Difference but not Deference:
Historical Memory as Dialogue in Benjamín Prado’s Mala gente que camina
In the first decade of the 21st Century, “historical memory” became a ubiquitous phrase in Spanish culture, giving rise to debates around how to process the recent past of Civil War (1936-1939), dictatorship under Francisco Franco (1939-1975), and transition to democracy. (1) Political pronouncements such as the recognition of 2006 as the “Año de memoria histórica” and the passing in 2007 of what is informally called the “Ley de memoria histórica” added to the already visible space of memory in artistic production and the efforts of citizen organizations, such as the Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica (ARMH). (2) Nevertheless, the fact that these political actions were not passed unanimously is symptomatic of the complexity and polyphonic nature of the memory debates. To paraphrase José F. Colmeiro, there are those who publically criticize the lack of memory, advocating for the need to recover it and combat the historical amnesia in contemporary Spain; others maintain that we have experienced an inflation of memory and question the subjectivity and credibility of commemoration; some praise forgetting as a necessary for catharsis; while still others seek a more reconciliatory balance between remembering and forgetting (14).
These disparate and overlapping perspectives are all given voice in Benjamín Prado’s novel Mala gente que camina, published in 2006 at the heart of this retrospective moment. (3) This is a novel that plays with what is real outside of its fictive world, including its own identity as a novel. This is also a novel not merely about the past, but also about how that past is remembered and communicated in the present. And therein lies the central juxtaposition of this work. While Mala gente que camina harnesses the ambivalence-inducing postmodern traits of irony and metafiction—blurring the line between fiction and reality, between historical narratives and artistic narratives—it does so to paint a decidedly unambivalent portrait of the ethical and political imperatives of historical recuperation. Prado’s novel is self aware and explicit with regard to ethics, politics, and truth in fiction, in line with Dominick LaCapra’s statement: “With respect for art, it is problematic, especially at the present time, to see it as a discrete, autonomous, purely aesthetic sphere that is simply beyond truth claims and ethical considerations. Rather there is a complex interaction between art, truth claims, and ethics (including the ethicopolitical)” (100). To that end, Mala gente demonstrates a clearly defined ethicopolitical driving force: the imperative for Spanish society to reject a closed eye to the past so that the crimes and victims of the Franco dictatorship might be recognized. Nevertheless, the novel frames such a voice by surrounding it with many competing voices in dialogue, acknowledging that the need for active recovery of the past—and/or that the truth is found in such recovery—is not a hegemonic stance in contemporary Spain, but rather is one side of a complex cultural debate. The embodiment of this cultural dialogue by various characters in the novel is not neutral, however. The multiplicity of the novel’s postmodern characteristics gives way to a single voice of authority. All voices are heard, but only one gets the final word. (4)
This voice belongs to Juan Urbano, the narrator, whose first-person account details his discovery of a forgotten novel from the 40s, Óxido by the forgotten writer Dolores Serma, which he believes contains a hidden critique of the Franco regime’s practice of kidnapping babies and children from Republican prisoners. The narrator becomes convinced of his hypothesis when he discovers that Serma’s pregnant sister was imprisoned as a Republican sympathizer after the war. Through more investigation, he concludes that Serma’s son, Carlos Lisvano, is actually her nephew. Serma’s “official” life is a lie; she raised her sister’s son as her own to avoid his abduction like so many other children of Republican parents. Armed with this fascinating and original story about a forgotten author, the narrator intends to make public the story of Serma and Óxido in an academic work of non-fiction. Unfortunately, Lisvano does not grant him permission to use the family documents as proof of his claims and thus the narrator is forced to publish his findings as a work of fiction because, as he states, the genre of fiction allows him to still present his work without fear of being sued by Serma’s family. The result is the novel within the novel Mala gente que camina.
This title acts as a powerful signal of partisanship with regard to the Spanish Civil War, for both the fictional author and for Prado: “Mala gente que camina / y va apestando la tierra…” (84) is a stanza written by the famously-Republican poet Antonio Machado, taken from a poem originally published in 1907, now found in the collection Soledades. Galerías. Otros poemas (1983). (5) For Prado, history and openness are unavoidably linked; silence signals a tacit acceptance of past crimes. An example of this attitude is found in an opinion article published by the novelist in 2004 in El País entitled “Desentierren a Lorca, por favor.” Prado raises the issue of mass graves as a result of the war and post-war assassinations, citing possibly the most famous of these victims, Federico García Lorca, a symbol of martyrdom for all of Franco’s victims during the Civil War. Prado equates disinterring the Andalusian writer’s body with vindication for the Republic’s fallen and forgotten in general: “Será una forma de hacer justicia en un país donde aún existen, a la vez, un Valle de los Caídos para los vencedores y miles de fosas anónimas para los derrotados. El olvido no es lo contrario del rencor, sólo es lo contrario de la memoria” (14). For Prado, memory is intimately linked to justice. His understanding of history is not a matter of observation without judgement, but rather of exoneration for the victims and condemnation of the transgressors. If the issue of common graves is a wound that has yet to heal, as Prado suggests in the article, then the issue of Republican children stolen from their parents is a wound that many are only now realizing existed. As Prado maintains in an online interview with El País, “de ese tema de los niños robados a los republicanos y entregados a familias afectas al Régimen no se sabía gran cosa, sólo lo que contaron en un documental de TV3 y en un libro los historiadores Montse Armengou, Ricard Belis y Ricard Vinyes.” (6)
In the novel, this debate is manifested by the polemics surrounding Óxido. Urbano even speaks of wanting to “desenterrar” the forgotten work. The language employed here is not coincidental; it evokes the image of Franco’s victims dumped in common graves, many now being unearthed for proper burial. For some, digging up old graves represents the opening of old wounds, for others, it is a matter of closing them. That is, one must literally open the graves so that the nation can figuratively close them, to achieve closure as catharsis to the traumas of the past. The philosophy behind the ethics and politics of memory gains physical expression in the actions taken toward the common graves of Franco’s victims, both for and against. (7) There is a direct parallel between Urbano’s attempt to bring light to Óxido and Prado’s defence in El País of exhuming Lorca as a symbol of remembrance and vindication.
While Urbano advocates for the parallel goals of historical transparency and making known the life and work of Dolores Serma, Serma’s family and Urbano’s own mother constitute distinguishable and unique counter-discourses. These novelistic voices create what one might call a dialogic environment as they all incarnate different perspectives found in contemporary Spanish society. Based on the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, Graham Allen explains such a polyphonic dynamic:
Every character in the dialogic novel has a specific, in some senses unique, personality. This ‘personality’ involves that character’s world-view, typical mode of speech, ideological and social positioning, all of which are expressed through the character’s words. . . . In the polyphonic novel we find not an objective, authorial voice presenting the relations and dialogues between characters but a world in which all characters, and even the narrator him- or herself, are possessed of their own discursive consciousnesses. The polyphonic novel presents a world in which no individual discourse can stand objectively above any other discourse; all discourses are interpretations of the world, responses to and calls to other discourses. (23)
While Mala gente exemplifies the first part of Allen’s description, it is incompatible with the polyphonic novel’s defining lack of authorial discourse. The irony is that while the different voices in Mala gente interact almost democratically in that everyone gets their say with regard to recent Spanish history, there still is a distinct and clear “authorial voice” that does “stand objectively above” the others. This is the voice of Prado manifested through his narrator. As Bakhtin himself states, while the author can be seen as a third party to the textual debate, “he might be a biased third party” (italics in the original; 314). Therefore, all diverging perspectives are compared against the standard set by Urbano.
Like Prado himself, Urbano’s ethical and political motivations with regard to historical memory are intimately linked to a sympathetic view of the Second Republic. The Franco regime is not just seen as the totalitarian precursor to today’s democracy, but also the barbaric, and illegal, usurper of a previous democratic system. (8) This attitude is articulated throughout the text, particularly as an argument raised by the narrator in defence of his partisan view of the war. Contemplating Serma’s affiliation with the Fascist Auxilio Social and Sección Femenina, for example, Urbano celebrates the idealized role of women within the Republic: “La República había luchado por la dignidad de las mujeres, les había dado, por primera vez, entre otras muchas cosas, el derecho de votar” (85). In another instance, he continues to equate giving power to the powerless with dignity by outlining Republican efforts for agrarian reform that gave “justicia a cientos de miles de labradores que vivían en un mundo regido por códigos medievales” (226). Progressive ideals aside, the essence of Urbano’s support for the Republic results from the fact that the pre-Franco government was the legitimate government, democratically elected by the people. Therefore, the Civil War should not be considered a war of two opposite, but morally equal sides, but rather the product of criminal rebellion (Nationalists) and justifiable defence (Republic). For Urbano, any treatment of the war and its consequences begins with this fact, as he explains to Natalia, Serma’s daughter-in-law: “yo estoy dispuesto a matizar a partir de un hecho: todos los que alentaron, financiaron, pusieron en marcha y sostuvieron el golpe de estado contra la República democrática eran o unos criminales o la sombra de los criminales” (119). From this standpoint, Urbano frames his response to historical recuperation. Franco’s crimes of action give way to democracy’s crimes of inaction; that is, the pact of silence. “Me parece una vergüenza,” he explains to Natalia, “la forma en que unos y otros han pactado el olvido; porque aquí, a base de hablar de la reconciliación nacional, no se ha intentado pasar página, sino arrancarla” (117). Urbano represents those who are not satisfied with a politically neutral ethics of memory that recognizes the importance of looking to the past without “pointing the finger” in accusation. Urbano represents an ethics of memory that is explicitly political, lamenting that “aún siguen enterradas siniestras fosas comunes, por las cunetas de todo el país” (117). The literal unearthing of bodies signals a figurative unearthing of truths; for the narrator, the “unearthing” of Óxido belongs to the same imperative for openly confronting Francoist transgressions.
While Urbano corresponds to the current proliferation of memory discourse in Spain, the reticence of Serma’s family toward “opening old wounds” is indicative of the cultural tension concerning how Spain ought to approach its past. Dolores Serma, Natalia, and Lisvano demonstrate inability, indifference, and hostility respectively in the face of memory. That Serma suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, a disorder that affects one’s ability to remember, is significant; her censored-self that sought to hide her true history has actually lost the capacity to know who she is or was at all. (9) For Natalia—who belongs to the same generation as the narrator, born in the waning years of the regime—the past is not inaccessible, but rather of little importance. (10) She does not understand Urbano’s passion for the war or its consequences and, as such, represents those for whom the present supersedes any relevance that the past might hold. “¿Por qué tienes tanto interés en esa época?,” she asks Urbano, “A ti la dictadura te afectó poco: eras demasiado joven” (116). For Natalia, historical consideration is wholly mediated by experience. That is, although she, like Urbano, was born before the death of Franco, she lived most of her life in democracy and therefore is unaffected by the Civil War and postbellum oppression. Therefore, Natalia embodies a perspective on memory that is neither antagonistic nor enthusiastic; any lack of passion and outrage toward the dictatorship is a product of “present-centric” indifference, not necessarily of scepticism. She maintains a certain interest in the narrator’s work, but more in terms of it being a fascinating story than being an ethical imperative. The questions of who did what to whom in the past are inconsequential to concerns of the present and future. In this sense, Natalia exemplifies the “Gen. X” mentality of the nineties as her present-centric ethos reflects the lack of historical preoccupations of the characters in novels such as Mañas’s Historias del Kronen (1994), though perhaps without their self-destructive apathy in general as she is a professional woman with a family.
More openly hostile to Urbano’s project is Natalia’s husband Carlos Lisvano. Unlike the mere historical apathy of his wife, Lisvano advocates against the desire to confront the past. For Lisvano, past traumas are not merely irrelevant, but rather potentially divisive and dangerous for the present. Responding to the narrator’s claim of responsibility toward “nuestra guerra,” Natalia summarizes her husband’s position by stating: “te va a contestar que ya no es nuestra guerra, sino una parte del pasado que se superó con la democracia y a través de la reconciliación nacional. Te dirá que para lo único que vale reabrir viejas heridas es para desenterrar viejas hachas de guerra” (263). As Luis Martín-Estudillo notes, Lisvano “symbolizes the official preference for a functional oblivion” (243). That is, Lisvano’s opposition to memory corresponds to satisfaction with, and preference for, the status quo. Although by no means a supporter of the dictatorship, Lisvano does stand out from the other characters in the novel as a product of the Francoist education system (García Urbina). In addition, his life has been one of privilege. Thus, his resistance to “opening old wounds” results not just from a belief that the nation is better served by ignoring its traumatic past episodes, but also from a sense that the “truth” uncovered will be unjustly critical and, on a personal level, will affect him adversely. That is, while he celebrates contemporary democracy over past dictatorship, Lisvano does not demonize society under Franco and views much historical recuperation as politically, rather than historically, motivated. This sentiment is exemplified in how he responds to tales of Republican children being taken by the regime: “Pero todo eso de los niños no puede sino ser una exageración” (397).
In essence, Lisvano represents an attitude in line with the “ignorance is bliss” cliché. His comfortable life reflects a prosperous, forward looking Spain for which it is easier to “not know” as knowledge might disrupt the positive status quo. For Lisvano, it is Urbano’s research into Óxido that threatens his secure concept of self. His identity lies with his mother’s official life-story; thus, he rejects any attempt to interpret a different biography than that which he has always known. “No es que me niegue a decirte lo que sé,” he explains to Urbano, defending his inability to help more with the research, “sino que no deseo saber, ni que nadie sepa, más de lo que mi madre quiso contarme” (293). The conflict between Urbano and Lisvano in the novel demonstrates a conflict of two opposing perspectives on memory: on one hand, the narrator advocates for openness in order to find the truth behind the cover-up, while on the other, Lisvano finds truth in generally accepted discourses of authority, thus there is no need to revisit the past. (11) When Urbano relates anecdotes of cruelty against women prisoners and their children after the war, Lisvano contends that “no son más que leyendas, . . . Y un investigador debería saber que la Historia no se compone de fábulas, sino de hechos probados” (398). Lisvano’s commitment to the unquestioned facts of his life reflects a particular fear behind the pact of silence: when Spain looks to its past, it will be forced to deal with the unpleasant consequences of what it finds. For those exemplified by Urbano, this is a necessary step for national catharsis; for many like Lisvano, however, the self-preservation of silence is much easier. (12)
To a certain extent, Urbano’s mother shares Lisvano’s perspective in the face of her son’s unabashed bias. She too maintains that some things are better left alone “[p]ara no desenterrar viejos odios” (250), and that life under Franco has been unfairly painted in a negative light. While she accepts that there is truth to many of her son’s accusations, she responds, “Pero acepta tú también que ahora los falangistas han sido demonizados y algunas de las salvajadas que se les atribuyen pueden ser simples exageraciones” (351). Unlike Lisvano, however, the narrator’s mother does not reject the ethical imperative of memory per se, but rather advocates for a more “neutral” approach than her son, believing such an approach to be possible and desired (in contrast to the narrator who is opposed to both points). “Urbano’s mother, who lived rather comfortably during the postbellum years,” explains Martín-Estudillo, “has somewhat ambivalent feelings toward her son’s passionate endeavors, but she is always willing to revisit her past and discuss with him her own views and first-hand experiences as a regular citizen under Francoism” (243). These discussions, found throughout the novel, constitute the most significant expression of Spain’s cultural debate because they give voice to two opposing discourses that are not immediately written off by characterization. That is, while Lisvano demonstrates hostility as a product of ignorance, Urbano’s mother responds to her son with well thought out and intellectual arguments. She revels in the dialogic atmosphere and respects her son’s opinions. Despite disagreeing with many of her positions, the narrator affirms that she is “una mujer feliz, positiva y, sobre todo, perspicaz” (83). In fact, this positive characterization contrasts with Urbano’s frequent cynicism, creating an ironic dynamic in which the more pleasing character embodies an ideology at odds with not just the narrator but also the novel itself.
By embracing the dialectic nature of her and her son’s relationship, the mother’s approach to the topic of historical recuperation is characterized by its lack of one-sidedness. For her, Spain’s history should be considered without the subjective influence of emotion. “En fin, si quieres hacerme caso,” she cautions her son, referring to his criticism of the Franco regime, “procura tomar distancia y no te dejes llevar por la cólera, que suele nublar la razón. Piensa en lo que dice el refrán: el que juzga con ira, venga pero no castiga” (79). In this sense, the mother demonstrates an ethics of memory that promotes a more ambivalent and reconciliatory politics. For her, this is the voice of reason that denies what she sees as her son’s black and white reading of history, thus finding the truth in the “grey area.” “Porque si lo reduces todo a una cuestión de ángeles y demonios,” she explains to Urbano, “no comprenderás nada. Las cosas no son tan sencillas” (248). Of course, for the narrator the opposite is true: “me parece que las cosas son sencillísimas: aquí hubo fascistas y demócratas. Nada más” (248). While Urbano’s mother does not demonize the Nationalist side in the war nor the resulting Francoism, her essential criticism of the narrator’s position is not one of unconditional support for these entities either, but rather stems from what she perceives to be his lack of objective investigation. According to her, a more honest search for the truth gives consideration to the violence perpetrated by both sides of the conflict: “o aceptas que disparates se cometieron en los dos bandos o nunca llegarás a esa verdad que dices que buscas” (351). This is a common defence for those who oppose the particular brand of historical recuperation supported by Urbano, the kind that, according to such opposition, “opens old wounds:” the crimes committed under Franco cannot be judged because the Republican side was also guilty. The implication is that for reconciliation to take place, any exploration of the nation’s past should be investigative but not accusatory in nature, undertaken from a politically objective distance. This opinion—as Urbano states, much to his chagrin—is “el eco de millones de opiniones iguales, repetidas durante años por los más cínicos y asimiladas por los más ingenuos” (354). The mother’s “voice of reason” is instead the voice of naiveté that seeks to avoid new conflict by the false suggestion of equal blame, and in the process ignores the victimizers and victimized of the Franco regime.
By bringing to light the particularly heinous act perpetrated by the state of removing children from their Republican parents, Mala gente proposes an approach to the issue of Francoist oppression that is at odds with both the “pact of silence” and any reconciliatory politics based on ambivalent, blanket neutrality. Although opposing perspectives surrounding this cultural debate on memory are given voice in the novel, the dialogic nature is undermined by the overwhelming sense of discursive authority granted to the narrator. In other words, Natalia’s indifference, Lisvano’s hostility, and the mother’s scepticism of one-sided condemnation with regard to an open examination of the Franco regime constitute arguments to be refuted, rather than arguments of equal but opposite merit. Of particular note is the ironic mother/son dynamic in which the more pleasing character’s less conflictive, more distanced, and more dialogic standpoint is incongruous with the novel’s unabashed advocacy for memory and justice as represented by the frequently disagreeable narrator. What this suggests is that an ethicopolitical response to memory that is non-judgmental with the purpose of reconciliation is attractive and tempting, but ultimately unsatisfactory as it denies vindication for Franco’s victims and responsibility for the perpetrators of such violence. In this way, Prado’s novel articulates what Antonio Gómez López-Quiñones describes six years later with regard to differing “memory cultures:” “The real point then is how to depict the relationship between these different ‘cultures of memory’ beyond their relativist juxtaposition and a mistaken conception of reciprocal respect, which constitutes a de facto endorsement of a comforting lack of dispute” (“A Secret Agreement” 91). The juxtaposition is not relativist here, the “comforting lack of dispute” is disrupted to state that whether it is digging up dead bodies or bringing to light forgotten novels, the consequences may be painful but necessary.
This correlation between memory and judgement is addressed by David K. Herzberger: “For those wishing to evoke the past in post-Francoist Spain, for those seeking truth, perhaps the antonym of forgetting was not remembering, but justice. In all instances, however, there exists the implicit belief in a past that is knowable, stable, and wholly usable as a source of authenticity” (16). A knowable past that gives rise to a desire for justice accurately describes the foundation of the ethicopolitical stance of Prado, Urbano and Mala gente itself. That the message is clear is certainly ironic considering the novel’s postmodern characteristics. This is the irony of paradox, of Muecke’s “constant dialectic interplay of objectivity and subjectivity, freedom and necessity, the appearance of life and the reality of art, the author immanent in every part of his work as its creative vivifying principle and transcending his work as its objective ‘presenter’” (78). The blurring of genre to force recognition of the novel’s literariness in the face of reality questions the nature of authoritative, historical discourse. Similarly, the polyphonic character of the cultural memory debate as represented in the text also serves to question a single, conclusive, and “official” perspective. However, while this “constant dialectic interplay” stands in contrast to Franco’s carefully controlled master discourse, is it also ironically employed to highlight that the truth of Spain’s past is plural but not wholly relative and that not every interpretation is acceptable in the face of a desire for consensus. Mala gente suggests that although they might be revealed in the indirect realm of fiction—in fact, this may be necessary due to various forms of censorship—the transgressions of the Franco dictatorship are neither irrelevant to the present nor political spin, but rather the truth that requires recognition. If there can be no justice for the perpetrators, at least there can be judgement of the crime and vindication for its victims.
(1). José F. Colmeiro describes historical memory as being characterized by “una conceptualización crítica de acontecimientos de signo histórico compartidos colectivamente y vivos en el horizonte referencial del grupo” (17).
(2). For more on the “Boom” of memory in literature and film, see Antonio Gómez López-Quiñones (2006) and the anthology edited by Ulrich Winter. For more on the connection between the political pronouncements and cultural production, see Ofelia Ferrán. Although Jo Labanyi noted in 2008, “The flood of novels set in or after the civil war … seems to have abated” having potentially reached a “saturation point” (119), many works dealing with issues of historical memory continue to be produced with many of the issues continuing to resist resolution.
(3). In addition to publishing poetry, essays, memoirs, biographies, and short fiction, Prado is also the author of the novels Raro (1995), Nunca le des la mano a un pistolero zurdo (1996), Dónde crees que vas y quién te crees que eres (1996), Alguien se acerca (1998), No sólo el fuego (1999), La nieve está vacía (2000), Operación Gladio (2011), and Ajuste de cuentas (2013).
(4). The need to recognize the plural nature of historical memory in opposition to settling on one hegemonic understanding has been recognized by various critics. For example, Ángel G. Loureiro states, “To talk meaningfully and coherently about historical memory, one would have to do so in the plural, acknowledging that there are many conflicting historical memories, which is to say, many narratives of the past that vie for hegemony” (227). It should be pointed out, however, that in this novel the plurality involves reactions to how the past is remembered (or not) in addition to the memories themselves.
(5). “The authorship of the quote is significant,” explains Luis Martín-Estudillo referring to the novel’s title and its poetic source, “because Machado became one of the most prominent icons of the cultural opposition to the dictatorship, and Prado’s novel is a fierce condemnation of the Franco regime” (242). For more on Prado’s pro-Republican political commentary, see his article “La distancia es mirar para otro lado” in the collection Memoria del futuro. 1931-2006. Ed. Bernardo Atxaga.
(7). See Emilia Silva and Santiago Macías. Certainly Prado’s support for disinterring Lorca, the most notable of the buried victims, is but one side of an ongoing polemic as many oppose disrupting the dead, for varying motivations. Lorca’s family, for example, opposes his disinterment. For a report on the controversy surrounding the actions at that time of Judge Baltasar Garzón and the Andalusian branch of the ARMH, see “¿Van a desenterrar a Lorca?,” published in El País in September 2008.
(8). Although it is outside the scope of this analysis, how the novel represents different eras of post-Franco Spain warrants study. While Urbano claims connection to the Republican past as an ideal to uphold, he also regularly cites the excesses of the eighties as a period lived in the present without responsibility. His wife Virginia’s Hepatitis infection, due to drug use, represents the consequences of such naive optimism. The present-centric notion of instant gratification behind certain cultural events of the eighties, such as the “movida madrileña,” gives way to responsibility toward the past in the 21st Century as reflected in the evolution of Urbano’s motivations.
(9). In the third novel of her trilogy, La fuerza del destino (1997), Josefina Aldecoa also establishes a parallel between the Alzheimer’s disease that afflicts her protagonist, an ex-Republican exile, and issues of “collective amnesia.”
(10). The irony of Natalia’s indifference toward the past, as Martín-Estudillo notes, is that she works in neurology, a medical field in which memory as a physiological function is of fundamental importance (243).
(11). Gómez López-Quiñones states: “the debate about the Spanish Civil War is also and primordially the debate about (some aspect of) twenty-first century Spain. Of course, this completely infuriates those who perceive the Civil War as the distant, fully superseded other of post-Franco democratic Spain” (emphasis in the original; “A Secret Agreement” 89). Lisvano’s position exemplifies this last statement.
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