Not Listening to the Enemy

With David Becerra Mayor about the Civil War literary fashion

Since 1990 over 150 novels focusing on the Civil War were published in Spain. But according to the literary critic David Becerra Mayor these novels do not strive to offer an understanding of a historical conflict. Instead, the war is utilized merely as an attractive stage set. As a result, the novels only reproduce a long-surpassed myths of the Franco regime.

Your latest book is titled Civil War as literary fashion [La GuerraCivil como moda literaria]. What initiated this fashion in the past twenty years?

It is first of all important to remember that the Spanish transformation from the Franco regime to democracy was based on a pact of silence and forgetting. People were forced to only look ahead, into the future and not open any old wounds. The Spanish society of the democratic transformation was born with Lot´swife’s fear inside: it was forbidden to look back to not turn into a pillar of salt. It had appeared to be terrific news that suddenly so many novels about the Civil War started to be published, seemingly breaking the silence. But it’s quickly turned out that the Civil War is no more than a stage set. 


Does this mean that the novels do not take historical events seriously?

They are historical novels without historicity. The Civil War period is to provide a contrast to the present. A conflicted past is to provide an escape from the present that is considered to be dull and grey. It is like a glittering mirror that Jameson speaks about in his book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. If we look into these novels for reflections of our faces, a blinding flash of light makes it impossible to recognize ourselves. The light charms us, just like the novels charm and entertain us. The impossibility to see one’s reflection, ourselves in the past eventually deactivates our historical experience and, as a result, we perceive past as a mythical time that has nothing to do with us – as a closed epoch, which, in actuality remains very much open. 


Regardless, these novels are rather successful and widely read...

These novels were successful because Spanish society began mobilizing in late 1990s, demanding, at the same time, to learn about its past. Historical memory entered the services of a political agenda. These particular novels depicted this social restlessness and at attempted to seize it to deactivate its emancipatory and revolutionary potential. And so the topic of the Civil War became literary fashion, but the war is merely a stage, practically exotic, and in any case very much distant from the present.


Some of the novels that you analyze in your work were also published in Czech translation – including Soldiers of Salamis [Soldados de Salamina] by Javier Cercas. Does the above said apply to this book as well?

Yes, this novel too shows depolitization of a historical conflict; done through a subjectivization of the enemy. In his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce Slavoj Žižek states that the silliest idea he has ever heard is the widespread neoliberalist notion that an enemy is someone to whom we did not sufficiently listen. For if we were to listen and hear the enemy, we would subjectify, humanize, and view the enemy not as the other, but as one who is not all that different from us. The novel Soldier of Salamis is based on this idea: it picks up a version of one of the founders of the Spanish fascism, Rafael Sánchez Mazas and spins a mechanism of subjectivization that enables us to identify with it, empathize with him, and feel a degree of complicity. This mechanism politically deactivates the fascist. As a result, the novel achieves that we do not perceive Sánchez Mazas as a fascist, but rather as a person with internal struggles and conflicts. Just like us, after all. The necessary and radical question that my book strives to raise is: is he really just like us? I would argue that not and this leads me to believe that we should not depoliticize the Civil War, but rather try to understand the political and social historical conflict that started it.


The novelist and essayist Andrés Trapiello says that "the fascists won the war but lost the history of literature." Would you agree?

No, I categorically disagree with this sentence. Trapiello and other critics and novelists put great effort into defending fascist writers, according to them unjustly forgotten, and they ask us to stop thinking about the events of 1936 and evaluate these writers from the literary perspective. They say that we need to read them as writers, overlooking their ideology. That is why Trapiello can say that the fascists won the war but lost the history of literature. But that is certainly not the case, particularly since the 20th century Spanish literary canon was created during the Franco regime and the transformation toward democracy did not do anything, or at least only very little to contest it.


So who are the defeated in literary history, then?

Since we were unable to read their work, the defeated are all of the writers who were murdered or forced to flee into an exile during the Civil War. A paradigmatic case is Luisa Carnés, a writer who was forgotten no less than twice, for she is a woman and a communist to boot. Her excellent novel Tea Rooms was published in 1934 and then republished only a few weeks ago. The writers of the socialist realism of 1950s – including the late Armando López Salinas and Jesús López Pacheco – share a similar path. So much work is still needed to be done; so much literary memory must be saved.


You argue that the depolitization of contemporary novels plays in favor of those who won the war. But has openly fascist or falangist literature also emergedin contemporary Spain?

The only writer who has publicly endorsed falangism was Manuel Maristany, the author of La enfermera de Brunete, who passed away this year. This novel features all present myths about the Franco crusade. For example that the Spanish Republic introduced chaos and that is why the country needed a „remedy;“ i.e. a military coup, to restore the order. Or that the republic was a mere USSR satellite; that a communist revolution, which the insurgents prevented from happening, was taking place in Spain, and so on. These myths were part of the fascist propagation; a way to justify the coup. Proper historians, such as Herbert Southworth, have long since proved their mendacity. Even so, they continue to be reproduced in novels of writers including Antonio Muñoz Molina or Andrés Trapiello.


How do authors themselves respond to your critique?

Most frequent is ignorance. Literary and cultural critique is rather weak in Spain. Critique has never fulfilled its role here. It used to be limited to praising works of the mainstream literature and marginalizing dissenting, critical, counterhegemonic discourses. The reason is that ignorance is more effective than confrontation of ideas.


But you have recently engaged in a sharp polemics with a very popular novelist Arturo Pérez­Reverte who was upset that a „young Marxist“ thinks he can „create rules of writing a historical novel.“

That is a different case since my book does not focus on his work. Reverte argues that he responds to an article titled Ten Commandments on how to write a novel about the Civil WarI published in an internet daily El Confidencial, but I suspect he in fact responds to another two of my articles from the same daily in which I critique his abridged version of Don Quijote for the youth and his book Civil War told to the youngsters. He gathered he was challenged but instead of presenting his own arguments against mine, he reverted to personal attacks. That is no setting for a discussion. But it is rather common writers connected with „the 1978 regime,“ are not accustomed to discussing because they used to be only praised. If someone suddenly critiques them, they do not know how to respond so they feel insulted. I assume this is connected with a lack of a democratic culture and believe that time will fix this.


To what extent can an academic critic fulfill Walter Benjamin’s maxim according to which a critic is a „strategist in the literary battle?“

I have tried to stick to this first of thirteen of Benjamin’s theses as best as I have been able to. The reason is that it is clear that the class struggle happens in the literary field as well in the sense that there are literary discourses that reproduce and legitimize the ideology of the ruling class – just as this takes place in the mentioned novels that I call „novels of non-ideology“ – and then, there is also literature that opposes to this ideology. That means that literature too participates in the ideological battle, and it is the critic’s role to point this out. Both criticism and literature always assume a certain side. There is no such thing as neutrality when it comes to criticisms and so we must pay attention to the ethical, moral, and political positionality that the authors come from. The one who writes always takes a particular position and side. For this reason is also important to remind ourselves of what Benjamin adds in the second thesis: „He who cannot take sides should keep silent.“

David Becerra Mayor (born 1984) is a Spanish literary historian and critic. He received a PhD in Spanish literature at the Autonomous University of Madrid. Initially, he specialized in the work of the poet Miguel Hernández and other writers from the Republic period. Later on, he began focusing on contemporary fiction that he analyzes in his books La novela de la no­ideología a La guerra civil como moda literaria. He works in the aesthetics and literature section of the Foundation for Marxist Studies.