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Embodying Memory in Contemporary Spain

0 Comments 🕔20.Aug 2015

Since the late 1990s, Spain has experienced a ‘memory boom’ with regard to the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and the Franco dictatorship (1939–1975), resulting in the publication of a large number of novels and edited volumes of testimonies, as well as the broadcasting of documentaries, films, and radio and television programs about the era. This increment in contemporary cultural production – reflecting the increased interest in Spain’s recent past, also shown in intense debates about historical memory – came in the wake of the marginalization and repression of left-wing Republican memory during the Franco era. In that period, a one-sided historical narrative of the victors was propagated, and voices of Republican suffering were suppressed in the public sphere. Subsequently, during Spain’s transition to democracy, the focus was mainly on an avoidance of the recurrence of the traumatic events of the Civil War and the establishment of a political equilibrium, rather than on a recuperation of the past.

Alison Ribeiro de Menezes’ Embodying Memory in Contemporary Spain takes as its point of departure the start of the twenty-first century with the more literal ‘recovery of historical memory’ in the form of the excavation of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and Franco era and the creation of the so-called Historical Memory Law in 2007. The author argues that here has recently been a change of focus in memory studies away from sites of destruction and other literal lieux de mémoire to a “preoccupation with the embodied aftermath of atrocity” (p. 1); that is, the effects that conflicts and violence have on the victimized and their communities.

This is also evident, she argues, in the disinterment of remains, which have become a focal point of memory debates in Spain since the foundation of the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (ARMH) in 2000. This paradigm shift is the key focus of the study. Ribeiro de Menezes analyses the ‘embodying of memory’ of her title with its focus on “ruined bodies and ruptured genealogies” (p. 12) in its literal as well as in its denotative sense in a wide range of works – from novels, films, and television series to photography of exhumations and graphic art.

The author traces the impact of traumatic memory in these works with a focus on agency, resilience, and “active efforts toward the overcoming of trauma” (p. 148); the emphasis is hence placed on an overcoming of entrenched positions, enabling pluralistic debate and a future-oriented acknowledgement of the past. Ribeiro de Menezes frames her analysis via Michael Rothberg’s concept of multi-directional memory and Marianne Hirsch’s notion of post-memory and theories of affect, among other theoretical models. Additionally, the study is informed by Andreas Huyssen’s scholarship on the politics of memory, Dominick LaCapra’s work on trauma, and Paul Ricoeur’s take on forgetting, to name but a few of the scholars with whose work Ribeiro de Menezes engages.

The work is divided into five chapters, grouped around five key issues. The opening chapter provides a clear overview of the emergence of Spain’s memory debates and the cultural, historical, and legal context in which they are set. In particular, the author’s analysis of Javier Cercas’ non-fiction work Anatomía de un instante not only gives insight into the transitional period and the military coup of 1981, but also highlights the divergent intergenerational views of the past through Ribeiro de Menezes’ reading of Cercas’ work as a mediated cultural representation of memory (p. 24). It is shown that intergenerational dialogue – that is, a dialogue not exclusively between different generations, but also between different political perspectives and the connections and links between these – influence memory and the representation of the past in the present.

In the subsequent chapter, Ribeiro de Menezes points out the influence of the human rights framework on Spanish memory debates and situates Spain’s memory discourse within the wider context of memory movements worldwide, in particular linking it to Latin American and German historical memory discourses. This transnational focus is made clear by the analysis of loaded terms from other conflicts used in the Spanish context; the most prominent and disputed case is the utilization of ‘Holocaust’ by Paul Preston in his comprehensive work on the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath, the controversially entitled The Spanish Holocaust (p. 34). Of particular interest is Ribeiro de Menezes’ discussion of the use of human rights terminology in the Spanish context and linking the use of these terms to the enlisting of legal institutions of international human rights associations by organizations such as the ARMH (p. 35).

Against this backdrop, the analysis of embodied memory in Francesc Torres’ exhumation photography, Dark Is the Room Where We Sleep, linked to bones and items recovered from the ground, is particularly illuminating. The shifting politics in post-war Spain of the 1950s are discussed with regard to Buchenwald survivor Jorge Semprún’s only novel dealing with the Spanish Civil War, Veinte años y un día. The author connects Semprún’s disillusionment with the Communist party of Spain, from which he was expelled in 1964, to the title – the length of imprisonment Communist activists faced in 1950s Spain – and then to a wider political shift in Francoist society during the 1950s and 1960s, underpinned by the scholarship of Paloma Aguilar and Preston. The trope of desencanto, or ‘disenchantment’, is generally employed in the context of Spanish society during the transition period, for example by scholars José Colmeiro and Teresa Vilarós – the discussion of Semprún’s disillusionment in this chapter hence connects thematically extremely well with the previous chapter on the transition period. The topic of changing patterns in generational memory had also been explored in chapter 1 and is here picked up again and analyzed not only with regard to Semprún’s fiction, but also in the context of Isaac Rosa’s El vano ayer. Ribeiro de Menezes’ expertise in modern Spanish literature and culture can clearly be observed in her sections on literary works. She draws on her extensive literary knowledge to connect the texts she examines to the wider field of Spanish narrative; scholars of individual writers may find some of the discussion of the specific texts particularly useful.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the intergenerational transmission of traumatic memories. A particular strength of this study is its enlightening use of Hirsch’s concept of post-memory, which is explored not only in this chapter, but illuminatingly throughout the work. Here, Ribeiro de Menezes scrutinizes the “silences or ruptures in family heritage” (p. 59). She discusses the plight of children of Republican sympathizers illegally appropriated by the Franco regime by briefly analyzing Armengou and Belis’ documentary Los niños perdidos del franquismo, and then moves on to discuss three narratives by Hispanic women writers on ruptures and repairs in the transmission of family memory. The author examines Dulce Chacón’s detective novel Cielos de barro, as well as Almudena Grande’s El corazón helado through the prism of post-memory and analyzes the issues raised by the belated narration of trauma and silenced histories.

While these sections are certainly engagingly written, they are eclipsed by the captivating analysis of Josefina Aldecoa’s Civil War Trilogy made up of Historia de una maestra (1990), Mujeres de negro (1994), and La fuerza del destino (1997). These novels span a time frame from the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (1923–1930) until the death of Franco (1975) and center on the lives of two women, a mother and daughter, by whom the stories are respectively narrated. Ribeiro de Menezes capitalizes on the long time-span and different generational perspectives in the trilogy to analyze intergenerational misunderstandings, trauma in family, and issues of post-memory, and convincingly argues that, although most of the trilogy was written before the notion of ‘post-memory’ was coined, Aldecoa addresses themes central to the concept; that is, the obligation to remember and the “intergenerational transference of guilt and trauma” (p. 76). Through her explorations, the author effectively discusses examples of communicative memory in the trilogy (p. 80), explores the intergenerational transference of trauma, and then draws attention to the possibility of working through trauma by the second generation (p. 81), demonstrating that one can have agency over the future (p. 5).

The transnational angle first discussed in chapter 2 is further explored in Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s films set in Spain, El espinazo del diablo and El laberinto del fauno, which have been “interpreted as key examples of contemporary transnational cinema” (p. 89). Ribeiro de Menezes first highlights the importance of these movies – set during the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath – in the historical memory debates in Spain, and then points again to the cross-fertilization of the memory discourse worldwide, before discussing the films in the context of specters and haunting, the prevalent topic of chapter 4.

Chapter 4 widens the scope of the domain of family memory to childhood haunting in order to analyze the changing perspectives of different generations in regards to the legacy of the past, which is imagined as a ghostly presence. In addition to del Toro’s films, the chapter focuses on Alberto Méndez’s Los girasoles ciegos and Juan Marsé’s Rabos de lagartija; the analysis is competently underpinned with vivid examples and argues for the importance of confronting one’s trauma. A refreshing choice of text in the analysis is the graphic novel Paracuellos by Carlos Giménez, which narrates in six volumes the author’s experience in a Spanish orphanage in the 1940s and 1950s; orphans and children of those on the losing side were sent in large numbers to institutions like Paracuellos. Ribeiro de Menezes is not alone in examining testimony and the working through of trauma in graphic novels; Art Spiegelman’s two volumes, entitled Maus: A Survivor’s Tale and And Here My Troubles Began, have similarly been analyzed by renowned scholars such as Dominick LaCapra. In this chapter, the author convincingly balances the evocative description of the graphic novel with her scholarship.

The last chapter focuses on Civil War narratives and their “emotional and affective dimension” on the topic of heroism (p. 114), a salient topic in view of the necessary re-evaluation of ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ after the end of the Franco regime, in which Republicans, communists and the left in general were depicted as ‘villains’ and the victorious Francoists as ‘heroes’. Beside the engaging examination of the seminal works Soldados de Salamina by Javier Cercas and Manuel Rivas’ O lápis do carpinteiro, the author analyses Amar en tiempos revueltos – a Spanish telenovela set in Madrid from 1936 until the 1950s. The author provides a fresh perspective in her analysis of the place which low-brow media such as graphic novels, examined in the previous chapter, and television series have in collective memory, but also warns of the pitfalls of the uncritical use of these media. The chapter further points to the ways in which affect, mourning, and forgiveness may show a way towards the overcoming of trauma and a future-oriented acknowledgement of the past. Ribeiro de Menezes skillfully employs Paul Connerton’s concept of mourning and Michael Rothberg’s notion of multi-directional memory in her analysis in this final chapter.

The brief conclusion feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the study; rather than revisiting the findings of the study and synthesizing its insights, there is nearly an exclusive focus on connecting the work to the larger context and wider conversation about memory debates in Spain and their future. In particular, the in-depth discussion of the Valley of the Fallen seems out of step with the rest of Embodying Memory in Contemporary Spain’s focus on embodied, rather than emplaced, memory. However, this is but a minor criticism.

Ribeiro de Menezes’ Embodying Memory in Contemporary Spain is an engaging and thought-provoking study that is well written, clearly structured, and based on extensive research. It includes well-sourced notes and a substantial bibliography. This study will be of great interest to a wide range of scholars, including, though not limited to, scholars in the field of literary criticism, cultural memory, and Hispanic cultural studies. The study provides a valuable contribution in the growing field of Spanish cultural memories studies and is likely to stimulate important critical debate in the field.

Reviewed by Andrea Hepworth, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Embodying Memory in Contemporary Spain
by Alison Ribeiro de Menezes
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardcover / 216 pages / 2014

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