Spain’s most famous writer thinks the fascist past is still alive

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[Deborah Eisenberg’s chronicling of American insanity.]

An academic recently unearthed a copy of the censorship report on the novel and sent it to Marías. “He was like, ‘This book is crap and certainly immoral,’” Marías told me, happily summing up the verdict, “’but it doesn’t say anything against the state or the Church’, which really mattered to them. to heart. This is true in the literal sense, and yet the novel still managed to mark its contempt for the island monoculture of Franco’s Spain, obsessed as it was with questions of national identity and belonging. More a collection of related short stories than a full-fledged novel, it takes place entirely in a sort of hard-witted America made out of movies, books, and popular music. Its content was less provocative than it does not have contain, and what this elision suggested: it doesn’t all have to be about Franco.

At that time, Marías also had extensive first-hand experience of present-day America. His father, Julián Marías, a prominent philosopher and public intellectual, had spent the Civil War writing and disseminating Republican propaganda; in 1939, a few weeks after the end of the conflict, he was caught up in the systematic pro-Franco purge of the defeated opposition and only escaped the firing squad after a witness called by the prosecution finally testified in his court. favor. Her experience under the regime was instructive for her son. Because Julián was prohibited from teaching at Spanish universities, he periodically accepted short-term academic positions abroad, including at several colleges in the United States. Javier, his three brothers and their mother, Dolores, translator, would follow. It was in New Haven, where his father taught at Yale during the 1955-56 academic year, that he first heard English, a language that would play a decisive role in his life. After publishing her second novel, at age 22, Marías took a six-year hiatus from writing fiction and devoted herself to various translation projects, that is, rewriting the fiction of others. He attributes this period, during which he rendered Laurence Sterne, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Vladimir Nabokov and others in Spanish, as crucial in his artistic development. In the mid-1980s he taught Spanish literature and translation theory at the University of Oxford, part of his brilliant academic satire “All Souls”, a book in which many of his former colleagues thought they recognized a unflattering reflection of themselves.

It has already been noted that the protagonists of Marías are often people who live vicariously through the words of others: there is an opera singer (“The Man of Feeling”, 1986), a negro (“Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me ”, 1994), an editor (“ The Infatuations ”, 2011). Juan, the narrator of “A Heart So White” – the book that made Marías a European celebrity in the 90s – is a translator and performer. In one of the novel’s most striking comic sets, he mediates between two recognizable politicians like Felipe González, the Spanish Prime Minister, and his British counterpart, Margaret Thatcher, in a private meeting. By intentionally translating parts of the dialogue (González’s question: “Would you like me to order you some tea?” Becomes “Tell me, do the people in your country love you?”), Juan brings out the repressed authoritarian aspirations of the participants. Despite Europe’s favorable self-image, Marías often suggests, the continent has not yet fully freed itself from the lingering embrace of fascism.

Marias’ latest novel, “Berta Isla” tells the story of a marriage based on a kind of pact deprived of oblivion. While in high school in Madrid, the female protagonist meets and falls in love with Tomás Nevinson, the son of a Spanish mother and an expatriate English father. During his undergraduate studies at the University of Oxford, Tomás was recruited by the British Secret Service, who believed his bilingualism would make him an excellent spy. He returns to Spain and marries Berta, but his work, which she accepts not to ask questions, forces him to a double life. Secrets breed secrets, and soon their marriage became a game of mutual deception. Spanning over three decades, from the early 1960s to the end of the Cold War and beyond, the book offers a disturbing examination of how history infiltrates and contaminates our most intimate relationships. At one point, Berta finds herself pondering angrily over the popular enthusiasm for the Falklands War, in which she believes Tomás was involved:

Politicians never dare to criticize people, who are often vile, cowardly and stupid. … They have become untouchable and have taken the place of the once despotic and absolutist monarchs. Like them, they have the prerogative to be as fickle as they like and go unpunished forever, and they don’t have to answer for how they vote or who they elect or who they support or what they guard. silence or consent or impose or cheer.

Marías, of course, does not suggest a false moral equivalence between dictatorship and democracy. When I asked him how he felt when he heard of Franco’s death, he didn’t hesitate. “Joy,” he said. “Relief and great, great joy. When it became clear that no one would be brought to justice, he also felt great anger. He was not alone. One feature of post-transition Spain that was particularly infuriating to those who suffered under Franco was the way some former strongman supporters began to reinvent themselves as lifelong liberals. Such a cheeky self-overhaul has remained largely undisputed in an era when bringing accusations was seen as petty, vindictive, or a threat to the delicate social order.


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