Giles Tremlett

The novelist tells how he dredged up the ghost of his own great uncle, a fascist ‘martyr’, to throw light on Spain’s struggles today

Javier Cercas.
 Javier Cercas. Photograph: Iain Masterton/Alamy

Leaning across a cafe table in his Barcelona barrio, Javier Cercas delivers a tirade against the “national populist” perversions of history that he blames for the return of Spain’s far right, Brexit, Donald Trump and Catalan separatism. “This national populism is a postmodern mask for what fascism in particular and the totalitarianisms of the 1930s were about,” warns the novelist, who returns to that decade and the trauma of the Spanish civil war in his latest novel, Lord of All the Dead.

He makes no apology for bundling together separatists, some of whose leaders are being tried in Madrid on sedition charges, with the return of Spain’s historically “terrifying” far right for the first time since General Franco’s 40-year dictatorship ended in 1975. In fact, he blames the appearance of the Vox party directly on separatists who tried to push his fellow Catalans into independence two years ago.

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“If a beast appears in one corner of the ring, then something similar will inevitably appear on the other side, which is terrifying because Spanish nationalism has, historically, been far worse,” he says. Both sides, he insists, twist history to turn Spaniards against one another.

That is a controversial idea for those Catalans who recall the police violence that accompanied a banned referendum in October 2017. But, as an El Paíscolumnist, Cercas is not famed for biting his tongue.

The only antidote to this distortion of history, he says, is to understand how ordinary, even well-meaning, people were so easily misled by fascism: “What should we do with the bad parts of our history? Sweeten them? Hide them? Invent something else? Or should we learn about them and try to understand?”

My books are really about the present, not the past. In Spain, the present starts with the civil war in 1936

In Lord of All the Dead, Cercas attempts the latter by entering the mind of an idealistic young fascist from his own family – his great uncle Manuel Mena, who died as a teenage volunteer for the pro-Franco Falange party.

That required the 57-year-old author to dive into an uncomfortable past when his family backed Franco. Given that this still casts a shadow over present-day politics – exemplified by the row over removing the dictator’s body from his underground basilica at the Valley of Fallen – it is a plunge into turbulent waters.

“My books are really about the present, not the past,” Cercas explains. “Because in Spain the present does not start now, or with Franco’s death in 1975, but with the civil war in 1936.”

Although he is a passionate defender of the Republic that Franco eventually overthrew, Cercas says our view of fascism’s rise is laced with delusion and hypocrisy. “People have forgotten that fascism was attractive, that it was fascinating,” he says, blaming novelists and film directors for creating stereotypical images of cold-blooded, sadistic assassins. “People think fascists wore horns, like the devil, but that is a lie. Hitler fascinated the most cultured country of the period and many other people too, including part of the British elite.”

Lord of All the Dead investigates the short life and long legacy of Mena, who volunteered at 17. The bullet that killed him was probably fired by the anti-fascist International Brigades, whose 35,000 volunteers travelled from across the globe to defend the Republic.

Mena became the family hero and martyr, with a portrait of the boy-lieutenant in his crisp white officer’s uniform hanging in their home in the south-western village of Iberhernando. The Cercas clan were local bigwigs, running the village and helping impose Franco’s dictatorship before his parents migrated to Catalonia, where Javier was brought up.

Family members told Cercas he risked making painful discoveries by researching their past. Others warned he would be criticised by all sides – either for painting too bleak a picture or for whitewashing Francoism. In the end, he could find no direct relationship between the killings of Republicans in Iberhernando and his grandfather, the mayor. He feels obliged, nevertheless, to “take responsibility” for that past by writing about it.

The reactions to a novel which humanises a teenage fascist have been predictable. One review that accused Cercas, author also of Soldiers of Salamis, of rehabilitating “fascists and phonies” provoked angry replies that recalled his long association “with the values and causes of the left”. “I’m dealing with a central part of Spanish history – the civil war – and people just want you to say whether you are in favour or against,” the novelist explains. “Reality is far more complex.”Advertisement

Mena’s problem, as Cercas sees it, was that he was a youthful idealist who, like many others in 1930s Europe, picked the wrong ideal. He is convinced that good people can make wrong political choices and do bad things as a result. Similarly, bad people can also make right political choices and still be essentially wicked, like the Republican supporters who cold-bloodedly murdered 7,000 priests and nuns. Key to preventing a repeat of the 1930s, he says, is to understand all that.

Cercas sees a similar distortion in the Brexit debate, though this time it is a supposedly “glorious” past that is being twisted. He wishes, too, that British liberals could see the similarities with Catalan separatism. “In both cases, people are being manipulated,” he says. “There is an inability to accept reality, and the same creation of an external enemy.”

courtesy- the guardian