The Spanish Civil War and the 'pact of forgetting'

24 June 2016

By Pan Macmillan

This July sees the 80th anniversary of the uprising that began the Spanish civil war. Diana Rosie revisited the people and places that inspired her novel Alberto’s Lost Birthday set, in part, during the conflict.
'Forgetting is a strategy that enables life to go on, although some of us keep our finger on the trigger of memory, just in case'
Juan Marse

Generalíssimo Francisco Franco was still alive when I first visited Javea on the Costa Blanca. Forty years later, much has changed, but evidence that a brutal war was waged here are still clear. In the heart of the town, the walls of the fortress church San Bartolomé are peppered with bullet holes, clearly marking the bitter struggle between the anti-clerical Republicans and Catholic Nationalists.
Talking to locals, we discovered that at the time of the war, this church and monastery in the nearby village of Jesús Pobre were filled with painted tiles depicting Christ’s life. After stealing or destroying all the religious artifacts in the church, the Rojos announced they’d be back to sack the monastery the next day. Overnight, the tiles were painstakingly dismantled and carefully hidden in the roof. It was decades before they were discovered and jigsaw puzzled together again by the current, residential owners.

Once dependent on agriculture and its busy port, Javea became wealthy from Franco’s push towards modernism – tourism. On our visit however, we discovered that since Spain’s recent financial crisis, locals have been returning to the land. Scrubland has been replanted with vines and almond trees – and rather than the powerful landowners of Franco’s era – today it is the farmers who profit.
It was a farmer and gardener who inspired the story of Alberto’s Lost Birthday. Pascual was a man of few words and a gentle demeanour, and as a child I discovered that because of the war, he didn’t know how old he was.

The thought stayed with me and forms the basis of the novel, but as he passed away some years ago, I never heard the true story of his life, his experience of the war, or whether he ever mourned his birthday. However, on this trip we were reunited with his family who shared this photo of Pascual with us.
Pascual’s wife Maria Luisa is now in her eighties. After an emotional reunion, she spoke of her own life – how she was separated from her family during the war and didn’t find them again for over twenty years. She talked of her marriage to Pascaul and how they’d travelled to North Africa after the conflict, looking for work, escaping the crippling poverty. But despite the desperate times she’d lived through, her family are now thriving and she proudly showed us a photo of her granddaughter’s Holy Communion.
Given the reason for our visit, we couldn’t help but feel a sense of poignancy when we saw this little boy. Thanks to Spain’s Pact of Forgetting, there’s little chance his battle was between the Republicans and the Nationalists. But as time goes by and distance grows, people may join the movement to explore and deal with the repercussions of the war. One day, this little boy may discover what his grandparents and great grandparents went through during the civil war, and hear stories that, until now, have never been told.

Diana Rosie's debut novel Alberto’s Lost Birthday is out now. 

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Alberto's Lost Birthday