To Bury the Dead, By Ignacio Martinez de Pison

When truth is a casualty of war
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps "To Re-bury the Dead" would be a more apt, if less poetic, title. With mounting intensity as the last survivors of the Spanish Civil War die out, there is a concerted attempt to take skeletons from cupboards and grant them a decent burial. Or, more literally, to disinter clandestine mass graves and discover who put the corpses there. The shock, as we already knew from reading Orwell and Weil (among many others), is that the atrocities were by no means all the result of Fascist reprisals.

Spain's younger writers are getting to grips with the story that so captured foreign authors at the time. Ernest Hemingway's and John Dos Passos's letters and memoirs are writ large across the pages of this non-fiction account of the life, and especially the death, of a young Republican from a Falangist family. José Robles's desire to save the life of his brother, a career soldier who joined up with Franco's forces, would appear to have resulted in success – but only at the cost of his own execution, on trumped-up charges of treason, by a Republican firing squad.

Martínez Pisó*harnesses his considerable literary skills to excavating Robles' story. If in Spain under Franco's 30-year dictatorship it was nigh impossible to accuse the Falangists of war crimes, the 30 years since his death in 1975 rendered it nigh impossible to point the finger at comparable atrocities on the Republican side. Robles' curtailed life epitomises the internal cruelty, conflicts and confusion of this period. As a poet, artist and academic, he provides a near-perfect microcosm.

His close friendship with Dos Passos allows us to follow, in this compelling account, a fresh version of the bravery and brutality of internal power struggles that resulted in political control by the Communist Party. It is this narrative's contention that Robles, as a generic Socialist, fell victim to their secret police and secret jails. Martínez Pisón, ably assisted by prize-winning translator Anne MacLean, relates the tale with true page-turning verve.

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