Sunday, 2 December 2012

Fallen idol

I was working in Colmenarejo from Wednesday to Friday. It's a small town on the hills west of Madrid, one valley short of the Sierra de Guadarrama which is esentially the border between Madrid and Segovia provinces. The fashion on TV news last week, when the snow started in earnest, was to send a young female reporter to broadcast from one suitably bleak, windswept and snow-covered point or other, so TVE1, whose ratings have been falling, perhaps in part because of stunts like this, sent one to report from the Puerto de Navacerrada, which is not just a ski station but the highest car-accessible pass between the two provinces.

Fortunately for us we arrived by the A6, the La Coruña road, a little to the south, by which you either cross the Sierra by means of the Alto del León - 1511 metres above sea level, but still rather lower than Navacerrada - or you pay a few euros and go through the tunnel. Which we did, partly in deference to my vertigo, partly because of the still-powdery snow and partly because time was getting on and we needed to be in Colmenarejo to start work.

From where the school is in Colmenarejo you get a fine view, if a bleak one in late November, of the Embalse de Valmayor to your left and El Escorial to your right. The famous Monasterio is clearly visible. It is of that building that everybody thinks when they think of El Escorial - everybody, that is, but a chess player. As a chess player myself, what I thought was that's the place where Nigel Short beat Jan Timman.

I couldn't see El Valle de los Caídos. I didn't try too hard. I knew roughly where to look, and as I preferred not to see it if I could avoid it, I didn't look there. But in truth I have looked from the same point before, and I am not sure it is actually visible from where I was. There must be mountain in the way, because it is not easily missed. It is impossible not to see it if you are travelling away from Madrid on the A6, its gigantic and obscene cross dominating your field of vision until you are safely through the Puerto.

Of course practically every church in Spain is built on top of a hill so that your eye cannot escape it, and giganticism is a Catholic characteristic as much as a Fascist one, but then again, in the Francoist mind those two concepts were not and doubtless are not separable. Like Mass in Fifties Spain, El Valle de los Caídos is not something you are allowed to miss.

One does one's best, though, and so we came off the A6 at a different exit to the one we took the previous year, since that road had taken us right past the gates. This time we went past Galapagar, the older, busier town adjoining Colmenarejo and the one where everybody shops. We parked there, when shopping ourselves, at the end of Avenida de los Voluntarios. When I printed out a map of Galapagar last year, it didn't have that name. It was called Avendia del Generalissimo. I don'tt know precisely when it changed. Presumably, not very long ago.

The gradual removal and erasure, over the past three decades, of monuments, road names and other manifestations of the late dictator's existence, operates in some ways as a kind of quid pro quo for the provisions of the 1977 Amnesty relating to crimes committed in the Franco era, by which these crimes cannot even be investigated. Rather than dig up the past - literally, where the existence of mass graves is concerend - it will be erased, buried, forgotten. The Right may no longer commemorate its central figure: in return, the Left may not investigate what he and his lieutenants did. And whoever, like Garzón, breaks that bargain, pays for it. Who plays, pays, as the anti-Garzón graffiti said that I saw on the way back to Aragón.

I simplify, since if there really were such a bargain it would not have taken three decades to implement, and the truth about Francoist atrocities is gradually being pieced together, though not by magistrates and prosecutors. The main reason the process is not taken further by the Left is not because they do not want to, but because they are prevented from doing so. Which, legally, may be a sustainable position (provided you ignore the supremacy of international over national law) but it is hard to honestly maintain that Franco is over, gone and hidden from sight when his monument is among the most visible buildings in Spain. It is not so much an elephant in the room as an elephant outside the house where everyone can see it. You have have forgetting, or you can have El Valle de los Caídos, but you cannot have both.

Besides, the past never stays buried, however much earth you shovel upon its head. I don't know what Aznar has to say about his Francoist youth, in his autobiography, the first volume of which has just come out: but I do know that when he was in government, he had that government financially support the Franco Federation, the precise purpose of which is to preserve and celebrate the memory of Franco. Less quid pro quo, more an agreement only one side is bound to respect.

The same Franco Foundation has been trying to hold a celebration of Franco at a Madrid hotel: it was called off a fortnight ago, rearranged for today and then called off a second time. The Foundation are threatening legal action, which they are entitled to take without anybody shooting them without trial and burying their bodies in mass graves. Or, indeed, if their lives are spared, being forced to work as slaves in the construction of a monument to their enemies.

All this is something of an embarrassment to the government, who would rather the whole thing went away, especially since, as they have just chosen to pardon four policement for torturing an innocent man, it may provide an opportunity for their opponents to trace continuities between the present and the past. As does Aznar's autobiography, which has also unhelpfully reminded the public of the centrality to Aznar's government of the currently-indicted Rodrigo Rato.

Perhaps it is not entirely healthy, this persistent reference to the past. But perhaps there would be less of it if Spain actually appeared to have a future. And if you do not want people to recall the past, then perhaps you should not stick it, in gigantic and granite form, where nobody can help but see it. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

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