Land of Poets and Bones: Spain’s Desmemoria

By Jordan ElgrablyMarch 22, 2020

Land of Poets and Bones: Spain’s Desmemoria

The Age of Disenchantments by Aaron Shulman

I’VE LONG WONDERED what might have been the final thoughts of Federico García Lorca in the moments before Franco’s mercenaries murdered him in his pajamas, in cold blood. No poet characterizes 20th-century Spain for me more than Lorca, who lost his life near the start of that country’s civil war in 1936. Did he perhaps remember his poem “Canción de la muerte pequeña” (“Song of a Little Death”)?

Prado mortal de lunas
y sangre bajo tierra.
Prado de sangre vieja.

Luz de ayer y mañana.
Cielo mortal de hierba.
Luz y noche de arena.

Me encontré con la muerte.
Prado mortal de tierra.
Una muerte pequeña

Mortal field of moons
and subterranean blood.
Meadow of ancient blood.

Past and future light.
Mortal sky of grass.
Light and night of sand.

I came face to face with death.
Mortal field of land.
A little death.

Does anyone ever consider that their death is “little”? One would hardly think so, for it is far too personal, an end to being altogether; but perhaps as Lorca’s assassins led him away in the foothills outside Granada, the poet told himself that his death was foretold and therefore inexorable.

Aaron Shulman’s The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain’s Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War leads with the mysteries of Lorca’s death, whose body was never recovered, and it recounts the revealing saga of the Leopoldo Panero clan, snaking through the civil war and postwar years under Franco.

Leopoldo Panero was a minor poet, but, like a colorful character actor, his life makes for an intriguing investigation. A reader is filled with cynicism at first, straining to like or care about Panero, a gadfly little known outside Spain, yet Shulman manages to humanize this paterfamilias, despite the fact that as a poet and public figure, he’s had to make a pact with the devil — burying his liberal past in order to pose as a friend of Franco. (The regime would reward Panero’s fealty by securing him the job of editor of Spain’s Reader’s Digest.) Each of the five Paneros, from the father and Felicidad the mother to the three sons — Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi — can be seen as fatalistic, weird, and at times schizophrenic. The family is a turbulent microcosm akin to Spain itself.

As a storyteller with an avowed passion for all things Spanish, Shulman can be a cautious romantic, but he discovers that the Paneros did not benefit from a typical love story. They didn’t fall for each other at first sight; in fact they walked away coldly after their first blind date, visiting a museum with mutual friends — Felicidad thought Leopoldo was a mixed bag. Once they were married, Shulman writes, Felicidad “realized that there was still much to discover[.] […] Leopoldo contained confounding multitudes.”

Although Spain’s literary class would eventually disown the Paneros and their “black-sheep sons,” they were, Shulman suggests:

a product of el Franquismo. Their family, however unique and peculiar, did speak to widely shared experiences under the dictatorship. Their polished epic legend resembled that of millions of households, as did the unvarnished truth hiding beneath. Domineering fathers and resentfully submissive mothers, rebellious children and uncomprehending parents, public facades and private realities, love and hate, and untold losses left by a war that bent the narrative arc of life. The intimate, specifically Spanish pain of humanity’s most primal institution and prolific furnace of myths — family.

One might ask why the author seized upon this particular poet who, after all, remains obscure to the American reader, but there is a good reason the story of the Paneros chose to be told. If Spain is the land of poets, the Spanish Civil War killed poets. The power of the word so terrified Franco that the regime would continue to closely monitor its poets ever after. As Shulman writes, “Every authoritarian regime is built on fictions, and one of Franco’s was that books weren’t just books. They were potential threats to Spain.”

Another poet killed by the regime, albeit in a slow prison death, was the Valencian Miguel Hernández, who died of tuberculosis in his Alicante cell in 1942, at the age of 31. Still other Spanish poets, like Luis Cernuda and León Felipe, would go into exile, unwinding their lives in England or Mexico, never to return home.

Another kind of poet was the internal exile or refugee from Francoism, Vicente Aleixandre, who in fact coined the term “internal exile.” He would mentor Leopoldo Panero, and took on an avuncular role with his poet sons, Juan Luis and Leopoldo María. Notes Shulman, Aleixandre “refused to cozy up to the regime, though he maintained a cordial relationship with many poets who did, like Leopoldo and Luis Rosales.”

There were legions of poets and writers who had the crap kicked out of them by the regime in the postwar years, for the Francoist police rarely showed mercy. As one former prisoner recalls in Shulman’s book, the cops weren’t so much interested in “the search for information but rather humiliation and terror[.] […] In this fashion, the regime aimed to control society by controlling its thoughts.”

If you look closely, you’ll find poets inside and outside the regime, with Leopoldo Panero publishing at times in opposition to an old friend he’d known in Madrid before the war, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, who became perhaps his fiercest critic. Shulman suggests that “[w]hat began for Neruda as visceral anti-fascism born in the blood-soaked streets of Madrid hardened into a conscientious sense of duty.” He became a senator while also joining the Chilean Communist Party, and “[a]fter his political transformation found its professional expression, his poetic one followed.”

By 1947, Neruda “was one of the most famous writers in the world”; he was also a poet who spoke out against his own country’s repressive president, such that he became in some ways the mirror opposite of Leopoldo Panero. Never the darling of Chile’s regime du jour, Neruda remained sui generis, gaining international acclaim, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, while Panero would remain a limited success within the closed literary cauldron that characterized Franco’s Spain for nearly 40 years. Panero would write in opposition to his old friend, in an attempt to hang on to his dignity.


It is axiomatic that countries scarred by civil war take decades to heal. Often, the scars never fade, because the ghosts of the fallen and the mass graves — think Cambodia, Bosnia, and Syria — are a stark reminder that much remains at stake. Few nations experience redemptive truth and reconciliation.

More than 80 years after the end of Spain’s three-year Guerra Civil, very little healing has actually taken place, because when Franco died in 1975, the country’s political leaders feared their fledging democracy might succumb to another national crisis. To preserve the fragile peace, they insisted on passing the amnesty law known as El Pacto del olvido — The Pact of Forgetting, such that no one would be prosecuted for their war crimes and families would find a way forward, in silence. When I lived in Spain, during the movida, the culture of silence was still in place. Very rarely did I hear conversations about the Franco years. People just wanted to “move on.”

A book published in Barcelona last February, by El Diario journalist Juan Miguel Baquero, El país de la Desmemoria: del genocidio franquista al silencio interminable, argues that Spain remains uncommitted to the search for truth about fascism and the Franco era. For Baquero and many of his book’s interlocutors, Spain is an echo chamber of forgetting.

Baquero’s editor and publisher, Enrique Murillo, tells me Spain’s transition to democracy was fraught with fear that the Franquistas would prevail after Franco’s death. “The democrats and antifranquistas,” he says, “were very careful not to have a huge problem. Franco died in bed; he was never ousted. And Spain continues to suffer from this. From the point of view of our constitution, the monarchy is still a power superior to the people’s.”

Murillo insists that “Francoism is still alive [because] we never had a Nuremberg for the fascists.”

Meanwhile Spain’s Association for Historical Memory (La Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica) continues to unearth mass graves and demand government accountability. In January 2020, Spain formed a new coalition government, headed by socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez with no less than four vice presidents, the first of whom is considered by many Spain’s second in charge, Carmen Calvo. A constitutional law professor and native of Córdoba, Calvo is a devout feminist. She’s also a fan of Metallica and bullfighting whose first priority, she declares, is to “Spain’s historical memory.”

Calvo has dedicated herself to fighting on behalf of the Guerra Civil’s forgotten, promising to help identify those who remain nameless in the country’s mass grave sites. On January 30, tweeting as a Spanish government official, Calvo expressed gratitude for “the memorial movement in our country keeping the flame of memory alive against forgetfulness.” She insists Spain will establish “an inventory of property pillaged by the Franco regime that will be returned to its rightful owners.”

Political scientist Jaime Pastor remains skeptical that Calvo will be able to accomplish much. “We will have to see what Vice President Carmen Calvo does now on the issue of ‘historical memory,’” he worried in an email, “but the fundamental problem remains the need to repeal the Amnesty Law of October 1977 (which equates victims and executioners of the dictatorship), and I fear that this government will do nothing about this.”

History aficionados can be forgiven for expecting more from democratic Spain in the 21st century. Argentina convulsed with its truth commission almost immediately after the right-wing junta relinquished power after that country’s Dirty War (1976–1983). And Franco has been in his grave for nearly 50 years. Yet in 2020, Spain remains el país de la desmemoria, the country of forgetting, or disremembering — as if to say that to be a Spaniard, one must agree to dismember family memories of what happened during and after the civil war that devoured and destroyed so many lives. Spain’s culture of silence failed to deter Juan Miguel Baquero, however, who proceeded to interview dozens of survivors and historians. Among the many ignominies that Baquero describes is one event that few of us have heard anything about — the highway of death.

On February 7, 1937, Franco’s forces were advancing on the southern coastal city of Málaga, the birthplace of Picasso. Having previously learned of the merciless killing of Spaniards loyal to the elected Republican government, more than 200,000 war-weary, starving, cold, and frightened Malagueños took to the highway as internal refugees, heading east toward Almería, which was still a Republican stronghold. But Franco’s ground fighters were backed by Hitler’s Luftwaffe and Mussolini’s air and maritime forces, which bombed and strafed thousands of helpless civilians, in an event known as La Desbandá.

The German and Italian fighter planes came in low, growling over the straggling refugee column as 10-year-old Alejandro Torrealba crouched on the ground, covered by the blanket that barely kept him alive in the frigid cold. Explosions lit up the highway, and suddenly Alejandro felt something strike him in the back. Covered in blood, moments later he got up to find the severed head of a little girl, perhaps six or seven years old, at his feet. His memories of that morning remained vivid as he recounted what happened to Baquero nearly eight decades after the attack.

A large but still disputed number of women, children, and elderly Spaniards were killed in the Málaga-Almería highway massacre. Additionally, Baquero’s investigations found that Spain has 2,591 mass graves with an estimated 120,000 “disappeared” Spaniards who remain unidentified. In fact after Cambodia, Spain is the country with the highest number of desaparecidos in the world. The exact number of those killed is still in dispute today, and no one has been prosecuted.

That much of this remains out of the country’s headlines is scandalous, but as Shulman explains about Spain’s 1977 Amnesty Law, “the perpetrators of crimes both on the left and right could not be prosecuted. Reconciliation, the political class agreed, was too important.” Nonetheless, 30 years later, in 2007, came Spain’s Historical Memory Law, which was intended to recognize and broaden rights and measures on behalf “of those who suffered persecution or violence during the Civil War and the Dictatorship.”

Today there is a generation of Spanish writers haunted by the country’s forgetting or feigned ignorance of the national past — most of them born later in the 20th century, among them the novelists Javier Marías (All Souls, Thus Bad Begins) and Javier Cercas (The Impostor) and the poet Pilar Fraile Amador. Last year, Marías told The New York Times he believed that Spain’s fascist past was still present, and Javier Cercas insists that “my books are really about the present, not the past. Because in Spain the present does not start now, or with Franco’s death in 1975, but with the civil war in 1936.”

In film, there are also the Almodóvar brothers, director Pedro and producer Agustín, who co-produced the 2018 documentary The Silence of Others (directors Robert Bahar, Almudena Carracedo). The Almodóvars have criticized the country’s lamentable desmemoria even as The Silence of Others presents portraits of those who suffered in the postwar years. The Almodóvar Brothers say the habit of forgetting has been prevalent in Spain for decades. “But 40 years on,” Augustín told the Guardian,

many of us think that our democracy is strong enough that it should now be able to address basic human rights questions[.] […] We feel that this film, which treats these issues with tenderness, respect and care, is a precious instrument to start a conversation that has been silenced for too long.

In fact, Aaron Shulman was inspired to begin researching The Age of Disenchantments after a private viewing of the Spanish cult documentary El desencanto, directed by Jaime Chávarri, which told the story of the Paneros in black and white. In his epilogue, Shulman asks the final question in his search for truth: “Does Leopoldo Panero’s complicity with the Franco dictatorship nullify the merits of his work?”

I have asked myself whether one can separate the literary greatness of works by Dostoyevsky, Céline, and Hemingway, for instance, from their flagrant bigotry and antisemitism. Or do we forgive their transgressions decades later, writing off such immoral behavior as merely characteristic of their era? When Spain’s Camilo José Cela was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989, a time when I was living in Madrid, many questioned the Swedish Academy’s wisdom and intent in recognizing a novelist who had been so identified with Franquismo.

Cela at one time held a job as a literary censor, canceling in red pencil what was not seen as proper by the regime. And in the ’60s after he had published the major novels The Hive and The Family of Pascual Duarte, Cela was a snitch for the secret police who reported on his fellow writers.

Just as Spain was in the twilight of Franco’s reign in the early 1970s — the period known as tardofranquismo — the Paneros would become a new cause célèbre with the making of Jaime Chávarri's documentary about the Panero family. But reconciliation didn’t mean remembering the dead and the thousands of mass graves, or the war prisoners and slave laborers. After the civil war, in 1940, there were a half million prisoners in labor camps in Spain, some of whom would remain in forced labor for years. After decades of forgetting, a truth commission was announced in the summer of 2018 long after most of those active during the civil war, 1936–1939, had already died. As recently as February 19, 2019, El País reported that Franco’s victims were still petitioning the Spanish government to officially condemn the Franco era and recognize the demands of those who suffered reprisals and loss.

We are each called to meditate on the palimpsests of all our countries — your country is not your country if you do not remember the country beneath the surface, the dead, the robbed, the forgotten — all those who did not see justice. As Juan Miguel Baquero suggests at the conclusion of El pais de la Desmemoria, we’re all history’s victims if we fail to remember what happened to us, individually and collectively. As the children of history, he writes, “our shared task is to promote the discourse of human rights to guarantee our future.”


Jordan Elgrably has a forthcoming anthology due out in 2020 entitled Gaza: Mowing the Lawn and is at work on a novel about Syrian refugees. A former Angeleno, he lives in Montpellier, France.

LARB Contributor

Jordan Elgrably is the Editor of The Markaz Review. He's at work on a novel about Syrian refugees, and a collection of interviews with novelists among whom are James Baldwin, Nadine Gordimer, and Milan Kundera. He divides his time between California and Montpellier, France.


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