Javier Cercas, Spanish writer: to beat the fascists, you have to understand them | Spain
THEOn the other side of a coffee table in his barrio in Barcelona, Javier Cercas launches a tirade against the “national populist” perversions of the story he accuses of the return of the Spanish far right, of Brexit, of Donald Trump and Catalan separatism. “This national populism is a postmodern mask of what fascism and totalitarianisms of the 1930s were in particular,” warns the novelist, who looks back on this decade and the trauma of the Spanish Civil War in his last novel, Lord of all the dead.
He does not apologize for having grouped separatists, some of whose leaders are on trial in Madrid for sedition, with the return of the historically “terrifying” Spanish far right for the first time since the end of the general’s 40-year dictatorship. Franco in 1975. In fact, he directly attributes the emergence of the Vox party to the separatists who tried to push his Catalan compatriots to independence two years ago.
“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 much worse,” he says. Both camps, he insists, are twisting history to pit the Spaniards against each other.
It is a controversial idea for the Catalans who recall the police violence that accompanied a referendum banned in October 2017. But, as El País columnist, Cercas is not known to bite his tongue.
The only antidote to this distortion of history, he says, is to understand how ordinary people, even well-meaning ones, have been so easily misled by fascism: “What are we to do with the bad sides of our history?” ? Sweeten them? Hide them? Invent something else? Or should we learn more about them and try to understand? “
In Lord of all the dead, Cercas tempts the latter by entering the mind of a young idealist fascist of his own family – his great-uncle Manuel Mena, who died as a teenager volunteering for the Francoist Phalange party.
This forced the 57-year-old author to plunge into an uncomfortable past when his family supported Franco. Given that this still casts a shadow over current politics – exemplified by the dispute over the removal of the dictator’s body from his underground basilica in the Valley of the Fallen – it’s a dive into turbulent waters.
“My books are really about the present, not the past,” Cercas explains. “Because in Spain, the present does not begin now, nor with the death of Franco in 1975, but with the civil war in 1936.”
Despite being a passionate defender of the Republic that Franco ultimately overthrew, Cercas says our view of the rise of fascism is steeped in illusion and hypocrisy. “People forgot that fascism was attractive, that it was fascinating,” he says, accusing novelists and directors of creating stereotypical images of sadistic and cold-blooded assassins. “People think the fascists wore horns, like the devil, but that’s a lie. Hitler fascinated the most cultured country of the time and many others as well, including some 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 International Anti-Fascist Brigades, whose 35,000 volunteers traveled around the world to defend the Republic.
Mena became the hero and martyr of the family, with a portrait of the boy-lieutenant in his immaculate white officer uniform hanging in their home in the village of Iberhernando, in the southwest. The Cercas clan was made up of local bigwigs, ruling the village and helping impose Franco’s dictatorship before his parents emigrated to Catalonia, where Javier grew up.
Family members told Cercas he risked making painful discoveries while researching their past. Others warned that he would be criticized from all quarters – either for painting too dark a picture or for whitewashing Francoism. In the end, he couldn’t find any direct connection between the killings of Republicans in Iberhernando and his grandfather, the mayor. He nevertheless feels compelled to “take responsibility” for this past by writing about it.
Reactions to a novel that humanizes a fascist teenager were predictable. A criticism that accused Cercas, also author of Salamis soldiers, to rehabilitate “the fascists and the mobsters” aroused anger reactions which recalled its long association “with the values and causes of the left”. “I’m dealing with a central piece of Spanish history – the Civil War – and people just want you to say whether you’re for or against,” says the novelist. “The reality is much more complex.
Mena’s problem, according to Cercas, was that he was a young idealist who, like many others in 1930s Europe, chose the wrong ideal. He is convinced that good people can make bad political choices and do bad things as a result. Likewise, bad people can also make good political choices and remain essentially bad, like the Republican partisans who murdered 7,000 priests and nuns in cold blood. The key to avoiding a repeat of the 1930s, he says, is to understand all of this.
Cercas sees a similar distortion in the Brexit debate, although this time around it is a supposedly ‘glorious’ past that is being twisted. He also wants British liberals to see the similarities with Catalan separatism. “Either way, people are being manipulated,” he says. “There is an inability to accept reality, and the same creation of an external enemy.”