An Ethical Revision of Spain’s Traumatic Past: “Anamnetic Justice” in El Corazón Helado (2007) by Almudena Grandes

Enrique Téllez-Espiga

Saint Joseph’s University


El corazón helado (2007) by Almudena Grandes is one of the most successful Spanish novels of the last decade, equally acclaimed by critics and the general public.  This novel is an example of the numerous cultural expressions in favor of the Movimiento por la Memoria Histórica, which, since the beginning of the 21st century, advocates for an ethical revision of Spain’s recent past.  Critics such as Ángel Basanta (n. pag.), Eduardo Mendicuti (146), and Carmen de Urioste Azcorra (206-7) underscore the masterful narrative structure of the novel and the importance of the narrative voices that organize the story, in which Álvaro, one of the protagonists, narrates in first person the odd-numbered chapters while an omniscient third person narrator recounts the even-numbered episodes. 

In “Memoria de la Guerra Civil y modernidad: El corazón helado de Almudena Grandes,” de Urioste Azcorra, following Paul Ricoeur’s ideas, argues that the novel examines Spain’s past in order to emphasize the relationship between memory and history (205).  De Urioste Azcorra suggests that Grandes employs an alternation of narrators because combining memory and history is a more fruitful manner to understand and reconstruct the past.  I concur with de Urioste Azcorra, however, I expand her analysis to argue that the examination of the past in this novel is inspired by the concept of anamnetic justice.  This notion proposes that the role of memory should be to look at the past with the gaze of the victims (Mate, “En torno,” 111).  Therefore, the Spanish philosopher indicates that memory depicts the past: “de los sin-nombre, la memoria ausente del presente.  Memoria de las víctimas.  Esa memoria es justicia porque les rescata del olvido.  Rescata el abandono, el daño, i.e., actualiza la injusticia” (Mate, “Memoria,” 34) (1). This idea is closely related to Walter Benjamin’s posthumous work “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (1940), in which the German thinker criticizes universal history because it silences the voice of the vanquished and, accordingly, promotes the forgetting of events that are not recollected in the official archive.

The present article analyzes the narrative structure of El corazón (2) as part of the novel’s project to ethically recuperate the memories of the victims of the Spanish Civil War and General Francisco Franco’s dictatorship.  I argue that the book proposes this endeavor at two narrative levels.  First, the alternation of narrative voices supplement each other in their goal of reconstructing the past as the first-person and the omniscient narrator represent two common narrative strategies employed in novels of memory.  In the former, a character narrates in first person his or her investigation of Spain’s recent past; whereas in the latter, an omniscient narrator recreates the stories of anonymous Spaniards whose past was silenced during the dictatorship, the Transition, and democracy.  Secondly, I propose that Antonio Machado’s epigraphs that precede and end the narration represent the voice of the implied author; a voice that criticizes universal history because it silences the voice of the vanquished and provides an “eternal image of the past” (Benjamin, “Theses,” 262).  These epigraphs engage the reader in an act of remembrance that does not seek vengeance but, on the contrary, focuses on the memories and suffering of the victims so that they become part of Spain’s Historical Memory (3).

El corazón recounts the story of three generations of the Fernández and Carrión families, spanning from a few months before the Civil War to the year 2006.  The narration begins on the day of the burial of Julio Carrión, a real estate businessman who amassed his fortune during the dictatorship.  Álvaro Carrión, his youngest son, notices a young woman during the ceremony.  His inquiries to discover her identity lead him to the secret and dark past of the Carrión family.  The mysterious woman is Raquel Fernández Perea whose grandparents, Ignacio Fernández and Anita Salgado, are forced into exile in France after the Civil War.  In Paris they meet Julio Carrión who deceives them and steals all their real estate in Spain.  

As the relationship between Álvaro Carrión and Raquel Fernández Perea develops, the narrative reconstructs the past of these families.  A first person narrator recounts Álvaro’s quest to comprehend the past of the Carrión family, while an omniscient narrator recuperates the memories of the Fernández family and the millions of vanquished Spaniards who suffered throughout the dictatorship.  Mendicutti describes the novel as a story of losers.  The so-called “vencidos” come across as the ultimate winners because they were able to maintain “la dignidad, la fidelidad absoluta en aquello en lo que creyeron, la conciencia alerta, y la limpieza de corazón” (147-8).  The victors of the war are portrayed as losers, because they lost “el verdadero sentido de la lealtad, de la gratitud, de la nobleza de espíritu y de la justicia” (148).  The reversal between winners and losers points to the fact that the novel goes beyond the historical facts to suggest that historical memory is as much about political retribution as it is about social recognition.  This aspect is key in the Spanish context since two of the foundations of the Transition are the implicit pact of silence and the 1977 Amnesty Law that prevented the political purge and the judicial prosecution of political and military elites in charge during Francoism (4).  Nowadays, literature and other cultural artifacts constitute a space in which the memories of the victims and the injustices they endured can achieve proper social recognition.   

The structure of the novel includes three parts of different lengths: “El corazón,” “El hielo,” and “El corazón helado,” as well as an epilogue titled “Al otro lado del hielo,” in which the author “combina teoría de la novela con influencias literarias, agradecimientos y bibliografía” (de Urioste Azcorra 206).  De Urioste Azcorra proposes that the recurring physics metaphor that Álvaro utilizes to describe the relationship between the parts and the totality reveals the underlying concept of past in the novel.  Álvaro explains: “X puede resultar mayor o menor que la suma de A más B.  Eso depende de la interrelación de las partes.  Por eso, sólo podemos afirmar con certeza que el todo es igual a la suma de las partes cuando las partes se ignoran entre sí” (Grandes 157).  Thus, de Urioste Azcorra argues that Grandes applies this metaphor to the structure of the novel with the alternation of narrators, and to indicate that the interaction of history and memory is the only valid approach to comprehend the past (206).  Although the metaphor is successful within the narration, it seems problematic to apply physics logic to define the relationship between memory and history.  In physics the sum of the parts results in the whole when there is no interaction between the parts.  However, I would argue that in the novel the interaction between the parts - memory and history - provides a more complete representation of the whole - the past.  Therefore, the reader’s knowledge of the past is not more comprehensive because the parts ignore each other, but because the narrative voices and the experiences of the characters complement and inform one another.

Álvaro’s personal recovery of the memory of his family typifies the quest of a character in the present who inquires about the past.  This is the basic structure of novels such as Soldados de Salamina (2001) by Javier Cercas, and Martina la rosa número trece (2006) by Ángeles López.  These literary works, among others, establish a new trend in the tradition of novels of memory in Spain.  The protagonists, who usually belong to the generation of the grandchildren, investigate the past only to realize how little they know about their family’s relation with the Civil War and the dictatorship.  These narratives are “explicit depiction[s] of the past infiltrating the present and wreaking havoc” (Jonhson 32).  At the same time, they convey the negative effects that the pact of silence had on the younger generations and explore how the absence of an open and institutionalized debate about Francoism perpetuated the historical discourse imposed during the dictatorship.  Complementing this strategy of recuperation of historical memory, the omniscient narrator recreates the stories of anonymous Spaniards who lost the war and whose experiences were silenced during the dictatorship, Transition, and democracy.  This is the foundation of Dulce Chacon’s La voz dormida (2002) and El lápiz del carpintero (1998) by Manuel Rivas.  Consequently, the two narrators in El corazón correspond to two different literary projects of the recuperation of historical memory and, by combining both of them, the novel proposes that this process is as much a personal as a collective effort. 

A closer analysis of Álvaro’s narration reveals that it is: 

un monólogo en primera persona gramatical, entrecortado constantemente, [que] va hilvanando sus recuerdos con lo que observa o siente física o emocionalmente y, en ocasiones, inserta en su discurso frases de otros personajes en estilo indirecto libre, instaurando con ello la polifonía de voces y una estructura memorística de gran complejidad. (Andrés Suárez 313) 


These chapters constitute Álvaro’s testimony about the experience of reconstructing his family’s past, and how these findings affect him personally and modify his understanding of the past.  In contrast, the third-person narrator of the even-numbered chapters has his roots in the:


novela galdosiana, pero en su despliegue no tiene nada que ver con ella.  Es una voz siempre enormemente respetuosa con el lector, una voz que no se permite apropiarse en crudo de los sentimientos y pensamientos de los personajes, y que logra siempre emocionarnos a partir de situaciones o expresiones concretas, perfectamente trazadas, desarrolladas y resueltas.  (Mendicutti 150)


As the author herself acknowledges in the epilogue, Benito Pérez Galdós is one of the main narrative influences (5).  Specifically, Grandes admires Pérez Galdós’ mastery to create: “un modelo moral y didáctico.  Es una manera de enseñar a los lectores las glorias de su país” (qtd. in Crespo Buiturón 225).  Nonetheless, El corazón, rather than celebrating Spain’s glory, strives to “revertir el desconocimiento y el olvido de la historia en que se ha sumido España” (Crespo Buitirón 225).  For this reason, in the same vein as Pérez Galdós, Grandes aims to “construir una historia de ficción que encaja en el molde de un hecho real en el tiempo y en el espacio, un relato en el que los personajes reales de la Historia con mayúsculas interactúan con los de la historia con minúsculas” (Rodríguez Marcos n. pag.). 

Within this context, the narrative function of the omniscient narrator is twofold.  On the one hand, it highlights the pain and the emotional impact suffered by the victims, which creates empathy with the reader.  This function, as I develop below, aligns with Machado’s final epigraph that metaphorically encompasses the ethical project of the novel.  On the other hand, it deconstructs the historical discourse of Francoism, as the novel recovers historical events obscured during the dictatorship.  Therefore, as in realist novels, the omniscient narrator creates a socio-historical discourse of the Civil War and the dictatorship that focuses, coming back to the concept of anamnetic justice, on the history of the defeated; on the victims and events that are not part of history.

Although the first-person narrator also reveals some of the darker secrets of the dictatorship, the events retold by the omniscient narrator suggest that history is not objective; neither does it represent a complete discourse of the past.  One paradigmatic example is Raquel’s story about the thousands of Spaniards who fought against the Nazis in France after they were forced into exile after the Civil War.  While Álvaro is the direct addressee of the story, many of the readers will also discover this fact for the first time:

Echaron a los nazis de Francia, ganaron la segunda guerra mundial y no les sirvió de nada, pero no te preocupes, lo normal es que no lo sepas. Nadie lo sabe, y eso que eran muchísimos, casi treinta mil.  Y sin embargo, no salen nunca en las películas de Hollywood, ni en los documentales de la BBC . . . Porque si salieran, los espectadores se preguntarían qué pasó con ellos, para qué lucharon, qué les dieron a cambio . . . Y aquí no digamos, aquí es como si nunca hubieran existido, como si ahora molestaran, como si no supieran dónde meterlos . . . .  (Grandes 505-6)


Raquel’s speech reiterates Benjamin’s notion that universal history is the discourse of the victors, while memory epitomizes the discourse of the vanquished.  It also implicitly criticizes the manipulation of Spanish historiography during the dictatorship, as well as of European historians who attempted to conceal the injustices committed towards Spanish exiles.  Hence, the novel holds History accountable for the oblivion of the events that do not enter its archive (Benjamin, “Theses,” 262). 

As Mate explains, remembrance aims to identify injustices of the past and keep them alive so that they are not forgotten (Mate, Medianoche 25-6).  The Spanish philosopher further expands this idea: “Memoria es leer la historia como un texto . . . se ocupa no del pasado que fue y sigue siendo, sino del pasado que sólo fue y del que ya no hay rastro.  En ese sentido, se puede decir que se ocupa no de los hechos (eso es cosa de la historia), sino de los no-hechos” (Mate, Medianoche 126).  In the (probable) absence of written documents, the transmission of memories from generation to generation is quintessential to keeping these remembrances alive.  The chapters narrated in third person—especially when the story focuses on Raquel’s memories—, recount the non-facts; the memories that were transmitted privately during the dictatorship and steadily became public since the establishment of democracy.  On the contrary, the first-person narrator portrays how historical facts were manipulated to fit the historical discourse of Francoism and how this official version was transmitted to younger generations due to the lack of a critical revision during the Transition and democracy.

While the chapters narrated in third person sometimes resemble 19th century realist novels, the combination of narrative techniques, such as the use of free indirect speech and interior monologue (Basanta n. pag.) differentiates El corazón from the traditional nineteenth-century narrator.  Irene Andrés Suárez argues that the omniscient voice narrates “de manera fragmentada la historia de la familia Fernández, adoptando a menudo la perspectiva de Raquel, con focalizaciones internas en este personaje” (313).  The inclusion of these techniques points to the postmodern structure of the novel, i.e. a structure that echoes the hybrid construction of the past and the intricacies of recovering historical memory through the alternation of narrative voices which provides the story a complex and fragmentary discourse.    

The use of two narrative voices fills the silences produced by official History.  Álvaro’s first-person description of his quest to discover his family’s past can only offer a limited vision: namely, his childhood remembrances, which are always distorted by the official discourse of the dictatorship and his own father; the information he discovers in his investigation from other family members and friends of the family; what Raquel tells him when they establish a relationship; and the information he obtains from official archives and records.  As a consequence, he does not have a complete narrative of the enigmas of his family.  Only through the perspective of an omniscient narrator is it possible to (re)create the past that he ignores from the focalized perspective of several characters, as well as from different narrative spaces and times.  In other words, the omniscient narrator’s voice challenges the official discourse of Francoism at the same time that it reveals the secrets of the Carrión family, which Álvaro cannot solve during his investigation.  Moreover, unlike Pérez Galdos’ Episodios Nacionales, always organized around historical events—such as the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805—and important historical characters—like Mendizábal, O’Donnell and Prim—, El corazón narrates Spain’s past from a memorialistic discourse that focuses on the events and persons silenced by official History.

De Urioste Azcorra emphasizes that whereas the chapters narrated by Álvaro focus on the impact of the past in the present, the even-numbered chapters recount the history of Spain during the war and post-war (206-7). Therefore, the narrative structure contributes to the reconstruction of the past of the Carrión family and of Spain’s 20th-century history, respectively (Urioste Azcorra 209). While I agree with de Urioste Azcorra on the basic premise that the change of narrators enriches the representation of the past, I would add that the novel includes nuances that do not permit one to divide the structure simply between the memory-filled recounts of Alvaro’s effort to reconstruct his family’s past and the historical reconstruction of Spanish history after the war (6). In turn, de Urioste Azcorra states that the discontinuous narrative time and the constant use of analepsis and prolepsis compels readers to organize the events themselves (209). This interpretation contradicts the chronological and organized narrative of historical discourse.  Therefore, the fact that the narration breaks the linearity of the story with lapses, gaps, and fragmentation seems to point to the discourse of memory rather than to a historical one. 

The fragmentary narrative challenges the reader to question what he or she knows about Spain’s recent history.  Benjamin considers History as “a form of sanctioned forgetting” (Leslie 133) that only records the events of the victors. Since El corazón does not intend to recount Spain’s history, it seldom employs historical figures or dates; on the contrary, the novel’s attempts to reinterpret the past and to provide ethical justice to the forgotten of History. Benjamin believes that it is “more difficult to honor the memory of the anonymous than it is to honor the memory of the famous, the celebrated, not excluding poets and thinkers” (“Paraliponema” 406). The narration does not suggest a positivist conception of history; rather, as Benjamin proposes, it brushes history against the grain (Benjamin, “Theses,” 257) so as to chronicle injustices that were left out of the archive.  In this way, El corazón, as I develop below, honors Machado’s final epigraph and emphasizes that factual History does not necessarily equate with an ethical reconstruction of the past.

Accordingly, in my interpretation, the reconstruction of actual history is not the main goal of the chapters narrated in the third person.  Andrés-Suárez argues that El Corazón “[n]o es una novela de hechos históricos, aunque inevitablemente aparecen, sino sobre la memoria; se trata de una reelaboración sentimental, ideológica y moral de la historia” (311). I concur with this idea and I add that although history is a necessary backdrop for the narration, historical events and dates are not relevant throughout the novel because the main purpose of the novel is to highlight the experiences of people that are not part of history.  As Jerelyn Johnson states, “events unfold predominantly without intervention, omnisciently narrated in the third person; but there are also plenty of explicitly narrated memories through direct [sic] between characters” (32). These features are more characteristic of the memorialistic discourse. This narrative voice is not, however, a revengeful voice as it focuses on the pain of the victims rather than on accusing those who caused it. Although vindictiveness seems to move the main storylines, it is important to remember that, ultimately, neither Ignacio Fernández nor Raquel carry out their plans to avenge Julio Carrión’s betrayal.

When Ignacio Fernández returns to Madrid after Franco’s death, he visits Julio Carrión in an attempt to recover the family’s properties but, when Julio refuses, Ignacio decides to continue with his life.  He knows that, in the socio-political context of the Transition, the chances that a returning exile has of lawfully recuperating his possessions are almost inexistent.  A young Raquel accompanied his grandfather and, as Ignacio cries hopelessly sitting in a bench on the street, he refuses to tell Raquel the reason for his tears because: “Lo más normal es que tú [Raquel] ya vivas aquí siempre. Y para vivir aquí, hay cosas que es mejor no saber. Incluso no entender” (Grandes 128). Ignacio believes that not telling his secret will protect Raquel in a society that decided to move towards a democracy without adequately examining the past.  Mate suggests that: “La memoria pretende actualizar la conciencia de una injusticia pasada, mientras que el olvido cancela, con lo que se hace cómplice de la injusticia. Éste es el punto: memoria es denuncia de la injusticia y olvido es sanción de la justicia” (“Ética” 117). Therefore, the novel critically depicts the Transition as a successful political endeavor but as an ethical failure that did not remunerate the victims, since a peaceful passage to a democracy was the main objective at that moment. 

In the early 2000s when Raquel’s grandmother tells her the complete story, she plans a careful revenge, which is complicated when Julio Carrión passes away.  In spite of her determination to avenge her family, when she falls in love with Álvaro she cannot continue her plan. Raquel confesses to Álvaro: “de repente, te parecías tanto a ellos, a la gente de la que me habían hablado siempre, a mi familia, a mis amigos” (Grandes 953). At this point, Raquel fathoms that revenge upon the descendants of the victors of the Civil War is useless.  She would be mimicking and perpetuating the callous attitude of Julio Carrión and, as a result, she would be as guilty as he was. This fact does not imply that the novel blames equally Republicans and Nationals for the beginning of the Civil War and the dictatorship.

The studies that analyze the narrative voices and the structure of the novel do not highlight the relevancy of Machados’s quotations that open and close the novel.  The appropriation of the poet’s words introduces a third narrative intervention: the implicit author, who provides an ideological guide to reading the book that is important to discern the ethical framework of El corazón.  The novel opens with these verses: “Una de las dos Españas / ha de helarte el corazón,” (Grandes 10) which are the obvious referent for the title of the novel (7).  But, more importantly, the direct pronoun “te” opens a dialogue with the reader, whom the quote addresses directly.  These words may be interpreted within the context of the pact of silence that took place during the Spanish Transition, which condemned younger generations to ignorance regarding Spain’s traumatic past.  Therefore, the epigraph forewarns readers of the shocking emotions they will experience upon discovering certain aspects of Spain’s past: a process that is almost parallel to Álvaro’s journey into the history of his family.

The novel closes with a famous quote that Machado wrote on his way to exile in France: “…para los estrategas, para los políticos, para los historiadores, todo estará claro: hemos perdido la guerra.  Pero humanamente no estoy tan seguro… Quizá la hemos ganado.” (Grandes 1127)  As Ramón Buckley maintains, Machado’s verses embody the “imperativo moral” (n. pag.) suggested in the novel.  I would also add that they are a final reminder to the readers of the objective of the novel: to reinterpret history and recuperate the memories of the victims silenced during Francoism and the transition to democracy.  Specifically, the recuperation of historical memory that has been taking place during the last two decades reflects that, in the end, the supporters of the democratic Republic are, in fact, the moral victors of the war.  In an interview published in the Spanish magazine El Cultural, Grandes states that: “Yo creo . . . que perdieron su presente pero ganaron el futuro. Desde donde estamos ahora, tres generaciones después de la guerra, nos parecemos más a nuestros abuelos que nuestros padres, porque hoy disfrutamos de una libertad, de una democracia, de una forma de vida que ellos conocieron y nuestros padres no” (Basanta n. pag.).  The author points to the relevance these words have for her and therefore suggests the reason why she included them at the end of the book: to indicate that the discourse of history does not coincide with an ethical re-reading of these periods.  


(1). Mate further explains that remembering and commemorating the past does not equal anamnetic justice: “Tenemos pues, que cuando denunciamos el olvido no es porque echemos de menos conmemoraciones o celebraciones del pasado; la denuncia no se refiere al hecho del pasado, a que no tengamos presente el pasado, sino a que consideremos ese pasado como clausurado. Y damos el pasado por clausurado si archivamos todas las causas pendientes con las víctimas del pasado, es decir, si nos resignamos a pensar que los muertos bien muertos están y nada ya hay que se pueda hacer por ellos. Esta forma de clausura, de archivo o de prescripción del pasado puede ser perfectamente compatible con las formas habituales de conmemoraciones o celebraciones del pasado” (“En torno” 118)


(2). From this point I will refer to the novel as El corazón.


(3). As Mate indicates: “La recordación tiene por objeto rescatar del pasado el derecho a la justicia o, si se prefiere, reconocer en el pasado de los vencidos una injusticia todavía vigente, es decir, leer los proyectos frustrados de los que está sembrada la historia no como costos del progreso sino como injusticias pendientes” (Mate, Medianoche 25).


(4). The pact of silence is a controversial topic that refers to an implicit agreement among the elites that thwarted an open public debate regarding the past during the Spanish Transition, thus preventing the victims of the Civil War and the dictatorship from being honored, both judicially and morally. Paloma Aguilar Fernández in her widely quoted book Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy (1996) maintains that the pact existed (169), but that it was the only viable option for a peaceful Transition.  On the contrary, Santos Juliá in “Echar al olvido: memoria y amnistía en la transición a la democracia” denies the existence of the pact of silence, and refers to the Transition not as a process of oblivion but of amnesty, imposed to avoid the past shaping the future.


(5). In fact, Grandes is currently completing “Episodios de una guerra interminable” an ambitious six-novel project whose title is a homage to Pérez Galdós’ Episodios nacionales (1872-1912).  Grandes has published the first three novels Inés y la alegría (2010), El lector de Julio Verne (2012), and Las tres bodas de Manolita (2014).  The rest of the planned novels include: Los pacientes del doctor García, La madre de Frankenstein y Mariano en el Bidasoa.  “Cada novela es independiente, pero varias comparten personajes. Todos terminan en 1964—‘los 25 años de paz y el comienzo de la apertura’—y todos tienen un epílogo en 1977 o 1978.  ‘Quería vincular las historias con el presente y enfrentar al lector actual con su pasado’” (qtd. in Rodríguez Marcos  n. pag.).


(6). Similarly, Santamaría Colmenero suggests: “la dicotomía que establece la autora entre ‘Historia’ e ‘historias’ participa de un concepto de historia referida fundamentalmente al conjunto de sucesos que protagonizan los grandes personajes. En el margen se encontrarían según este esquema las ‘historias’, con minúscula, aquellas que afectan a la gente corriente y que la autora pretende recrear literariamente basándose en múltiples testimonios reales de supervivientes de la contienda” (6).


(7). These verses are part of the poem CXXXVI “Proverbios y Cantares” from his collection of poems Campos de Castilla (1907-1917).  The complete verses are as follow: “LIV  Ya hay un español que quiere / vivir y a vivir empieza, / entre una España que muere / y otra España que bosteza. / Españolito que vienes / al mundo, te guarde Dios. / Una de las dos Españas / ha de helarte el corazón” (152). As Manuela Fox manifests these verses, written between 1907 and 1917, show that the Civil War is the culmination of an ongoing ideological division within Spanish society (101-2).



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