Extract > Postmemory
“Too early in life I realized that it was already too late.” That’s how Marguerite Duras began her novel The Lover and that’s how many of us feel when we reach a certain age and we realize that it’s already too late to do a lot of things: like listening to older people in order to understand what they experienced in their lives, to understand what happened in Spain before we were born or when we were still too young to understand. It’s something that has happened to all of us, although many people don’t seem too bothered about it.
When it comes to historical memory – a term which we have ended up using for anything that has to do with the Civil War and post-war period (transgressing all linguistic logic, since all memory is historical in one way or another) – one feels that Duras’s phrase is more profound than it seems. Because, in fact, it’s almost always too late to do anything, let alone to discover the history of a period and events whose protagonists have already mostly disappeared. It makes it all the worse that, while these people were alive, they were silenced or gagged or nobody listened to them. It doesn’t matter whether they were famous or not.
As it has often been said: during the dictatorship in Spain the collective memory was gagged, supplanted by the official version which had little or nothing to do with what actually happened. And to those thirty-six years of dictatorship we should add another fifteen or twenty in respect of the transition to democracy, in which the collective memory suffered a different but no less effective sort of “cancellation” because it was considered inconvenient. Rightly or wrongly, for the sake of historical reconciliation and with an eye to the dangers which any rival stance might produce, that silence was perpetuated, at least officially, in the form of “forgetfulness”. Which, as we all know, was a huge disappointment for many who had waited for years and years to be able to talk about what happened. But the worst thing was that for simple reasons of biology that no one can escape, the transition coincided with the final years of many of the protagonists of the Civil War and post-war. So a huge archive of memory, indispensable not only to historians but to others as well, was lost. Because we are all our parents’ children and, if our parents die without us knowing the real history of their lives, we have little chance of understanding where we came from, something which is so essential in order to have a normal life. This is in spite of the fact that many people stubbornly argue the opposite, whether out of convenience or accommodation.
When the Finnish writer Elina Liikanen, in the introduction to her study on references to the Civil War and Francoism in the contemporary Spanish novel, uses the term postmemory (apparently borrowed from Marianne Hirsch, who mainly applied it to photography, in connection with family portraits relating to the Holocaust), she is touching a raw nerve, putting her finger on an issue that no one in Spain dares to confront directly. And the issue is that, while we argue how appropriate the so-called Law of Historical Memory which the Government is considering may or may not be, while we tie ourselves up in long debates on how useful or not it is to pore over the Civil War and post-war period, while we spend our time arguing about what exactly constitutes historical memory and whether or not the expression is linguistically correct (a debate which is often used to disguise the fact that some people are opposed to our recent past being out in the open), no one dares to say that such debates are pointless. This is not because of their subject matter but because the time for memory has already passed. Now is the era of the postmemory, which belongs to those who, like the majority of Spaniards alive today, have experienced the Civil War and the post-war through the eyes of our parents and grandparents. In other words, our memory of those two periods is reshaped by distance. As Elina Liikanen says, “the transmission of memory from one generation to the next inevitably involves a transformation, since the person assuming that memory rounds it out and transforms it using their imagination.”
Therefore, opposing the use of that inherited memory, which is still happening in our society, is not only an injustice, it’s also technically ridiculous. It’s an injustice because it denies certain people the right to remember, when all they want is for the truth about what really happened to be out in the open. They are not even seeking to hold any of the survivors responsible. And it’s ridiculous because what is being rejected is not the survivors’ memory, which has already disappeared or been reduced to simple testimony, but that of the people coming after them, which means all of us, wherever we may come from and whatever we may think.
The fact that in Spain there has been a dispute about the collective memory, created by political circumstances, which has lasted for longer than some would consider normal, does not mean that it should last for ever nor, even less, that it can be sorted out by covering it up. Wounds never heal by themselves and memory, like water, will eventually find a path, as the experience of history has shown. Therefore those who attempt, for whatever reason or for no reason at all, to place the Civil War and the post-war period in limbo in our collective memory, an unwritten page in school textbooks, are mistaken. Firstly this is because sooner or later someone will fill that page and not always with the best results (this has already started happening) and, secondly, because no society can look confidently to the future without knowing their past.
The Germans and the Jews have already managed it, the Russians in the post-Communist era are also doing it now, and even the Argentines and the Chileans can look back on their own periods of dictatorship in spite of their historical proximity, so it is difficult to understand why we Spaniards still take sides when we discuss a period which, at the end of the day, happened a long time ago and which almost none of us alive today experienced directly.
Unless the reason – and this would be truly horrific – is that, as some people argue, the war is still not over and it persists precisely through the collective memory, even if this is now an inherited memory, transformed by the imagination.
Original article: La posmemoria © 2006 Julio Llamazares, published in El País 29 Nov 2006.
Translation from the Spanish © 2017 Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles
Julio Llamazares is the author of Wolf Moon, a lyrical and gripping novel about the Spanish Maquis and their fight for survival in the wild Cantabrian Mountains at the end of the Spanish Civil War.
Peter Owen is an independent British publisher founded in 1951 continuing the tradition of producing new and interesting writing.
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