Manuel Rivas writes in Galician, the least known of Spain’s official languages. Franco’s repression of the four regional languages ended up doing a great deal to stimulate their revival, and Rivas chooses to write in Galician even if not all his characters would have spoken it, even if it means his work’s literary life will be led mostly in translation. Jutting out over Portugal, whose language Galician resembles, the region fell quickly in 1936 to paleo-Catholic supporters of Franco and is still viewed in Spain as a mythic, backward, soulful place, closer to Brittany or Ireland. Galician nationalism has varied in strength since the Romantic period, but local literature has always been sparse compared to that of the Basque region and Catalonia. Books Burn Badly wants to be Galicia’s first great national novel; its subject is the region’s modern history.
Born in 1957 in the port of A Coruña, where the novel is set, and now based in the region’s capital, Santiago de Compostela, Rivas is one of Galicia’s leading cultural and political figures (his name was on a death list discovered after the failed right-wing putsch of 1981). He helped found the ‘Nunca Máis’ (Never Again) environmental pressure group after the oil spill that followed the wreck of the Prestige off Cape Finisterre in 2002 and is a columnist for El País. He has always bridged milieus, a quality evident in his writing, where poetry melts into prose, oral and literary registers mingle, reportage and imagination overlap.
Books Burn Badly, published in Spain in 2006, is his first full-length novel and, as if to make up for lost time, it’s a doorstop. It’s also a glittering edifice of tableaux and fragments; flashbacks, premonitions and non-sequiturs; short stories and tall tales, mostly set between 1936 and the late 1960s. The book’s core scene is the one that gives it its title. It is 19 August 1936, and Falangist officials, helped by locals with an eye on the future, are staging a bonfire at the docks in A Coruña. The fire is fed with volumes and pamphlets from workers’ associations, radical bookshops and rationalist schools, and with books from the vast library of Santiago Casares Quiroga, the Galician-born last Republican prime minister, who resigned a month before Franco declared war; he had opposed, Allende-like, the distribution of arms to the people.
Calling out the titles in lewd or gloating fashion, young soldiers supervised by Ricardo Samos, an ambitious local lawyer, cast books into the flames as if in preparation for Spain’s shutters being closed. ‘Does God Exist? Aurora Library. No more questions, Aurora, darling! Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Hell’s not miserable. Madame Bovary. One less ovary!’ The books resist being consumed, releasing a viscous, sickening smoke. They are like creatures – ‘he saw it suddenly fan out its fresh pollack’s red gills’; ‘a cluster of birds reduced to ashen silhouettes and glowing yellow or orange beaks’ – but the prevailing metaphor is of human flesh. Polka, the anarchist grave-digger who is forced to bury what is left of the books, recalls ‘the folds and tips of toasted skin, the nervous resistance of gut-string, the bony splinters of shrivelled paper. The books’ remains.’
This sacrificial scene, the novel’s most controlled and haunting achievement, is partly seen through the eyes of Vicente Curtis a.k.a. Hercules, a promising boxer brought up in a brothel who wants to be an electrician. A few days earlier, he was horsing around with friends, looking forward to a trip upriver to Caneiros in ‘the heart of the forest’ for ‘libertarian speeches, plenty of food and music, lots of music’ around a fire – a pagan ritual as if in counterpoint to the state’s political ritual. But it never takes place. Instead, Curtis escapes from the soldiers at the docks by leaping over the flames (as one jumps over the bonfire to fend off evil spirits on St John’s night), and he and his best friend, Luís Terranova, an extrovert tango singer and his temperamental opposite, go into hiding for the rest of the war. Some time later Luís is taken as a sexual pet by the local censor, Commander Dez, who, like many of the Franquists in the novel, is a sinister and paradoxical figure – he fancies himself as a poet and freethinker. When even the happy-go-lucky Luís has had enough, he flees to Buenos Aires. The narrative then loses interest in the friends, though Curtis is occasionally glimpsed in the background of someone else’s story, forever waiting for Luís to return.
It’s a disconcerting but life-like feature of the novel that the members of its huge cast wax and wane: important characters are abandoned in the middle of crises, unknowns are given just one intriguing appearance, minor figures surge back into the limelight when we’ve forgotten who they are. Though it eventually becomes clear that all the first-person passages are narrated by O, Polka’s washerwoman daughter, inconstancy is the novel’s only norm. ‘I started off with great momentum,’ Rivas said in an interview. ‘After that it was the book itself that pushed me … the text continues under its own steam and you mustn’t force anything, you just see what happens.’ Rivas’s artists similarly deny responsibility: a cello is too ‘ill’ to play, a photographer says: ‘It’s the camera that takes the photos. Decides whether it likes the people. Picks them. Moves them.’ Whatever one thinks of the claim writers often make that they are a passive medium for their creation, it would certainly explain the apparent randomness of this novel. What holds it together is the tone, a blend of poetic prose, free indirect speech and snatches of banter. Here’s a typically aimless passage about people hanging around the harbour, in the mid-1960s at a guess; Korea is an adolescent who lives on the docks:
He felt he was being observed. Noticed he’d grown. Which was true. His tattered trousers had shortened and were clinging to his calves, as if he’d raised his head. The length of a bluefin tuna. Korea asked the crane operator: ‘How much is a swordfish?’
‘For that, you have to work like a man,’ said the operator reprovingly.
‘Who said anything about working?’ Korea replied. ‘All I did was ask about a swordfish.’
The Chemin Creux berthed at the Western Quay. Moored against the light. Seemed to be bringing a cargo of sun from the East. It was welcome. The stones on the quay were still covered in hues of rain, an oily water forming pools in the joins with bits of rainbow. It felt as if something was happening, perhaps because Tito Balboa rushed forwards and took a few fast notes.
Nothing very much actually happens in the novel. Paralysis is embodied in Héctor Ríos, a humanist intellectual and former friend of Ricardo Samos, the supervisor of the book burning. Ríos takes to his bed as a form of internal exile, like ‘an enchanted castaway’. From there he prepares a screed about right-wing Spanish culture, and under the pseudonym John Black Eye publishes cheap westerns that lampoon the injustices meted out by Samos, to the latter’s fury and shame. Samos’s son, Gabriel, is another incarnation of repression: he is a stutterer, and only becomes more confident as a result of his clandestine immersion in the books from the Casares library that his father snatched from the burning pile.
But there is life down at the docks: thanks to A Coruña’s situation by the sea, books and the wider world always made their way in and the city remained alive to outside knowledge. The port faces the New World, where long before the great emigrations of the 1950s and 1960s caused by Franco’s disastrous economic policies, Galicia’s poor had gone in such numbers that gallego is still the common word for ‘Spaniard’ in South America. At the docks people of all classes argue over points of science, history and legend; seamstresses scrutinise the passengers on foreign ships for fashions to copy; and the crane operator, the intermediary between the world and the port, is a self-taught naturalist. In his cabin there is a library, as well as a football – ‘like the orb of a strange planet’ – that bounced from the deck of a moored British ship in 1904. Korea’s scabby head reminds everyone of a globe, inspiring harpooners, seamen and fortune-seekers to tell stories. This cosmopolitanism saves A Coruña. The fire is the novel’s symbol of death; images of sea, birds, water, light and air are its counterpoint.
Spanish novelists keep returning to the fratricidal dramas of the Civil War, but Rivas is unusual in also tackling the stultifying Franco era, showing its naffness as well as its nastiness. Beatings and disappearances are mentioned in passing, or to mark the point at which rumour is transformed into legend. The crudest episode, in which soldiers stamp on and then sever a teacher’s fingers as he clings to a bridge, is almost beautiful: ‘He gripped the two iron bars with such strength his hands were made of iron, formed part of the foundry, “Zorroza Bilbao 1907”. The landscape was not a hostile stage set. It was on tenterhooks, amazed.’ More chilling are the smaller ways in which the regime stamps on ideas, values or people that challenge it. When a sailor submits a collection of brilliant, subversive poems to the censor’s office, Commander Dez decides to publish them under his own name, with some God-fearing alterations that make a nonsense of them – not that he sees it.
Braided into the fiction is thus a history of Franquist Galicia, bringing in economic migration, the imposition of American Cold War culture, and the adaptation of Catholic ideology. While fanatics such as Dez are mourning the end of their dream of a new Holy Germano-Roman Empire, the clergy welcome the new consumer culture of the 1960s. A trendy priest tells his class: ‘Books, men who accumulate knowledge, are OK, but what we need are publicists for God … we should have no scruples about turning into Walking Advertisements.’ There’s also a withering critique of the far-right politician Manuel Fraga, reborn after the democratic transition as a leader of the Popular Party, who ruled Galicia’s Autonomous Community until 2005 with scarcely a break.
Rivas employs a kind of magical realism that hovers close to the sense intended by the art critic Franz Roh, the coiner of the term in 1925: a wonder at the objectively apparent. There’s a moment at the beginning of the book when O the washerwoman sees souls in the river, but she says no more about it and further intrusions of the supernatural take the form either of metaphors – a fantastical way of talking that Rivas, with his love of the oral tradition, has made his own – or jokes. When Polka produces a handful of ants from his mouth, it’s not an illustration of his claim that ants got into his body while he was in a prison camp (as Márquez might have it), but sleight of hand. Myth has been killed off, the painter Sada announces, remembering that a snow-white whale appeared in the port when he was a child, only to get shot. ‘“Ready! Aim! Fire! Destroy the miracle!” That’s right. He’d shout there were no sirens left in Galicia because we’d eaten them all. He claimed one of the first canneries was for siren meat.’ This effective rejection of both realism and magic (the reporter Tito Balboa is forbidden from writing about bikinis and UFOs) leaves us with an artful mosaic of voices, and imagery that compulsively announces that a thing is more something else than itself.
Such a commitment to comparison produces a paradox. The novel’s book burning is based on a real – but until recently forgotten – incident in A Coruña, which Rivas re-creates imaginatively and symbolically. The incinerated books are, first, the harbinger of the dark age inaugurated by the Nationalists; but they also represent a great deal more. They are material objects: they can leave a white patch on your skin after sunbathing, slot together to make a wall (this astounds Curtis when Casares’s daughter sneaks him into their house), or earn you pennies for carting them in a wheelbarrow. Their possession can symbolise freedom, clandestinity, resistance, the arbitrariness of survival (Polka feels bad for saving one from getting burned just because he hadn’t returned it to the library on time), a truncated future (Curtis keeps a charred copy of A Popular Guide to Electricity ‘like a relic’), or forbidden glamour (Gabriel is particularly fascinated by the illustrations in the volumes he pores over in his father’s library). But hardly any interest is shown in what’s inside the books. If H.G. Wells is often mentioned, it’s because time travel and invisibility are powerful longings for those trapped in Franco’s dead zone.
Since books are treated as symbolic objects rather than things to read, they live the lives of collectibles. Samos swipes valuable-looking ‘Casaritos’ from the fires he supervises; and over the years he pays good money for anything special that his tame policeman, Inspector Ren, can bring him. His great obsession is to find the New Testament dedicated by George Borrow to a liberal Galician guerrilla who spared his life when he was mistaken for the proto-Franco himself, the right-wing pretender, Don Carlos, in 1836. When Samos is dying in hospital, Ren – who has been sitting on this treasure since the day of the bonfire – brings it to his house, and happens on Gabriel, who is now estranged from his father, and who has come to pick up some belongings. Is the book’s appearance an optimistic return of the repressed, this time into the kinder hands of a new generation? Or is Rivas suggesting that you can never transcend your family heritage? The novel’s last words are: ‘“How much?” asked Gabriel again.’