Ghosts of Spain, by Giles Tremlett

On the road to freedom and forgetting
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British writers on Spain tend to offer meaty histories whose appeal may stretch beyond academia, or racy chronicles of life with charming locals. Each genre has a distinguished pedigree, and the likes of Richard Ford and Gerald Brenan, Raymond Carr and Paul Preston, are as revered in Spain as at home. But these seams are all but exhausted. Spain's own historians now dare to investigate a dark past; while expatriates' tales of quirky farmhands or flamenco badboys soon seem shallow and repetitive.

A foreign writer living in Spain enjoys the privilege of being both inside and out. We struggle to master the language, learn how our hosts differ from ourselves, and come to love them. But however much we feel at home, we cannot slough off our own life history and fully absorb theirs. Giles Tremlett, a British journalist settled in Madrid, father of two young Spaniards, acknowledges and relishes this ambiguous frontier zone where you never quite conform.

In Ghosts of Spain, he examines from the viewpoint of a resident anglosajón the painful truth of Franco's Spain, now surfacing after decades of amnesia. Spaniards are digging up civil-war graves and recounting memories of terror. Their stories form the missing element of Spain's recent past. This is not to reduce the journey from doomed republic through civil war, 40 years of dictatorship and 27 years of democracy to mere oral history. But repression and censorship expunged facts of death, torture and persecution, silenced memories and compounded suffering, long after Franco's death in 1975.

No wonder the perpetrators - never brought to justice - scorn a version of the past that challenges their own. Spanish history, Tremlett writes, is a battleground where facts are rarely central to the argument.

Spaniards in power have rated image over reality ever since impoverished hidalgos starved shirtless beneath their cloak rather than deign to work. Franco cynically strapped a moral straitjacket of Catholic harmony upon a nation whose womenfolk crept to London for abortions and dared not mourn loved ones shot at dawn. Even today, when Spaniards criticise what foreigners write about them, they complain that we "perpetuate stereotypes" or "tarnish the country's image". They rarely say that we are wrong.

Many Spaniards may feel uncomfortable with Tremlett's tales of abuse of power or sexual hypocrisy, but won't deny their truth. For instance, that Spanish men who treasure family above everything lead Europe in their enthusiasm for roadside brothels. You will never read a Spanish account of such encounters, though prostitutes' ads fill pages in the posh papers.

This book reveals how Spain's modern democracy remains poisoned by ancient resentments. Civil war and centuries of regional rivalries gouged fault-lines across Spain, making it hard to find common ground or appreciate the other's view. Waverers are chivvied to join one camp or the other with arguments where you rarely hear the phrase "I see what you mean".

Those seeking to rebury victims flung into ditches inhabit a different mental universe from those wanting to forget the whole bloody business. Can they be reconciled? Tremlett travels the country facing dilemmas at every step. He meets victim and executioner, bureaucrats, gypsy jailbirds and the founder of Benidorm, agonises over customs of child-rearing, over whether Catalans are different and why Basques kill each other. Armed with facts, he leans in close to hear the memories, and rarely puts a foot wrong.

Elizabeth Nash's cultural guide to Seville is published by Signal