Alberto Mendez never experienced life as a successful author. The 63-year-old Spanish screenwriter and translator died 11 months after his first and only book, Los girasoles ciegos (Blind Sunflowers), was published in 2004, never knowing that it would make the Spanish bestseller lists for months on end, win several awards, and be adapted for the screen in 2008.
Mendez's immensely popular book hasn't yet appeared in English translation in the United States, but a translation was published in the United Kingdom last summer and was issued in paperback there just this month. The novel reflects Spain's current fascination with a collective act of memory, going back to the era of the Civil War and its long aftermath.
After the 1936 military coup (funded by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) against Spain's democratic republic in 1936, and three subsequent years of bitter war between the Nationalist and Republican sides, General Francisco Franco came to power. Establishing a triumphal rhetoric of nationalist and Catholic unity, Franco ruled for forty years, maintaining a regime characterized by human rights violations and oppressive censorship. After his death in 1975, Spain established its unique pacto del olvido, a "pact of forgetting," and abstained from any sort of transitional justice in its journey to democracy. In 1977, the government declared a blanket amnesty, liberated more than 400 political prisoners, prohibited the trial of previous government administrators, and locked up the documents of the secret police.
A desire to enter into modern global markets fueled Spain's collective amnesia even before Franco's death. In the 1960s, two-fifths of Spaniards worked in agriculture, many of them living in great poverty. In the heady post-Franco years, Spain re-created itself, using Almodóvar movies and a modern image of Madrid as symbols of its liberated image. In 1986, Spain, along with Portugal, joined the European Community of 12, which would later become the EU. In 2006, Spain was the world's ninth-largest economy measured at market exchange rates. In 2007, Spain's income per a person was 90 percent of that of the European Union members' average (up from 68 percent in 1986).
But collective forgetting is not as simple or as effective as some might hope, and Spain, despite its bustling economy, has been rife with tension in the past forty years, most visibly seen in Basque nationalist terrorism and in the unsuccessful but threatening military coup of 1981, but also in the establishment of fierce nationalist identities in Galicia, Catalonia, and Valencia. Only recently has Spain begun to critically examine its past. It has not been easy, however, even now.
In 2007, due to a change in government to the more liberal PSOE Socialist party, the so-called law of historical memory was passed, after two years of contentious debate. The law condemns Franco's abuses of power and attempts to make reparations to the families of his government's victims. The law also includes a commitment to the investigation of communal Republican graves—a source of great controversy. The debate has most heatedly surrounded the digging up of the graves of two of Spain's most celebrated Republican writers: Federico Garcia Lorca, whose remains lie in a communal grave in Víznar; and Antonio Machado, who died in Colliure in the last days of the Civil War, while fleeing to France. Some cry out for the need to leave the dead in peace, some cry out for truth, and others cry out for reconciliation and peace, claiming this action unnecessarily opens up old wounds.
while it has been argued that members of Franco's Nationalist army were also victims of the Spanish Civil War, and of anarchist and communist political violence, these victims, much fewer than those of the Republican side, have long since been commemorated and honored by the Francoist dictatorship and the Vatican. In October 2007, the Catholic Church beatified 498 priests and nuns who were slain in the Spanish Civil War.
Blind Sunflowers honors untold and alternative histories of the Spanish Civil War. In contrast with other attempts to tell the story of this painful past, Blind Sunflowers is less a politicized denunciation of Francoism than a denunciation of war and human suffering. Rather than further accentuating the concept of a divided Spain, the novel tells four distinct yet intertwining stories of four victims, both Republican and Nationalist. The writing is poetic in its depiction of human anguish.
The book is composed of four "defeats" which take place in different years between 1936 and 1941. The first tells of Captain Alegrí;a (Captain Joy, obviously an ironic name), a member of the Franco army who decides, the day before Franco's victory, to desert, and turn himself in as a prisoner to the Republicans. This rash action occurs as a result of his realization that his side really has no desire to win the war, but rather a desire only to shoot the enemy. The second "defeat" tells of a young communist poet who tries to flee with his pregnant girlfriend to France. She gives birth, dying in the process, and the 18-year-old poet is left in despair with the baby, some paper, and a pen. The third "defeat" tells of Juan Serra, a man in prison and waiting to die. One of Franco's captains keeps him alive, only because Serra claims to have known his son. Everyday, Serra feeds the captain and his wife fabricated stories of their son, just to give himself a few more days of life. The last "defeat" occurs after the victory of Franco, and tells of a priest, who falls in love with the young mother of one of his students, a troubled woman who is hiding her husband in a closet because of his contrary ideas.
Blind Sunflowers was adapted for the screen by José Luis Cuerda, director of another popular Goya-winning Spanish Civil War film, Butterfly. Books & Culture readers will be familiar with other successfully internationalized Spanish Civil War films, such as Pan's Labyrinth and Soldados de Salamina. Novels and films like this are crucial for today's Spain. By telling previously untold stories, Blind Sunflowers honors the victims of Spain's great tragedy and reminds contemporary readers and viewers of their shared humanity.
Katie Stafford finished her MA at Stanford University in Spanish and Portuguese in 2008, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Spanish literature at the University of California at Davis with a focus on memory and the Spanish Civil War. She has lived in Spain and Colombia.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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