The discovery of some unmarked Spanish Civil War graves in the mountains of Valencia leads Jason Webster on a journey into Spain’s dark side. Webster had come to realise there was far more to Spain than Flamenco and Moorish castles. It is a country full of contradictions: a modern young democracy on the one hand; so much so that many Spaniards would rather forget the pre-Transition era. But then Spain is also an ancient and reactionary place. During the Civil War “areas under Franco’s control were noted for their austerity and silence, with public notices calling on people not to talk about politics”. The austerity has gone but the public notices may still linger in the psyche.
Webster mixes his own adventures with chapters on background and key events in the Civil War. It is both a good introduction for those who know little about the Civil War and a refresher for those already familiar with the conflict. In the personal chapters, Webster meets some oddballs such as the Transformista Kiki. This character epitomises the contradictions of modern day Spain. S/he would have been a target for persecution in Franco’s Spain and yet s/he takes the author to a talk by apologist for the Franco regime, Pío Moa, and also to the dictator’s resting place and vast tribute to himself (built with the use of Republican prisoners) – The Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid. “For the first time I began to feel less certain about things I had taken for granted, about assuming that peaceful democratic life would carry on for year’s to come,” says Webster.
Oddly, it is a chapter on football the chapter where the book loses a little credibility and leaves me wondering if the book is a little over embellished at times. While watching a match in a bar in the Real Madrid supporting heartlands of Burgos in Castile, it dawns on Webster that this Classico had already taken place months before and that the viewers in the bar were getting carried away with the retransmission. This is almost believable, Spain being such a football crazy country, were it not for the fact that Barcelona won the game and the bar emptied of disgusted supporters. As a lifelong football fan, I simply cannot believe that supporters would watch a rerun of a game they knew they were destined to lose, never mind get so worked up about it all over again. I suspect the channel would be quickly changed. Spain can be a mad place, but not that mad surely!
However, this is a minor point. Webster might not know much about football but he takes the Real Madrid v Barça rivalry, which reflects regional and political divisions in Spain, to make a number of astute observations with skilful use of metaphor. “What struck me as most curious about the regional tensions within Spain, though, was how vehement the arguments were for the country to stay as one, and the anger and loathing you found towards Basques and Catalans among many Castilian Spaniards. From the way you heard them talk sometimes, jumping up and down and swearing about Catalonia this or Euskadi that, you had the sense of an intransigent husband determined to punish an unfaithful wife he couldn’t stand. Divorce was out of the question: he must make her suffer and stay with him by force.”
I agree with Webster there and also echo these views: “Yet despite my feeling that each party (Basque Country, catalonia, etc.) should be allowed to go its separate way if it so wished, I was glad that Spain was still a united, if squabbling family. It was the very richness of the place, the pluralism and diversity of its cultures, languages and peoples, that made it such a vast and fascinating country.”
This is Webster’s third book on a Spanish theme and the history is well researched (Paul Preston agrees). Webster has lived in the country for many years and is clearly one of those foreigners who has explored well below the surface (literally in some cases too, as you will see if you read the book). ¡Guerra! may throw up more questions than answers to the Spanish conflict but then who has the definitive explanation?