprano Measha Brueggergosman is performing a program of new music at the 2,000-plus-seat opera house. Culturally, socially, gastronomically, Spain is on the cutting edge. Yes, the remaking of the new Spain.

Writers & Company's special series on Spanish writers starts this Sunday on CBC Radio One. This week, Eleanor speaks with Javier Cercas. His books, Soldiers of Salamis and The Anatomy of a Moment explore Spain's dramatic and violent recent history. Find out more and subscribe to the podcast on their website.

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