Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through A Country’s Hidden Past – Giles Tremlett

In September 2017 I moved to Catalunya full in the knowledge that this region of Spain was different from others, what I didn’t fully expect was the level of difference; the language, culture, politics, and more. It took me a while to remember to say Catalunya rather than Spain (most of the people are proudly Catalan, Spain is definitely a second nationality, if they do feel Spanish). In this book from 2006 Tremlett attempts to explain this, and many more concepts about Spain and the differing identities within it. What happened in this country to make it so clearly divided?

Tremlett opens with three chapters addressing the Spanish Civil War. The first tells the Ghosts of Spainstory of a small village in central Spain, Poyales del Hoyo. In this village three women were murdered; two for their sympathy for the Spanish Republic, the third as the result of a personal feud with the wife of a Falangist. This episode was one of many similar in the lead up to the Civil War, but 70 years on,  the village was also one of thefirst places to examine itself and investigate the crimes. Some of the 1930s inhabitants of Poyales del Hoyo were still alive when Tremlett visited, people from both sides of the war, and in this opening chapter he sets the tone for the next two. Spain has not talked adequately about this era of its own history, but Tremlett, thanks to his journalistic talent is able to have conversations with people and get them to open up about the dark part of this nation. My initial thoughts were that Tremlett’s book would continue in this vein for it duration, but sadly the book doesn’t, it veers off to explore Spanish identity and the relationships between different parts of Spanish society.

With Tremlett’s writing we visit various regions of Spain and explore each regions pros and cons. In Marbella we read about the foresight of one Mayor who visited Franco to urge the state to allow more tourism. We also learn of the corruption that is rife here, and how this is linked to local government, foreign wealth and tourism. This chapter segues into the next, a discussion of enchufe, in which the reader learns that to succeed in Spain you need contacts. To an outsider enchufe might be considered corruption but to a Spaniard this is a natural way to do business, and this is becoming a problem in the 21st Century, sadly it is no longer acceptable. Tremlett’s history of flamenco makes the reader understand that this is Spanish rock’n’roll; most true flamenco singers are revered by thousands of fans, their home towns are pilgrimages, but there are still the pitfalls of drugs, alcohol and fame. This chapter made me realise that flamenco is akin to blues in its development, and made me explore the artists that Tremlett names. In the following two chapters Tremlett discusses Spanish attitudes to sex, gender and children. He uses his personal experience of living in Spain as a way to show the reader this in a very sincere manner.

With the final third of the book Tremlett addresses Islamist extremism, ETA and Basque separatism, Catalan independence and identity, and then Galicia and its connections to psain. Tremlett gives an extremely personal account of the 2004 bombings of Madrid and an excellent retelling of the following weeks, which included an election and numerous lies from the fallen right-wing government. He questions if this is linked to the Moors who left Iberia more than 500 years before? Next he looks at ETA and Basque nationalism, a subject approached with sensitivity due to the ongoing nature (in 2006 ETA were still active and had threatened journalists). In the most interesting chapter (for me) Tremlett looks at Catalunya, a region he has lived in and has an affinity to. Catalans have a different type of independence movement, one that focuses on pacifism and politics, as well as promoting Catalan culture and language. Finally Tremlett reaches Galicia, another region also with its own language, and most importantly its own landscape. Seen as wild and windy this is traditionally the poorest part of Spain, but here we learn of increasing drug-running and corruption.

All in all this book is extremely eye-opening and I would recommend this book to anyone living or planning on living in Spain, but I wonder if it should be one book, or two? The opening three chapters address the Spanish Civil War with emotion and care, and freely look at the silence surrounding this period of Spanish history, but could this vein be continued throughout? There is surely enough material to continue this in much more detail. After these three chapters we have an excellent insight into Spain and Spanish identity now; how it was made and how it is divided, and maybe this could be expanded slightly? These chapters do often refer back to the Civil War, but they don’t follow the opening chapters themes and the references are sometimes too brief to make it all link smoothly.

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