Spaniards are reputed to be amongst Europe’s most voluble people. So why have they kept silent about the terrors of the Spanish Civil War and the rule of dictator Generalísimo Francisco Franco? The appearance, sixty years after that war ended, of mass graves containing victims of Franco’s death squads has finally broken what Spaniards call ‘the pact of forgetting’. As these graves were dug up, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around Spain - and through Spanish history.
Spaniards, he found, had tried to wipe both the Civil War and Franco from their memory. The graves were secretos a voces - whispered secrets everyone knew about but did not discuss. Ingrained fear and a desire not to reopen old wounds were to blame. Silence was also, however, the price exacted by Franco’s people for not disturbing democracy.
Spanish history, Tremlett discovered, was a tinder-box of disagreements. Who caused the Civil War? Why do Basque terrorists kill? Why do Catalans hate Madrid? Did the Islamist bombers who killed 190 people in 2004 dream of a return to Spain’s Moorish past? The ghosts of the past were everywhere.
Tremlett’s journey was also an attempt to make sense of his personal experience of Spaniards. Do they prefer anarchy or order? Why do they dislike authority figures, but are cowed by a doctor’s white coat? When do they sleep? How had women embraced feminism without men noticing? What binds gypsies, jails and flamenco? Why do Spaniards go to plastic surgeons, donate their organs, visit brothels or take cocaine more than other Europeans? Finding answers to those questions involved travelling some strange and colourful byroads . . .