Writing on memory
The narratives on memory help to change the collective perception of different historical moments
by Santi Montes / culturagalega.gal
There is no doubt that memory can legitimately be considered the basis of literature, or even, ultimately, the main pillar of any attempt at writing. As in other countries, Galician letters have developed a marked interest in this issue. The period of the Civil War and Francoist repression, as well as the mark left by emigration on our society, have proven to be particularly fertile phases in literary creativity. In parallel to narrative, historical essays seek their niche and also contribute to shaping our collective perception of the past.
Diego Rivadulla Costa, author of the thesis Novela e memoria cultural: a ficcionalización do franquismo na narrativa galega (2000-2015) (Novels and cultural memory: the fictionalisation of Francoism in Galician narrative), points that ‘the memory of the coup d’état of 1936 and of Francoism has become one of the topics most often dealt with in Galician narrative in recent years, in the context of the emergence of the so-called historical memory across the Spanish State and of a growing interest in the recent traumatic past in all areas of the public sphere’. In his conclusions of this analysis, he considers ‘the hypothesis of the existence of a qualitative and quantitative boom of memory in Galician novels from the early 21st century’ to be proven. He points to this trend as ‘one of the main directions of present-day Galician literature’, stating that ‘its emergence is directly related to the public interest in the recent traumatic past and the recovery of the silenced memory in Galicia, as well as in the Spanish State as a whole’.
The fact that the National Literature Awards have acknowledged authors who have dealt with memory in their writing shows the mastery with which memory is approached in our land. Xesús Fraga, who received the award in 2021 for his novel Virtudes (e misterios), is the last to join a list of figures that also includes notably the work of Suso de Toro, who received the award in 2003 for Trece badaladas and has written different books on this topic. In the essay genre, it was Xosé Manuel Núñez Seixas who won the award in 2019 for his work Suspiros de España. El nacionalismo español 1808-2018, in which he analyses the evolution of the discourse on this ideology, Spanish nationalism, over the past two centuries.
From a broader perspective, ‘memory is fundamental in all literary works, even in those that may appear to be more trivial or, at first glance, less focused on memory. It is, in any case, a leaven of the past, of what we’ve heard and what we’ve experienced, and it has sometimes surprising or even secret mechanisms. It works as an iceberg: a peak appears above the water but there’s a large hidden mass underneath that may turn over and come to light’, Xesús Fraga says. ‘In that sense, absolutely all of us write on the basis of memory, and also behave like that in our everyday life. We’re narrative artefacts; we constantly tell ourselves and others our own story, and our lives gradually unfold in that interaction, in continuous evolution, but memory and narration are fundamental in our identity’.
A personal commitment
Leaving commercial interests aside, the authors consulted point to personal motivations to account for their decision to tackle memory in their writing. In the case of Xesús Fraga, his portrait of emigration in the award-winning Virtudes (e misterios) emerged ‘from a personal urge. It was a story I had to tell. First, because I needed to explain it to myself, to understand how the emigration of previous generations was so decisive in our family. And also because I thought there were a lot of people who’d experienced similar situations’. As a result, ‘the fact that my grandfather decided to emigrate and he wasn’t heard from in forty years and that my grandmother was forced to emigrate to England with my mum was raw material that I thought could be of interest’.
This has strong parallels with Suso de Toro’s perspective on the matter. ‘The ultimate and decisive explanation that lies in the foundation of a literary work is always of a psychological nature. Behind a quest like this, there emerges a need of the author. In my case, it’s probably due to my family’s history, created by ruptures’, as well as different emigrations. ‘There’s probably a demand for a deep search for personal identity’, which emerges particularly in works such as Sete palabras (2009). This novel appears as ‘an effort to portray the origin of my paternal family’, who had emigrated to Compostela from a town in Sanabria, Zamora, and it was the author’s first approach to narrative work on memory.
Among literary researchers, there is agreement in relation to the particular boom of narratives around historical memory related to the Civil War and the postwar period that has taken place in recent decades. Next to this trend, other proposals have emerged that opt to bring back memories from other historical periods, such as emigration or prewar Galicia. From a historiographic perspective, Xosé Manuel Núñez Seixas points that ‘the Civil War, early Francoism and emigration are very specific characteristics of Galician culture. They draw three or four central themes in which literature receives feedback from historical research, public demands and social interest’. This is how authors’ personal mark is in tune with collective sensibilities. For Núñez Seixas, in our literature ‘emigration and exile, sometimes interwoven, are very often presented as a sort of collective odyssey. This line can be seen, with different nuances, in the work of Alfredo Conde, Manolo Rivas or Xesús Fraga himself’. Next to this theme, the topic of the Civil War has been present in our historical narrative ‘since the 1960s and 1970s, with authors such as Casares or Ferrín. This interest has continued until the present day, with the treatment of topics such as wolfram [extracted in and supplied from Galicia to the Nazi regime], the relationship with the Second World War or the Blue Division’.
In his study Memória histórica, identidade nacional e discurso literário na Galiza (Historical memory, national identity and literary discourse in Galicia), Carlos F. Velasco suggests that there was an initial literary approach to the period of the Civil War and the Francoist regime during Spain’s transition to democracy. ‘From then on, the themes of the Civil War, the awakening of the Republic, repression and fascist violence ceased to be the target of political censorship. Little by little, different works emerged which, in one way or another, echoed that sort of void in the collective memory of Galicians which needed, sometimes urgently, to be filled and recovered’. In a second phase, ‘from the early 1990s onwards, the efforts to fictionalise the period of the Civil War and early Francoism intensified’, now with ‘a more uninhibited approach to the subject matter and a broader scope’.
Just like him, Suso de Toro has long been aware of the particular weight of certain periods on our society. ‘In Polaroid I included a text in which I wanted to explain the origins of Galician society as it is today, and I sought that explanation precisely in the Civil War and the great military mobilisation that the levies for the Francoist army entailed. I think it’s an aspect that’s educated and shaped society as we know it’, he states. In addition to this, the author acknowledges that his interest in this period also stems from the fact that ‘since I was a teenager I built myself as antifascist, so I was always aware of that historical event. And that, in my literary work, has evolved and taken shape autonomously’. Thus, the mark of that time can be felt in his work in different ways. ‘When I reflect on what I write, I gradually understand that every time I create fiction, as I invent my characters’ biographies, I always end up finding the trauma of repression and of the postwar period. I realise I can’t imagine adult characters whose lives haven’t been affected and conditioned’ by those periods. He believes that Land Rover (1988) works along these lines. In it, ‘I tell a contemporary story about adult people whose conflicts and lives can be accounted for by their past in relation to the Civil War. This is the first time that the coup of 1936 and the guerrilla appear explicitly in my work’. In a broader sense, the perspective of the past explaining a present situation is also embodied in several of his works in the form of new characters that question the past. ‘This can be seen in Sete palabras or Home sen nome. It’s something very typical of me. I’m now writing a work of fiction that also starts with this dialectic’.
Fraga, for his part, points that ‘Galicia wouldn’t be what it’s been in the past decades without the contribution of emigration. For many families, it implied a separation, but also opportunities that weren’t available in their place of birth. In particular, for many women, whose situation was very different from today when Franco’s regime was in full swing, emigration meant a new start’.
Next to these historical periods, Núñez Seixas mentions others that are still to be dealt with in our narrative. ‘Some themes that remain to be tackled, also in part in historiography, are the transition to democracy, the construction of the autonomous community and the struggles that took place, now that it’s been fifty years since the strikes of 1972. There are still many people who lived during that time and it’s very present on their minds; their ghosts were different. From my point of view, a great novel on “The Stripe” and our relationships with Portugal has yet to be written, and older themes in historical novels, such as the Napoleonic War of the Galician corsairs of the 18th century, have yet to be explored’.
Documentation for creation
The fact of working with real biographic material means that documentation work for literary creation based on memory must be more meticulous than for writing historical fiction. ‘Great novelists are also great documentalists. They do documentation work that may be comparable to that of historians, resorting to oral sources and compiling materials’, Núñez Seixas states. In the case of Virtudes (e misterios), ‘this is a book written using my memory, the memories I had from my time with my grandmother’, Fraga says. Carried out over twelve years, the project was completed when Virtudes had already died. ‘If I’d started it earlier and had had interviews with her as part of my research, I’m convinced that my perspective would have been different’, he acknowledges. For authors, interviews appear as a fundamental way of obtaining information about the story and its main characters. Thus, when preparing his book, Fraga drew on the testimonies of his family. ‘I spoke to my cousins and other relatives and friends from my childhood to try to reconstruct that story and compare it with the way other people saw those situations. I wanted to go beyond the perspective of a boy born in emigration who’d come back, and what that meant to me’. Together with oral testimonies, written documentation of all sorts also appears as a fundamental source for the construction of this kind of works. In addition to letters or other written documents, ‘bureaucratic texts may not seem to reveal anything, but in the end they contain interesting things. I didn’t know my grandfather had been born at the Royal Hospital of Santiago, or that he was the son of a single mother. “Unknown” appears on the certificate in the place for the father’s name, as if that was already marking his destiny’, Xesús Fraga mentions as an example.
In the case of De Toro, a long process of documentation took him, in projects such as Home sen nome, to thoroughly recreate the city of Compostela in 1936. ‘I did a type of work that hadn’t yet been carried out then. Using the sources I had, and the testimonies of some survivors, I managed to make a sequence, almost by hours, of what had happened from 17 to 31 July in the city, by finding who was living on the ground floor or on the first floor of each house’. This task was not easy, and it was not always pleasant. ‘Finding out the murderers’ names meant finding out things about the families of people I’d gone to school with, and even about some of my friends. It was very disturbing’, he recalls. Similarly, his latest book, Un señor elegante, is also the fruit of years of work. ‘It was while doing some research for Home sen nome that I came into contact with the descendants of Ramón Baltar’, the main character in his latest work. ‘They related to me certain episodes of their family history in which there were things worth being told’, which focused mainly on family life. ‘They didn’t fit in with the tone of Home sen nome and I let them be’, he explains. Over time, ‘another of Ramón’s children, Juan Ramón Baltar, provided me with new episodes with evident historical value, such as the family’s decisive relationship with Rosalía, Murguía and Castelao, or the repression they suffered, especially Antón, a brother of Ramón’s, who had to flee not to be killed’. Once he decided to undertake this work, ‘understanding the characters’ history and their reactions forced me into constant questioning’ – in person, by phone and even by letter – the main character’s children. The project also included the analysis of an important volume of historical documentation kept by the family, a task for which the author had the collaboration of his partner, Teresa.
Núñez Seixas highlights the particular impact that the narrative on memory may have on society as a whole. ‘Literature is able to thematise and expand on issues that are of interest to society, even pressing issues’. In the specific field of historical memory, ‘there are still open wounds that perhaps haven’t been fully addressed in areas such as essays, historical research or other cultural expressions. Very often, narrative serves as an expression or reverberation of themes that are dealt with in historiography, anthropology, sociology or other social sciences’.
In his opinion, the ability of literature to tackle these issues through fiction makes this discipline ‘one of the most important agents in the construction of imaginaries. In narrative, contents, ideas and aspirations about ourselves and others are expressed, which don’t always appear in essays or aren’t always written through political ideas’, the historian acknowledges. Also Carlos F. Velasco notices in his analysis that, in accordance with the ‘great collective effort to recover what we call democratic historical memory’ that has taken place in the country over the past decades, ‘it is particularly worth highlighting our writers’ activity of literary creation, certainly not because it is more important than other activities but because of its major contribution to the cause’. Velasco even considers that it is possible to assert ‘that the emerging Galician literary system is today in a position to play even a key role in relation to both the dissemination of knowledge about the Civil War and the Francoist dictatorship, which constituted such a tragic period in our history (through its conversion into a literary plot), and the very consolidation or reinforcement of identity traits linked, in this case, to the evocation of experiences shared by the groups of victims of fascism’.
As an example of the way in which a novel of this kind may help change our perception of certain historical periods, Suso de Toro points out that through his latest work ‘I gradually found out that the Baltar family had been really affected by repression in terms of their material and social interests, but the children weren’t aware of that’. At a broader level, according to the author, ‘the book reveals that there were sectors of republicanism and Galicianism that participated in the guerrilla resistance structure and collaborated with the Communist Party, and that Baltar was a figure of the utmost importance in this political and military structure’. For him, ‘Baltar’s story vindicates the image of the guerrilla and of armed resistance to Francoism, and shows that it wasn’t something restricted to workers and poor peasants. It was part of a political project that failed. It wasn’t just a bunch of people who’d fled and hidden on the hills; at that time, there were more things in addition to the work of [the publishing house] Galaxia’. In his view, this family’s story helps broaden the concept of Galician identity itself. ‘Through this family, we can see that the story of the peasant boy [a reference to Xosé Neira Vilas’ novel Memoirs of a Peasant Boy] isn’t the country’s only historical reality and that it can’t be the only mirror in which we look at ourselves. I’m not saying either that it has to be the Baltar family, who protected Rosalía, played the piano and had a yacht before the war. They were a European family like any other, but they were Galicia too’.
Beyond the documentation process, the very fact of preparing a literary work that is based on memory and keeps to something that actually happened poses a unique challenge for authors. The need to remain faithful to reality contrasts with the freedom of fiction, and it is not always easy to make both terms match. In their latest works, both Fraga and De Toro opted for mixed writing models, which is a line of work that, according to Núñez Seixas, is gaining more and more supporters. ‘In the past twenty or thirty years, there have been authors who move on hybrid terrain. Based on documentation, they use the freedom of the novel genre to reach those gaps that archival research can’t reach’.
When dealing with the literary work involved in this kind of books, the choices each creator is faced with differ from the possibilities provided by fiction. For Xesús Fraga, in Virtudes (e misterios) ‘my first option was to make a more conventional novel in which I’d treat my relatives as fictional characters, changing their names and some more details to make them more appropriate for a novel. I could also present the story as a novel without any invention, or something closer to the stories of new American journalism. In the end, I thought the novel was strong enough not to need the adornment of fiction’. This choice, which was eventually implemented, ‘also opened up certain possibilities for me, such as including images and my reflections on them, reproducing documents, a diary or letters, and changing the focus from one chapter to another, providing different perspectives and putting together a more complete story’. Similarly, in Un señor elegante Suso de Toro used a documentary approach to writing. ‘I say the book is a novel in the sense that it’s a literary work that’s read as a story, but I didn’t invent the characters. As in Sete palabras, I found it very appealing to relate life experiences, and it helped me to see how fiction pales beside the literary richness that allows us to narrate reality. The truth is that I’m going through a certain crisis of credibility of fiction’, he acknowledges.
Although based on historical events, an author’s narrative ability proves to be fundamental when it comes to articulating a book that works. ‘In my family’s history, there was material to put an interesting book together, but I was aware that it was my ability as a writer that could make the difference between telling the story straight and putting together a story that could touch people’, Fraga acknowledges. A journalist by profession, he says that he is used to re-elaborating reality in his trade. ‘You need to work a lot applying honest subjectivity and recognise that neutral, aseptic objectivity is impossible to reach’, he explains. In the writing of Virtudes (e misterios), ‘I tried to deal as a journalist with many of the issues I was faced with. That gave me some useful distance from the story; it allowed me to overcome my personal emotion and face the story in a colder way, analyse it to see its place in the book’. In his experience, this elaboration of memory transforms the perspective from which the events narrated are perceived. Thus, Fraga acknowledges that in his process of writing ‘certain anecdotes I considered to be more or less funny or trivial show, when looked at from the perspective given by a different background, different experiences and different material you have read, snippets of a time and personality traits. If you manage to draw some reflections and find common ground with experiences of other people who have knowledge of that time, they go beyond that anecdotal nature’. In the finished book, ‘memory isn’t only a tool that allows you to bring back events of the past, but it also provides a fundamental perspective to present an account of the events that took place’.
As Fraga’s and De Toro’s latest works aptly exemplify, among the recent choices presented in novels on historical memory, there are multiple proposals focusing on the inner family history, the defence of care work or the situation of women, which helps diversify the most common perspectives. As Núñez Seixas points out, the choice of these new themes coincides with the general trends. ‘The memory of the 21st century is definitely post-heroic. It pays close attention to victims and the everyday suffering of people who’re not the subject of monuments or models for the community. These perspectives often express better what people have gone through and experienced, transmitted through the families of thousands of people’. Thus, ‘there’s an interest, both among historians and in literature, in the role of women, but also in the experiences of children or old people, the experience of care work, forms of silent resistance or the mechanisms of adaptation to dictatorships’. Next to this, in the case of a culture like that of Galicia, with a large deficit of biographies, we can also see a new interest in this genre. More specifically, in our country’s literature ‘there seems to be now more interest in gender issues and the recovery of female figures. We’re seeing this in the case of figures such as Concepción Arenal or Juana de Vega, who played a role in contemporary history and are now being vindicated’ also in fiction writing.
These perspectives can be clearly perceived in the works of the narrators interviewed. When tackling Virtudes (e misterios), Fraga was not aware that he was facing issues that had barely been worked on in our literature. ‘It was something that was built into the story and came naturally out of my own sensibility when it came to approaching it’. However, he acknowledges that ‘I wasn’t interested in telling a migration story in the manner of an American blockbuster, with a self-made man who’s risen from illiteracy to become a potentate. I think we need to redefine what success is in emigration stories. The fact that a woman alone managed to raise three daughters and her grandchildren were able to go to university thanks to jobs made invisible, such as cleaning and care work – that is a success story’. Additionally, this author points out that ‘without departing from the issue of emigration, there are many people who are working with different perspectives. The fact that women joined emigration movements during the second half of the 20th century with a more prominent and active role is now being portrayed precisely by women, which is something that I think is very necessary. Eva Moreda, María Alonso or Anna R. Figueiredo are presenting that phenomenon from their own perspectives, and from this plurality of voices there emerges a common narrative in Galician literature that says a lot about us’.
Along different lines, a work with which Suso de Toro revolutionised the most common perspectives of Galician narrative on the Civil War period was Home sen nome (2006), in which, as he explains, ‘I suggested that literature should be used to consciously and directly intervene in the established narrative on this period and the social awareness of it. In the 1990s, a certain dialectic with the past began to be recovered and the memory of those who’d suffered reprisals started to be vindicated, which continued in the 2000s. At that time, there was a lot of talk about the victims and a process of mythicisation or beatification took place, which is natural and logical. But that gradually created also a feeling of self-justification, the idea that by identifying with the victims we all show solidarity, assume them as ours and are absolved. And we remained also in that phase of lamentation and weeping for the dead. But I also saw that the real taboo that remained was the fact that there had also been killers, about whom it’s still forbidden to talk, and who even have legal guarantees. So with this book I wanted to tell who the executioners were’, he explains. ‘I tried to reconstruct, psychologically and historically, who were those people, those conscious fascist murderers who even aesthetise and theorise on murder and political violence, and who are actually fascinating. In that sense, fascism is the political manifestation of hypermasculinity. There’s also a deep and very interesting psychological and cultural component, and a nihilistic component’. However, De Toro acknowledges that ‘I failed with this work. Readers, who are almost always women, usually want to read comforting things, and the book was the opposite of the beatification of lay saints; it was disturbing. When I’m asked about it, I don’t recommend reading it. I wrote it out of an ethical obligation, but it’s uncomfortable’. Núñez Seixas agrees with him, pointing out that ‘it’s complex to tackle these issues from the perpetrators’ perspective, and sometimes you need to try because there was a part of society that saw that this was the right side of history. It’s less complacent but it’s also appealing. The fact that Xosé Fernández Naval tackled the story of a relative of his who was involved in the Blue Division shows that those Galicians existed too, and why they did what they did’.
In addition to narrative, literary work in the field of essays has also dealt with the issue of memory in great detail. However, the situation of this genre, as Núñez Seixas points out, is far from being ideal. ‘In the case of Galicia, a type of essay writing that’s able to combine the best of research with dissemination work remains to be consolidated. There aren’t many examples; one of them may be Ramón Villares. The tendency is towards combative essays, very much geared towards convincing the faithful, and that’s not bad, but sometimes we need to search for a narrative that includes broader sensibilities and combine them with elegance’. It will be complex for this situation to evolve, as ‘for young researchers, publishing articles in specialised journals counts towards their CVs, and they don’t have the time or the motivation to write something more informative. In addition, this genre requires storytelling skills. This can also be seen in political essays and even in memoirs and autobiographies of important people: there’s a lack of some literary empathy’, he points out.
When it comes to approaching writing in this field, the historian mentions that ‘my thesis supervisor in Florence, Stuart J. Woolf, used to tell me that history needs to be written well. Great British historians, such as Hobsbawm or Thompson, resonate with the public as they do because they write in a manner that’s accessible to almost everyone. Sociologists, political scientists and hard science authors write for experts, but we historians need to make the effort to write for a broader audience without losing rigour. That’s an art that can also be learnt. For history is also a literary genre, in addition to a social science; and it can’t be written by just anyone. It’s necessary to filter and select what’s worth being told, to contextualise and synthesise, to interpret with knowledge and intuition’.
Regarding the general situation of historical memory in our country, he points out that ‘some progress has been made, but probably more slowly than would be necessary. We need to remember that in almost all societies, even in those that are considered to be the most advanced in this respect, such as Germany, the creation of a critical account of the recent dictatorial past that would be accepted by large sectors of society took time, almost forty years. At present, there’s no social consensus on the matter because part of society, mobilised by political actors, still doesn’t see the need to develop any democratic memory or a critical view of the recent past’. In his opinion, however, compared to the positions in the state as a whole, ‘in Galicia this is perhaps experienced with less acrimony. The right adopted a cultural Galicianism that, with limitations or ritualisations, made it possible to create a more widely shared memory. Outside of here, people are amazed at the unanimity there was in Parliament on the recovery of the Pazo de Meirás [a manor house which had belonged to the Franco family until a court ruled that his ownership corresponded to the Spanish State], for example, even if there’s no agreement on its uses now’.
With greater or lesser consensus, there is no doubt that in the coming years this exploration of our common past will continue, with new periods and new perspectives in focus.
Project manager: Manuel Gago
Video: Pablo Goluboff
Redactors: Manuel Gago, Xermán Hermida, Santi Montes
Production: Alberto Carballido
Live audio: Daniel Ameneiro
Audio Posproduction: Alberto Blanco Fernández
Translation: Nicholas Callaway