Ghosts of Spain, by Giles Tremlett

>> Saturday, March 13, 2010

TITLE: Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past
AUTHOR: Giles Tremlett

PAGES: 426
PUBLISHER: Faber and Faber

SETTING: Well, Spain, I suppose!
TYPE: Non Fiction

REASON FOR READING: Picked it at randomly at my local library.

The appearance, more than sixty years after the Spanish Civil War ended, of mass graves containing victims of Francisco Franco’s death squads finally broke what Spaniards call “the pact of forgetting”—the unwritten understanding that their recent, painful past was best left unexplored. At this charged moment, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around the country and through its history to discover why some of Europe’s most voluble people have kept silent so long. In elegant and passionate prose, Tremlett unveils the tinderbox of disagreements that mark the country today. Ghosts of Spain is a revelatory book about one of Europe’s most exciting countries.
"Essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Spain", says the BBC History Magazine. I couldn't agree more. In this collection of beautifully crafted essays, Tremlett, an Englishman who's been living in Spain for years, lovingly explores what Spain is like and the past that has made it that way.

The subtitle (Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past) might be a bit deceptive, as it really only describes the first couple of chapters. These open the book by looking at the Spanish Civil War and its legacy of Francoism, as well as the Transition and people's attitudes to it today, the "pact of forgetting", as Tremlett describes the collective amnesia Spain decided on after emerging from Francoism (especially interesting to me, since we attempted something very similar one emerging from our own dictatorship, only it cracked a lot more easily and faster).

But there are lots of things as well, explorations of what Spain is today. This is often linked to the past, as a way of giving readers an understanding of how things developed. Whether Tremlett's discussing the experience of childbirth in Spain and the attitude towards children, flamenco music, Spaniards' attitude towards brothel-going and their general refusal to be shocked by sexuality, while still managing to be pretty sexist sometimes, the emergence of mass tourism and its effects, or the Basque country (unfortunately, as the author says, necessarily with a focus on ETA), he does a brilliant job, being clear and illuminating, and having the knack to give his reader the perfect amount of background information. I especially liked the Moros y Cristianos (Moors and Christians) chapter, with its analysis of the links between the train bombings in Madrid and the history of Al Andalus. Beautifully structured, and really making sense of things that were later cynically twisted by parts of the international media.

Tremlett's perspective is an interesting one, since he's a bit of an insider-outsider -an integrated outsider, I think he calls it. He's married to Spanish woman, with children being raised as normal Spanish children, so he knows Spain and clearly feels part of it, but he can still with a slight detachment and with complete lack of defensiveness. It's the perfect combination

And the writing is wonderful. Sometimes with non fiction the actual writing loses importance, so you end up slogging through dry prose to get at interesting material, but that wasn't the case here at all. From the first page, the writing just wraps you up and carries you with it. You don't want to stop reading, and that's not just because of the interesting things you're reading, but because of the way they're being communicated to you.

On a very personal note, this book was one I feel I've been waiting all my life to read. I probably know Spain and Spanish culture better than most of the English readership of this book. I grew up in Uruguay, and as one of Spain's former colonies, we still have significant cultural links. But that means that for things that were before my time, I never really got it, because a certain degree of knowledge was assumed in any, say, newspaper or magazine article. For instance, I never happened on the whole story, from the beginning, of General Tejero's attempted coup. I knew of it, I'd recognise the pictures from the day, but all articles I read assumed that I knew the basics already, or that I knew the people involved and what their background and political leanings were. Even trying to do a bit more research about it, I faced the same "assumed knowledge" problem. For things like that, reading Tremlett's account, where the target audience was people who probably had never heard of it, or knew very little, was priceless.

I was also very struck by how much of the Spanish we Latin Americans still have in us. Our generals seemed to take a page right out of Franco's book, and the attitudes are very similar in many, many ways. At one point Tremlett describes a kind of Spanish film that emerged in the late stages of Francoism, in which (paraphrasing here, since I can't find the quote now) a stupid, ugly Spanish man is chased by beautiful women, just because he's a "macho espaƱol", a species much prized, especially amongst Northern European woman. Oh god, I SO recognise that! That's pretty much every single Argentinian comedy programme from the 80s! Alberto Olmedo and his "bebotas", etc. That sort of thing has always made me want to throw up.

The only flaw I find in the book is that it didn't cover something I'm really interested in, and which is immigration, especially from Latin America. I know that the fact that I'm interested in something isn't a reason it should be in a book (I'm not that egocentric), but I would think this is an important issue in Spain. Whenever I've been, immigrants are pretty visible.

But oh, well, that only lowers my grade from an A+ to an A, and I don't give out those very often. Read this, even if you're only slightly interested in Spain. You won't regret it.



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