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The writer Almudena Grandes talks about the exhumation of Franco, her best-selling novel “The Ages ...
2020-02-13 09:05:00

Nothing Fixes Itself
An Interview with Almudena Grandes

Almudena Grandes. Photo by Pep Avila
Nothing Fixes Itself
Nothing Fixes Itself

“Women of my generation had no role models. We began our journey into adulthood without signposts. We moved forward taking good decisions, but also making mistakes. We progressed, although it was sometimes hellishly difficult,” recounts Almudena Grandes, the best-selling Spanish writer, whose novel Dr Garcia’s Patients was published this year in Polish.

Read in 20 minutes

Aleksandra Lipczak: We are talking the day after Franco’s exhumation.

Almudena Grandes: I am a little disorientated, because for me it was a strange experience. After everything I have written and said, after all the documentaries I was involved in, I spent the day they finally exhumed Franco in Kraków. Actually, not even in Kraków, but on a plane.

Today, over breakfast, I watched all the videos and read the commentaries. What do I think? I think that it is all connected to the Spanish anomaly. The fact that the dictator had been buried in a place maintained with public money, where anyone could take a selfie at his grave, had made it into a folkloric anomaly. However, this isn’t the heart of the problem.

So, what is it?

The fact that, during the transformation, they went for a slogan which sounded really good: “To move forward, one must forget.”

Spain decided to rebuild its democracy from scratch. Without recognition of earlier democratic traditions, and without breaking ties with the dictatorship. We won’t go there; we won’t talk about it. We’ll see if the problem fixes itself. This was the approach. Only, nothing fixes itself. A dictatorship that lasts 40 years shapes the feelings, thought processes and conscience of the entire country. Four decades of indoctrination and manipulation don’t just disappear overnight if we say: “From henceforth we are democrats, and the best democrats at that.”

The fact that Franco’s body was, until now, buried at the Valley of the Fallen was part of that strategy. We didn’t discuss it, because we had already moved on. As we say in Spain, we tried to make a tortilla without breaking eggs. Let me be clear: you can’t.

The exhumation is a very powerful image. It came 40 years too late, but that is no reason not to do it. I see it above all as a form of redress for the victims of the war and dictatorship. More than a hundred thousand people in Spain are still buried by roadsides, in mass graves and in the forests.

Spain comes second only to Cambodia in terms of the number of people in the world who disappeared during wartime. And our judges haven’t spent even a fraction of the time on helping the families of the missing as they have supporting Franco’s family in their efforts to block the exhumation. The dictator’s exhumation is the first step towards, finally, starting to deal properly with the issue of the mass graves.

I was surprised to learn that as much as half of the Spanish population was against the exhumation.

But that’s not true!

I found two polls that suggested this.

That’s some sort of pre-election manipulation of the data. No one in parliament was against the decision to exhume, not even the Right, which abstained from the vote. Less than three hundred people turned up to Franco’s reburial at Madrid’s El Pardo cemetery – and we’re talking about a city of six million people.

If there was any significant group in Spain against the exhumation, the Right wouldn’t have hesitated to start to exploit that for electoral purposes; there’s no doubt about it. Of course, there are people who are against the current socialist government and against the idea that their leader, Pedro Sánchez, would make political capital out of removing Franco’s body from the Valley of the Fallen. They believe there are other, more important issues to resolve and that Sánchez is trying to distract people from his problems in forming a government. However, the number of people who think that Franco should stay in the Valley is really very small.

It is an exceptionally morbid place.

A fascist monument. After the war these were torn down across Europe, but in Spain they were kept. I’ve been there many times, because I was collecting research material for one of my novels. I’m not in favour of pulling down the mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen, because it cost us too much. It was built in the 1940s, when many Spaniards were dying of starvation. I think it should be left untouched so that the Spaniards of the future can judge Francisco Franco and how he wanted to be remembered by them.

And the Valley of the Fallen should remain a place to visit with an exhibition explaining the context. I don’t agree with the idea of turning it into a centre of reconciliation, as some wish to do – that makes no sense at all – because it is a monument that glorifies the victors of the civil war, and it will never stop being that.

What image comes to mind when you hear the name ‘Franco’?

I was 15 when he died, so I didn’t particularly suffer any direct consequences from his rule. But I did have a Francoist education at school, from nuns. I was brought up to live in a world that had disappeared by the time I was an adult. My education was good for nothing and for the rest of my life I have had to improvise.

I remember the Spain of my childhood. Images of the Francoist pseudo parliament are particularly burnt into my memory. In the 1950s, Franco created something like a parliament, whose members he picked himself. It was made up solely of men in suits and ties, not a woman among them. I also remember the fear one felt when meeting a policeman on the street. At home children were told: if a policeman stops you, you have to call him ‘Sir’. And respectfully, just in case. I remember a cowering, frightened country, although during my childhood there was already pretty strong opposition to Franco. My elder cousin was imprisoned a couple of times, my father’s younger brother crossed the Pyrenees illegally; he was a wanted man. Underground activity was also a constant source of fear over what might happen to one’s nearest and dearest.

But the thing I remember best is the colour: a ubiquitous grey. And the absence of women in public life.

How old were you when you discovered Josephine Baker?

I was about twelve. When I was a girl, my mother bought the illustrated magazine ¡Hola!, where at that time they only published glamour photos: kings and queens, princes, and the great dames of Hollywood. One day I found a lady in there dressed in a tracksuit, with a turban on her head. I asked my mother what something like this was doing in ¡Hola!. “That’s Josephine Baker,” she replied. “Your grandparents saw her perform live in Madrid.”

My mother didn’t realize what she was actually telling me. For me, born in 1960, educated in a convent school, the fact that my grandmother had seen a half-naked dancer in a Madrid theatre was as unbelievable as if someone had told me my granny was an alien.

I thought a lot about this story, particularly in the context of my mother. She was born in 1935, my father two years later. Both were typical post-war children. When they went to school there was nothing other than ‘Franco, Franco, Franco’. They didn’t know any other reality. Thanks to Josephine Baker and my grandmother, I realized that progress is not a straight line. Earlier, I had thought that since I am younger than my mother, and my mother younger than my granny, each of us is more modern than the one before. But it turns out that the most modern of the three of us is my grandmother. This was an extraordinary revelation.

Now it no longer surprises me that my grandparents were more progressive than their children, maybe even than my generation. But when I discovered this at the age of 12, I was shocked. Then I began to wonder what sort of country I was living in. A grand-daughter unable to believe the life story of her granny – it was like someone had stolen our closeness, as if some link between us was missing. A red light lit up in my head.

Is that why you started to study history?

I chose history, even though I had wanted to study classics – Latin was always my favourite subject. I took the decision, at my mother’s insistence, despite my very bad relationship with her, because she suggested that I wouldn’t find work with a classics degree and therefore I should choose history. I quickly realized that I had made a mistake. I liked history, but I didn’t want to be a teacher, nor work in a museum. However, life has a way of putting you in the right place and automatically fixing your mistakes. If I hadn’t studied history, I wouldn’t be able to write the books I write today.

So, it was during your studies you discovered that recent Spanish history was, as you say, a real ‘gold mine’ when it comes to novels?

That happened much later. I had always wanted to write and have done so for as long as I can remember. After university, I began writing short texts commissioned by various publishers and simultaneously wrote my first book.

The erotic novel Las edades de Lulu, (The Ages of Lulu).

It was a bestseller. It still sells quite well today, although it’s already 30 years old. This novel gave me the life I wanted. I was able to become a writer precisely thanks to that book and the noise it provoked. It gave me so much, that I sometimes have the feeling that it is my mother. I am grateful to it, although I had to work quite hard to keep my feet on the ground after the success it brought me.

Why was it that a novel about Maria Luisa, a teenager discovering the world of sex, became such a phenomenon?

I have thought hard about that. It is not because it was an erotic novel – there wasn’t any shortage of those in Spain. I also wasn’t the first woman to write an erotic novel.

For a long time, I believed that a particular generation identified with this story and felt it to be part of their sentimental education. Because Lulu in some sense is a political novel. Not because the heroine’s lover is a communist and a former prisoner, but because it tells the story of a country that is emerging from dictatorship and she decides to take her revenge on it, living without restraint. When I was young, sexuality was a form of resistance.

At least that was my theory until recently. But at book fairs in Spain today, I am still signing copies of Lulu for readers who are 25-30 years old and who don’t understand what I am talking about in the novel. Completely different people are reading the novel today and are presumably getting a totally different story from it, so I don’t really know how to answer that question any more.

Maybe there’s just a shortage of well-written erotic literature?

When 50 Shades of Grey appeared in Spain, masses of young girls at book fairs – and I mean masses – came up to me requesting my autograph saying: “Mum told me to read Lulu instead of 50 Shades.”

One can see a parallel in your journey as a writer with the development of Spain in recent decades. First you wrote about sex and customs, before gradually moving onto the past and its ghosts.

When I started to write, I thought that Movida (the 1980s counter-cultural movement in Madrid – ed. note) was something incredible and that my generation was exceptional and that I had to tell everyone about it. In 1980, I was 20 years old. Every night I went to all the bars that are cult venues today, long before Movida became Movida, at a time when it hadn’t yet all become so formalized. Quite simply, that was my youth. I knew Almodóvar and other stars by sight, and it was no big deal. I was a teenager in a teenage city-capital of a teenage country. Everything was new, including my life and the life of Spain. Above all, however, the life of women of my generation was new. I often say this publicly and people think I do it to get applause, but I really think that the women of my generation are way more interesting than the men. The men’s lives are much more similar to the lives their fathers led than the women’s lives to those of their mothers. My third novel, Malena es un nombre de tango [Malena Is the Name of a Tango], which in some sense got me over Lulu, because it was also a great success, deals with how difficult being a woman was for women of my generation. For me, being female was a problem itself. I didn’t want to be like my mother and I couldn’t identify with her. She lived in the 19th century. The legal rights of women in Franco’s time were exactly that: a reversal of about 100 years. My mother couldn’t open her own bank account, and as a married woman, she couldn’t work.

And she didn’t rebel?

She wasn’t particularly submissive, but she also wasn’t a rebel. She didn’t ask herself such questions. On the other hand, I didn’t identify either with the wave of feminism sweeping into Spain from Europe and the US. The mothers of these feminists, as students, burned their bras. Mine couldn’t move without her husband’s permission, so what the feminists were saying at the time sounded completely alien.

Women of my generation had no role models. We began our journey into adulthood without signposts. We moved forward taking good decisions, but also making mistakes. We progressed, although it was sometimes hellishly difficult. Like the heroines of Malena es un nombre de tango, the twins. Everything always works out perfectly for one of them, the other prays to Mary to be changed into a boy, because it would be easier.

In my first novels, therefore, I told the stories of the women around me, with all their contradictions, dilemmas and problematic relationships with their mothers. I am particularly keen on the subject of mothers. My own died when I was 22, and I didn’t manage to make up with her beforehand. All my girlfriends had dreadful relationships with their mothers, but in the end, they managed to reconcile. I didn’t.

At a certain moment, history started creeping into your books.

For many years I concentrated on describing the ‘gelatinous’, unstable Spain in which everything was changing very fast. We all thought at the time that we were the best: the first Spaniards without fear, the first to travel, to learn foreign languages. We thought the world was our oyster. But when we turned 40, it turned out that we hadn’t moved beyond just tasting it. That’s exactly what my novel Atlas de geografía humana [Atlas of Human Geography] is about. It was published in 1998 and is the last in my series of faith novels.

From then on, I began to think that I should write instead about how things were before. First, however, I wrote a buffer novel in 2002, which has a leg in each different aspect of my creativity, The Wind from the East. The main characters are a man who is, like my former characters, connected with Movida, and a female-hostage of the civil war, born eight years after it ended. I say this, because Sara Gómez is the price her father paid for his freedom. A woman belonging to a group of Franco supporters saved his life during the war, but in exchange she demanded the right to bring up his daughter. Sara has become a person from nowhere, who doesn’t know where she comes from or who she is. It was her character that cemented my decision to write about Spain’s complex memory. To some extent I had always done this, except that I began this novel from the end. First, I set about writing the second part and only then returned to the first part.

That’s how the series Episodes from an Eternal War, which tells the story of the post-war years and the resistance to Franco, came about.

All the novels from this series are essentially the same story. The question of memory in Spain is a matter of generational ‘memory’. This is the keyword for people of my age. We grew up in houses full of photos of unknown people. “Who’s that?” we asked. “Your great uncle, uncle so-and-so,” we heard. “Why don’t I know them?” we asked again. “Because they died a long time ago.” “How?” “Go and do your homework,” they said, adding “don’t talk to anyone about this outside the house.”

Once we all turned the pivotal age of 40, we began to ask questions. We thought: But we live in a democracy, so why not? However, no one was keen to answer. So, writers started to address the subject of memory in their books, and directors in films. The rest talked about it at home.

In recent years there have been countless books and films about the civil war. When did this start?

In practice we never stopped writing or talking about it, but in the 1990s and at the start of the 21st century, it was considered to be in poor taste. No one paid any attention to the writers who raised the subject in the 1970s, because no one wanted to hear about the war or the post-war years at that time. The situation changed in the second half of the 2000s. That’s when Javier Cercas’ powerful novel, Soldiers of Salamis was published, as well as my book The Frozen Heart. And it turned out that the war and post-war periods were fascinating. Our books sold in their thousands and cinemas were packed.

That doesn’t surprise me because the stories you tell in Episodes from an Eternal War are spectacular. Like the one about Clara Stauffer, the leader of a Spanish organization transferring Nazi war criminals to America, which you write about in Dr. Garcia’s Patients.

When I decided to write my first novel about the civil war, I decided to read something. It seemed to me that I – a historian with a diploma – knew enough about the subject and would just need to refresh my knowledge. I quickly concluded that I knew absolutely nothing.

For a while, I was obsessed with the subject and immersed myself completely in the recent history of my country. For over 10 years, I read nothing but books about the history of Spain in the 20th century – historical works, memoirs and novels. I was looking for answers to two questions. The first was: What happened? The second, more important question: Why did I think I knew it all, when I know nothing? This, after all, is a common phenomenon in Spain. The history of our country is unbelievably complex, and yet Spain is full of people convinced they already know all there is to know about it.

Then I realized that us Spaniards are living on top of a gold mine. This gold is our past history. I found a mass of incredible events among the acts of resistance against Franco, stories precisely like that of Clara Stauffer. At first, I didn’t know what to do with them, but soon I had the idea for a series of novels. The thing that connects them is that they are based on true, but little-known events.

You began to write them a decade ago. Did you know from the outset which stories you would use in them?

From the start I knew I had material for six novels. I remember when I approached my publisher. It worried him because I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half. I called him and asked: “Are you sitting down? I finally know what I’m going to do.” “You are going to write a novel,” he replied. “No. Six.”

He encouraged me not to announce this publicly, because I might get tired in the meantime and would look foolish. But I wouldn’t entertain any other option: the series would only be completed after six novels.

I’m very interested in the fifth part, which you are currently writing. This will be about Aurora Rodriguez, the mother of a fantastically talented girl, who she gave birth to and then murdered.

The book is set in a women’s psychiatric hospital. I am trying to portray the 1950s from the perspective that I call the margin of the margins. Not only does it come from the world of women, but also the mentally ill. One of the main characters is a psychiatrist who trained in Switzerland. He returns to Spain and doesn’t understand anything that’s going on. This internal-external perspective is a way to show how Spain changed in the 15 years after the war.

The 1950s was the worst period in the history of the dictatorship, because there wasn’t an ounce of hope at the time. In the 1940s, people believed that when the allies won the war, they would help Spain. However, the 1950s were a golden era of national Catholicism, a moment when the State effectively grew together with the Church. It was a time of terrible stagnation – particularly for women – and a period when the State interfered incessantly in the private lives of its citizens. Life was really difficult, because people were under constant control.

The next decade was already better. The series ends in 1964 and that is no coincidence. I think that Spain began to change from the mid-1960s. This was when the opposition that would remove Franco from power 10 years later began to form.

Returning to the subject of women: apparently you were very surprised when it turned out that you are only the eighth woman in nearly 100 years to win the Premio Nacional de Narrativa (the National Literature Award for Narrative).

The seventh. One lady – a very pro-Franco author – won it twice. The year after me another woman won it too; a young writer, Cristina Morales. So now there are eight of us, and I think that is a sign that it will only get better.

It’s related to what I was saying earlier. We didn’t have role models; we improvised and it turned out quite well. When I look back, I am amazed at what we managed to achieve. It surprised me when, at around 40 years old, I discovered that Spanish women are really quite similar to their contemporaries from Western Europe, despite the fact that we achieved things in one generation that had taken much longer in other countries. Maybe we even went further. Spain has passed some of the most progressive social laws, and feminism today is going from strength to strength. This isn’t just about campaigns like #MeToo, or protests against molestation and domestic violence. It is about a movement, a general strengthening and empowerment of women. This is going very, very well in Spain today.

Despite the success of the far right?

I don’t think we are at risk of losing our feminist achievements. The street demonstrations have been at a high level for a long time and they are not a passing fashion or trend. Our demands have taken root in Spanish society and I am convinced that we will implement them. Which doesn’t alter the fact that, although the majority of the media support the women’s protests, when you look at their management boards, it turns out that, as with other companies and institutions, it is rare to find women on the board. Glass ceilings are still there and it borders on a miracle if a woman in the same position as a man earns the same, and so on.

But every new female boss means more female bosses in the future. Every prize for a female writer increases the odds of awards for other female authors in subsequent years. Let’s not forget that in the 1930s, Spanish women were among the most modern in Europe. When the war started, the Spanish Republic had three major political organizations, and two of them were led by women. These were Dolores Ibárruri, La Pasionaria, who led the Communist Party, and Federica Montseny from the anarchist trade union (CNT). Only the Socialist Party had no women in their leadership.

Our forerunners really had amazing strength. We have role models to refer back to; we just have to remember that.

In Spain you are promoting a collection of your columns from the daily newspaper ‘El País’ under the eloquent title of: La herida perpetua – ‘The running sore’.

I had the idea because one constant line of argument in debates about remembrance is the phrase: ‘It’s not worth opening old wounds’. Meanwhile the wound of Spaniards – their relationship to their own country – has never healed. The relationship between Spaniards and Spain is problematic. The transformation, and the way democracy was introduced to Spain, only strengthened that anomaly. This is only a normal country during the football World Cup; only then does everyone feel Spanish.

In every country there are of course people who don’t want to belong to it. In Great Britain, it is the Scots; in Spain, the Catalans. One should respect that and I’m not talking about them. The problem is that the majority of those who have a problem with Spain are never going to be anything other than Spanish. And yet they don’t recognize, for example, our national symbols. These symbols are too closely connected to Franco’s dictatorship and they believe that our democracy hasn’t cut its ties with the past. This is a problem. It is not easy to govern a country where hundreds of thousands of people don’t identify with it.

Recently Spanish nationalism has awakened. Spain is full of national flags.

This is a reaction to Catalan nationalism. The government has handled the Catalan issue simply appallingly. We are on the verge of a catastrophe because for many years Rajoy (Marian Rajoy, the former right-wing prime minister – ed. note) adopted the approach of masterly inactivity. It turned out that this secured him votes. Puigdemont (Carles Puigdemont, former Prime Minister of Catalonia – ed. note) said: fantastic, in which case I won’t do anything either and I’ll also gain some votes.

This is how we have got to the current state of affairs. But it has now become so absurd that it almost gives me hope. We have fallen so low that some solution must appear in the end.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.


Almudena Grandes:

One of the most popular Spanish novelists. She debuted in 1989 with the erotic novel The Ages of Lulu, for which she won the La Sonrisa Vertical award. Author of several dozen novels and collections of short stories, including the historical series Episodes from an Eternal War, whose fourth part, Doctor Garcia’s Patients, was published in Poland this year. Winner of numerous literary awards including the Premio Nacional de Narrativa, the Prix Méditerranée and the Premio Iberoamericano de Novela Elena Poniatowska.


Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska

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