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Let’s Forget

Connal Parr

Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936, by Jeremy Treglown, Vintage, 336 pp, £8.99, ISBN: 978-1784701154

Henry Joy McCracken: It isn’t true to say they forget nothing. It’s far worse than that. They misremember everything. ‑ Stewart Parker, Northern Star (1984).

When in August 1969 Ireland’s minister for external affairs, Paddy Hillery, lobbied the Security Council for a United Nations force to be introduced into the increasingly incendiary situation in Northern Ireland, Spain – along with India – was one of the few states to respond favourably to the Irish canvass and, by extension, the civil rights demands of Northern Irish Catholics.

Revisionism about all aspects of the Franco era has been gathering pace now for decades. From the year 1936, when Fascist rebels began their coup against the democratically elected socialist government of the Second Spanish Republic, to the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, there has been an increasing tendency for historians and other authors to look on the dictatorship of the generalissimo with benign respect. Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s Crypt does not qualify to be added to this category, but it comes mightily close. As a project it fails – and fails spectacularly – at the same time intriguingly stirring the ashes of a subject previously thought settled. Franco’s Crypt also raises a profusion of pertinent questions about the role of memory and culture which are immediately recognisable and transferable to debates continuously engaging Northern Ireland, chiefly – how a society remembers and deals with its turbulent, violent past.

“Often called the Second World War’s dress rehearsal, the Spanish Civil War may be better seen as its first act,” Treglown declares at the outset, and his framing of the atrocities of the conflict is not limited by the polemic of the more problematic Franco revisionists (he slays the unctuous provocateur Pío Moa, who has made a career out of justifying Nationalist slaughter on the basis that anything was infinitely preferable to Communism). Neither does he shy away from recounting the worst excesses of far-right Falangist violence, especially when excavating the case of poet and playwright Federico García Lorca – already the subject of a shattering biography by Ian Gibson. Lorca crops up for a number of reasons in Franco’s Crypt – firstly because he embodies the synthesis of culture and conflict, art and battle, which many now understand the Civil War by. Just as importantly, he was famously murdered and “disappeared” by Fascist troops, so that no one can really avoid his ghost:

We know that Lorca was imprisoned for at least two days and that he was unable to conceal his terror. We can guess that this in itself gave encouragement as well as scope to his tormentors. We know that, hand-cuffed to a Republican schoolmaster, Dióscoro Galindo González, he was taken to Víznar, in the hills behind Granada, a place of execution where, night after night, consignments of prisoners were handed over to the ‘Black Squad’, men who had volunteered for this work because they enjoyed it. Lorca and Galindo were killed and buried with two other prisoners. The following morning, one of the party that had arrested the poet, a landowning playboy friend of Ruiz Alonso, was heard boasting that he had just helped to shoot Lorca and had fired ‘two bullets into his arse for being queer’.

The savagery of Lorca’s murder, its anti-homosexual overtones, allied with the political implications of his Republican sympathies, ensures that the Spanish are still not exactly sure where he is buried. Geo-radar devices were thought to have located a likely grave (alongside others) in 2009, though searches in November of that year found nothing. It is for this reason there are two monuments to Lorca in the general vicinity of his execution site. More broadly, Lorca also rouses debates on the past which continue to disturb Spain. “For many years,” Treglown reminds us, his “sister Isabel (who died in 2002) and his nephews and nieces were united, at least in public, in arguing that the best way to remain true to Spain’s history was to leave the dead where they lay.” This is the central thesis about Spain in Franco’s Crypt: leave the dead where they lie and try to forget the unknown graves of its bloody civil war. “Lorca, as many have pointed out, survives in his works; finding his bones will make no difference.”

To concentrate on Lorca would however be to misrepresent Treglown’s overwhelming emphasis. He is almost eccentrically uninterested by the names we all know: Picasso, Auden, Orwell, Hemingway. Foreigners – invariably of a leftist persuasion – who visited Spain to fight in the Civil War and wrote about it come in for particular scorn. Treglown concurs with conservative Nobel prizewinner Camilo José Cela that such individuals were “adventurers from abroad” who “had their fill of killing Spaniards like rabbits and whom no one had invited to take part in our funeral”. Franco’s Crypt does not always strike the right balance between reportage and analysis, slipping uncomfortably at times between the fields of journalism and history. Treglown’s hellish visit to the site of the basilica at the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos), with its underground cathedral tunnelled into the mountain, is one of the more evocatively conveyed episodes:

The point is that the place is a monument. From the imposing entrance gates, via four unfinished columns quarried in the sixteenth-century reign of Spain’s emperor-king Carlos I and moved to the valley by Franco, across a long viaduct up to the basilica, its colonnaded abbey, and the cross visible from Madrid, it’s surely the most imposing piece of Fascist landscape art and architecture still in active use anywhere. Even the light fittings in the abbey entrance hall echo the Falangist symbol of a yoke and arrows.

The religiosity of the arrangement emerges when Treglown attends Saturday Mass, “a rowdy, jostling affair” with citizens – many inebriated – paying their respects to the nation’s fascist lineage. “Sunday morning was soberer but more menacing. The abbot managed to bring things under control, but only just.” Among his old troops, Franco is the only person buried in the crypt – constructed under his personal supervision by political prisoners between 1941 and 1959 – to have died of old age. He was later persuaded to include the remains of some Republicans, provided “it could be shown that they were Catholics”. Treglown deals with all this as an embarrassing triumphalist artefact, though he harbours considerable doubts that public funds should be used to enshrine such “a disgraced regime”.

The philosopher Hermann Lübbe asserted that the suppression of the Nazi past through amnesty and amnesia permitted West Germany to build its stable democracy from the 1950s onwards. For modern Spain, in the case of Franco’s own relatives,

Nothing was taken from them. Much of the success of Spain’s transition to democracy depended on a combination of realpolitik with an admirable determination not to replicate the vindictive triumphalism that had characterized the caudillo in victory. Amid a prevailing, though far from unanimous, wish to forget if not forgive, very many people who had served the former regime, from national and local politicians to soldiers and policemen, stayed in place.

Spain’s ongoing “memory wars” are being fought between two pieces of legislation. The first was the amnesty law, passed in 1977, which prevents crimes from the Franco era from being formally investigated. This is not the decree however that bothers Treglown. His chief target turns out to be the former left-of-centre administration of José Zapatero – leader of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) – whose 2007 law of historical memory has cultivated a Spain where memory has “become a tool of party policy and personal advancement”.

In making the case for forgetting, Treglown claims

The pragmatic pacto de olvido (agreement to forget or overlook) of the early post-Franco period may be derided today, but it served a crucial purpose. To a detached outsider there is something futile about going in search of bodies buried seventy-odd years ago. It is a pity that sentiment about a distant war is being exploited for current political ends. The older generation does, by and large, have a juster, more complex understanding of the mid-twentieth century than young people do. And there are still other arguments to be heard, particularly that the memory vogue has been exaggerated by the media, that it is in danger of opening old wounds and that it distracts attention from more urgent problems such as the environment and the economy. People were saying this before the world economic crisis broke. When Spain passed its memory law, it was already faced with Europe’s steepest increase in unemployment. Today more than ever, digging up the past can seem like a new version of burying your head in the sand.

However, in the summer of 2008 former national magistrate Baltasar Garzón – best known for attempting to extradite General Pinochet on charges of crimes against humanity – threw his weight behind the campaign to follow through on the memory law by encouraging local authorities to assist with excavations, as well as removing memorials celebrating the Franco dictatorship. Reminded of the 1977 amnesty, Garzón countered that “no amnesty can trump human rights. Tretglown treads rather heavily here, dismissing these endeavours as “shrill” (to seal the deal he throws in the fact that Garzón is now better known as the head of Julian Assange’s legal defence). The PSOE-driven historical memory law also made political sense by laying a trap for the conservative People’s Party (currently in power) to oppose it, thus appearing “to be seen as not only the defender but the natural heir of Francoism – and the PSOE, by contrast, as an idealized version of the Republic movement made new”. Zapatero’s own heritage is in fact mixed, with one of his grandfathers killed by the Francoists but another on their side – he prefers to talk about the former.

In a particularly bizarre chapter of Franco’s Crypt, Treglown champions the Caudillo’s extensive dam-building and reservoir schemes, which he believes are “a legacy for which Franco deserves more credits than he gets”. One of the regime’s

unquestionable achievements was a huge increase in Spain’s ability to store and distribute water – for agriculture, for industry, for domestic use especially in the expanding cities, and above all for hydroelectric power. It’s generally agreed, that in terms of public works (roads and railways, bridges and tunnels, and especially dams and reservoirs), Franco helped lay the foundations of relative prosperity that rewarded the last years of his regime and continued through the final quarter of the twentieth century.

Aside from the necessary construction of any state’s infrastructure – it would have been strange for any ruler not to initiate such schemes – Treglown ties himself in an awful knot here. He explains how Franco’s water projects coincided with the growth of Spain’s tourist industry and rapid, if belated, urbanisation (in 1930, fewer than 15 per cent of Spanish people lived in towns with a higher population than 100,000, a figure which had increased to 37 per cent by 1970). To this end he indulges number of clichés about a strongman military ruler accustomed to “getting practical things done”, with everything being “easier to undertake in authoritarian regimes than in those where public consultation is the norm”. In fact, as Treglown is aware, Spain benefited from “earlier work by far-sighted planners” including the oldest dams still in use in Europe, near Mérida, which date from Roman times (the Moors and Habsburgs also contributed to Spain’s historic dam systems).

Nor were the dams an unqualified success story. At the end of the 1950s the town of Ribadelago was scene to one of the worst dam failures in human history. Having described Spain’s Francoist engineers as “among the best trained and most highly regarded in the world” – Treglown sees no incongruity between this description and the incident when the dam above Ribadelago burst on the night of January 9th, 1959.

The amount of water tipped down the mountainside could have filled the baths of thirty-two million people, so the fact that only 144 died says more about Ribadelago’s size than the physical scale of the event. Whole households disappeared: men, women, children, farm animals, pets, furniture, toys, food. One hundred and sixteen of the human bodies were never recovered. Today, scuba divers turn up the occasionally chamber pot, but most of what was hurled into Lago de Sanabria, if it hasn’t rotted away, is buried deep under silt.

Franco’s press described the event as a national disaster with one silver lining: the miraculous survival of the bell tower of the local church – a divine intervention to be focused on instead of the failures of those who rushed through the building of the Vega de Tera dam, short of money and materials, lacking local knowledge and uninterested in keeping records of rainfall. The regime convicted ten “overseers” (non-Spanish nationals), paid out thousands in compensation and resettled some of the homeless in Madrid. The new village built beside the lake to accommodate the rest of the survivors was renamed  ‑ with superb insensitivity, Treglown concedes – Ribadelago de Franco.

Treglown’s section on cinema is similarly beguiling. There is a nice passage devoted to the appalling Raza (meaning “race” or “breed”), a big-budget biopic of the generalissimo released in 1942, which is covered in an appropriately comic tone. Franco adored the cinema, holding private screenings for family and friends in his palace, personally enjoying films – including Casablanca – he had banned ordinary Spaniards from seeing.

Like other dictators, Franco saw the medium as a means of shaping the minds of the people he ruled and, partly the same thing, of aggrandizing himself. In these ambitions he was both successful and unsuccessful. The successes were obvious. Under Franco, the subsidised industry poured out films that celebrated Spanish national and imperial greatness, depicted in terms of Spain’s folk traditions, or of the union between Church and state embodied by the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, or of what were presented as the country’s noble crusades against Islam, Judaism, South American paganism, Freemasonry and communism.

Treglown is once more concerned with how a film has “played its part in shaping how people think about the period” and is – again – particularly dismissive about the contribution of non-Spaniards to this. He’s irritated by Casablanca’s charming reference to Rick running guns to Republicans, while Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom (1995) is seen as “preposterous”, though he never explains why. There is, as one might expect, an intriguing review of Pedro Almodóvar, though Treglown claims him – unconvincingly given the director’s support for the application of Spain’s memory law (“because otherwise fantasy memories are going to pervert and corrupt [history]”) – as part of his “anti-memory” ethos. This is because Almodóvar’s oeuvre contains “scarcely any explicit reference to the dictatorship under which he grew up”. For anyone familiar with Almodóvar’s work, such a statement stretches things to absurdity. Almodóvar’s canon repeatedly satirises and ruptures images associated with the rigid Catholicism and parochial nationalism of Spain’s recent past.

Treglown seeks to draw our attention to the work of lesser-known Spanish directors such as Luis García Berlanga and Carlos Saura, rehabilitating individual films such as Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (El espíritu do la colmena, 1973). The latter triumphs according to Treglown because it reflects the way war and the postwar period “intensified childhood in all kinds of ways”, especially in the “sense that adults knew things that children couldn’t understand or be a part of”. Treglown seems to want Spaniards to be as the children in the film; not to understand but somehow to grow at the same time. He suggests that certain filmmakers  prospered under Franco because they developed techniques which enabled them to get round the strict censors, trading heavily in subterfuge, perfecting via a kind of “Francoist aesthetic” the devices of “irony, symbolism, above all ambiguity”, which enhanced their skills as storytellers and artists.

The discussion of Luis Buñuel, one of the most important Spanish artists to emerge during the twentieth century, is especially baffling. Treglown acknowledges that through his surrealism that Buñuel embodied a vein of anarchism inherent in the Spanish psyche, and after tracing his back story – as a supporter of the Republic, emigrating to France and New York, being fired from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) after his wrongful denunciation (by Dalí) as a communist – he takes us to Viridiana (1961). Buñuel had been persuaded to return to Spain by friends who convinced him the regime was moving forward, shedding some of its more censorious, restrictive skin. Viridiana was Buñuel’s first project in Spain since 1932 and was conditioned by exile generally, as much from Hollywood’s anti-communism as the Spain he was returning to. Its central setting of a dilapidated country mansion, a symbol of archaic traditionalism, was easily recognisable as Spain itself. The house’s owner Jaime (Fernando Rey) abuses his niece Viridiana (Silvia Pinal) – who has come to see him just before she is about to take her vows as a nun – and forces her to flee. After he hangs himself the house is caught between the two visions of Viridiana and her co-heir Jorge (Francisco Rabal), Jaime’s son, who wishes to modernise and rewire the house. Virdiana on the other hand, representing traditional lay Catholicism, wishes to use the house as a shelter for beggars. Towards the end the beggars take over the house anyway and, believing they have the place to themselves, proceed to eat and drink to excess (was this prescient of the meltdown of 2008?), resembling at one point profiles from Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Initially the Spanish government had welcomed the film, citing it as evidence of its new open-mindedness, even going so far as to endorse its entry to the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. But its evident assault on Catholic “authoritarianism” and “sexual and fetishtic treatment” of Viridiana’s original vocation as a nun became too much for the authorities. When the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano denounced the film, Viridiana turned into an international smash hit, much to Buñuel’s amusement. The official who spearheaded the project was forced from his job, every print of the film remaining in Spain was seized and destroyed, and the director’s work was once again blacklisted. Viridiana wasn’t shown again in Spain until 1977, two years after Franco had died. Treglown tries to claim the film, regarded as a masterpiece of modern cinema, as an offspring of Franco’s Spain because “the dictadura challenged the best talents to produce their strongest works … Being in opposition can give the artist new energy; the difficulties and dangers of censorship can send him, or her in previously unimagined directions, whether of language or materials or form.” In other words the regime was so flawed and repulsive that it gave artists something to contend with and define themselves against. This is a strange argument, analogous to suggesting we have the Irish Catholic Church to thank for  Joyce, O’Casey and Beckett.

If Treglown is occasionally myopic, he also rescues some forgotten novelists – names such as Jesús López Pacheco – who did indeed find some way of co-existing with Spain’s strict censorship laws. He is good on “the skill of an artist in making things vivid in ways that most of the rest of us, with our proneness to cliché, generally can’t”, though this again becomes problematic when he attempts to marry the political atmosphere with the art in such a way as to suggest that Francoist Spain cannot have been such a debilitating place because these names found a way through. Treglown focuses on four artists – Eduardo Chillida, Manolo Millares, Antonio Saura and Antoni Tàpies – all of whom “are internationally renowned and worked in Franco’s Spain”. Critically too, all hailed from either grand or comfortably middle class homes, something which Treglown blames on the “feudal” nature of Spanish history: “not many twentieth-century Spanish artists came from the working class”. Tàpies hailed, as Colm Tóibin has recently pointed out, from one of the most established families in Barcelona and while the civil war may have temporarily discommoded Catalans from his background, “no property was confiscated at the end of the war: families who had remained undisturbed by the First World War were not economically troubled by the Civil War either, or indeed by the Second World War. They remain to this day one of the great untouched middle classes.”Through a series of extraordinary paintings and sculptures, Tàpies was able to challenge the tail-end of Franco’s Spain. But Treglown never picks up on the important class-related detail. Ian Gibson, on the other hand, has noted that most members of the “Black Squad” which murdered Lorca came from some of the wealthiest families in Granada.

Dan Hancox has recently pointed out that while Franco crushed the original revolt of October 1934, a few years before the civil war, on coming to power the general nationalised the mining industry and presided over substantial salary and pension increases for the miners so bitterly suppressed in the Asturias. The journalist Luis Antonio Alías, himself a former Trotskyist militant and the son of a miner, pointed out that Franco “knew how important it was not to antagonise the miners. He gave free education to the miners’ children. And it was in the Francoist universities where I learned everything important. All my teachers were communists, of course.” As in the UK most mines were closed down in the 1980s and 90s, with the luckier workers pensioned off. Now the subsidies are under threat and being reduced, while Spain’s modern conservatives – led by Mariano Rajoy – have no such compulsion to educate children from less affluent families. As a final coup de grace, the governing People’s Party has fused its reluctance to investigate the past with ideological cuts and galloping privatisation. Funding has been permanently withdrawn from the historical memory project, with Spain’s representative at the UN, Ana Menédez Pérez, confirming that Francoist atrocities “will not be revisited” by the government, and that “excessive focus on the past” will be avoided at all costs. Rajoy’s current government – elected in September 2011 – has used the economic crisis to deflate the historical memory initiatives, abolishing the Office of Victims of the Civil War and the Dictatorship. Rajoy cited economic necessity, though this did not prevent him finding €280,000 to refurbish Franco’s tomb at the Valley of the Fallen. Towering over all is the official secrets law, undisturbed since its enactment in 1968 and in no danger of repeal, which ensures all classified documents from the civil war era stay that way.

Alan Bennett has written that in the context of the British memorialisation of war dead  that “there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it”. As we know only too well, things don’t work that way in Northern Ireland. With public space and culture contested – even the definition of culture itself has shifted from literature and books to marching and parades (on all sides) – commemoration represents a great tool, perhaps the last left. It offers ostensibly non-violent provocation as well as a way of promoting an identity which has no real end other than the obliteration of an opposing group’s ideals and aspirations. All this leads to dead ends, a condition Henry Joy McCracken – one of the Northern Protestant leaders of the United Irishmen – realises towards the end of Stewart Parker’s 1984 play Northern Star.

McCracken: So all we’ve done, you see, is to reinforce the locks, cram the cells fuller than ever of mangled bodies crawling round in their own shite and lunacy, and the cycle just goes on, playing out the same demented comedy of terrors from generation to generation, trapped in the same malignant legend, condemned to re-endure it as if the Anti-Christ who dreamed it up was driven astray in the wits by it and the entire pattern of depravity just goes spinning on out of control, on and on, round and round till the day the world itself is burst asunder.

Parker’s play was gestating during the Long Kesh prison protest and emerged in the years following the hunger strikes, but what in 2014 could entrench the divisions – which it must be said some in the province have done very well out of – better than the wrong kind of commemoration? “Dirty fragments of the past constantly resurface and are used, often dirtily, in current political disputes,” wrote Timothy Garton Ash with some foresight of contemporary Northern Ireland in the year of the Good Friday Agreement.

If anything Spain seems – despite its travails – to be considerably in advance of Northern Ireland on this front. It has at least attempted a historical memory project, which made some progress in terms of dealing with the past. Treglown accepts therefore that the government interventions of the late 2000s ensured that statues of Franco have been put into cold storage, while “new names have been given to streets and squares that previously commemorated him and his generals”.

Slowly, then, the physical record of the Spanish dictatorship has been changing. The triumphalist, one-sided war memorials are still there, but there are new monuments to the losers, and new museums give accounts of the past that differ from, while not wholly replacing, what was previously understood and to a degree imposed. While there’s still some bickering about what streets should be called, this seems to be settling into some kind of regional game, a verbal form of bolos, the skittles tournaments once played in the streets. Most of the commemorative work done has been imaginative, relatively small in scale and solidly executed: money was spent at a time when there was an illusion of wealth and, whatever comes next, these particular projects should last.

In Northern Ireland on the other hand, acts of symbolic “cultural” warfare are only in their infancy. Like the Troubles violence itself, they are sporadic acts of aggression rather than the all-out offensive of standing armies. A proposal which has long been afoot on Belfast city council will see a street in North Belfast named after the McGurk’s bar bombing of December 1971. Over forty years later, in April 2012, DUP councillor Brian Kingston had many people for the first time in their lives on his side when he opposed the idea: “Is this the route we want to go down, renaming streets in Belfast after atrocities of the Troubles?” Unionists are becoming handy cultural warriors themselves, but such a precedent would enshrine the already strong grievances in both communities.

There is an important Northern Irish debate to be had in terms of the conflict’s ex-combatants. For years there appear to have been serious discrepancies between how atrocities committed by loyalists and republicans have been respectively investigated by bodies such as the Historical Enquiries Team (loyalists apparently coming off much worse). Northern Ireland continues to dig – as in Spain – for the disappeared, but the eighteen confirmed cases are considerably fewer than the tens of thousands abducted and murdered by Franco’s Nationalist forces from the civil war onwards. Despite the sectarian edge to the disappearance of Jean McConville – the widowed mother of ten from an East Belfast Protestant background murdered by the Provisional IRA in December 1972 – none of this damages Sinn Féin’s political advance in the Republic. If in Ireland the young have no memories of the squalid sectarian violence of the Troubles, conversely in Spain the young are more interested in historical memory, with opinion polls showing a decreasing level of approval – which had been steadily high in previous generations – for the Franco regime. In different ways disagreements are often played out generationally, though anomalies also prevail and govern. In August 2003 the land finally returned Jean McConville’s body, her killing now under investigation – by a quirk of post-conflict Northern Ireland – because her remains were discovered by a civilian.

When the Consultative Group on the Past led by Robin Eames and Denis Bradley delivered its report in 2009, its findings were comprehensively rejected and shouted down on account of a controversial “recognition payment” (£12,000) for all families of those who died during the Troubles. The discussion, let alone any actual movement, was simply off-limits. At the end of last year Richard Haass delivered his proposals on dealing with the past along with parades and flags, though this too broke up without agreement. Haass’s final document was woolly and had taken a whopping seven drafts to achieve, far too many to suggest it had been well-crafted enough to keep all sides on board. However the deliberations, as Professor Henry Patterson pointed out at a post-mortem in January 2014, contained much potential for historians to play their part constructively in the memory debates which have interested some academics for years. How much the historian can of course really influence is open to question. Like everyone they will take their place in the landscape of Tacitus’s peace – of the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power. What the artists can achieve may be different.

But there is also – and this is something Jeremy Treglown never comes to terms with in Franco’s Crypt – growth and optimism in memory. Often in the vanguard of opposition to forgetting are writers, a spirit famously captured by Milan Kundera: “The struggle against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Just this month in the Falls Road Library a commemoration of the Connaught Rangers was respectfully attended by those from an Irish nationalist background, with many acknowledging the service of their own relatives.

Northern Protestants have also started to remember some of their own history a little differently. Earlier in the year a plaque was unveiled at the Shankill Road library to honour seven volunteers from the area who had died in the Spanish Civil War fighting for the democratically elected government of the Second Republic. The present author had the honour of delivering the accompanying lecture and discerned a real willingness from the people of the Shankill to recover – not reclaim, the language is different – this neglected strain of radical Ulster Protestant history. Some of the volunteers had been Communists, a few were members of the old Northern Ireland Labour Party – all were travellers in the Labour movement from a Protestant working class background. April saw the opening of the Sam Thompson Bridge over the Connswater river in East Belfast, which even the First Minister showed up at and tried his best to look interested in. The name on such a monument often leads citizens to find out more about who the person is and what they did.

Writing in the Guardian back in February, George Monibot queried why young British-born Muslim men going to fight in Syria were not revered for their idealistic zeal to the same degree as those who went to fight in Spain in 1936. Leaving aside the vast historical variations between the fascist juggernaut(s) facing Europe in the 1930s and Bashar al-Asad’s Syria, there is a simple answer for Monibot. The reason why the exploits of the International Brigades are so romanticised to the present day and recalled with such intense passion is because the writers and artists who went to Spain managed to define through their art and books how we look on the entire conflict and the nation beyond. This seems to be the principal source of Treglown’s animus in Franco’s Crypt. For the present day “radicals” travelling to fight in Syria, we are unlikely to receive the same level of literary or artistic dispatch. The Islamic fighters of the twenty-first century are averse to artistic inclination – against the beautiful Moorish art which characterises Andalusia and North Africa – believing in that most fundamental of ways in the value and humanity of only one book.

People don’t evoke Orwell and Hemingway because they want to annoy people who are bored by the same names: they do so because the writing is timeless. In disparaging the “foreign” visions of Spain and the Civil War, Treglown ironically resembles those on the left who have abandoned Orwell for his supposed treachery. In reviving an old debate about high culture, we are as ever made aware of the universality of great art. That Homage to Catalonia and For Whom the Bell Tolls were written by artists who hailed from the side which lost makes them all the more compelling. Another of these writers, WH Auden, famously concluded in 1939

…it survives
In the valleys of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

The last words can only go to Buñuel – a Spaniard (which would please Treglown) who embodied the universality of great art while always remaining true to the locale, even if he couldn’t return properly until Franco was gone. He was also, as it turned out, on the side which lost the civil war but critically survived to frame the tale. In his autobiography My Last Sigh (1983), which combines calm political assessment with the artist’s passionate finality and speaks to us now, Buñuel confesses:

I’ve never been one of Franco’s fanatical adversaries. As far as I’m concerned, he wasn’t the Devil personified. I’m even ready to believe that he kept our exhausted country from being invaded by the Nazis. Yet, even in Franco’s case there’s room for some ambiguity. And in the cocoon of my timid nihilism, I tell myself that all the wealth and culture on the Falangist side ought to have limited the horror. Yet the worst excesses came from them; which is why, alone with my dry martini, I have my doubts about the benefits of money and culture.

1/10/14

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