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Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory Since 1936, by Jeremy Treglown, Chatto & Windus, £25 / Farrar, Straus and Giroux $30, 320 pages

Any patriotic pride Spanish readers might have felt at the appearance in 2011 of the first 25 volumes of the Spanish Biographical Dictionary was all too rapidly overtaken by disbelief. Those who turned to “FRANCO, BAHAMONDE, Francisco” – just about everyone, in other words – found the life of a more or less exemplary leader, firm but fair. Nothing on his role, as head of state or earlier, in human rights abuses; nothing on his anti-Semitism, nor on his admiration for Hitler. Even his dictator’s status was denied, or at least unstated: notoriously, Franco’s style was described as “authoritarian, but not totalitarian”.

There can be few countries where the political partisanships are so open, so deep and so enduring as in Spain. In Franco’s Crypt, Jeremy Treglown finds a zero-sum enmity, with left and right all but erasing the other from history. As might be expected, Franco’s Nationalists did this without thought of embarrassment – and to an extent that has become ever clearer since 2007, when the “Law of Historical Memory” committed the Spanish government to the support of research into the fates of the disappeared and of the excavations of civil war mass graves.

Treglown recognises a need for redress for the Republican dead and has no truck with a faults-on-both sides equivalence (“Nationalism”, he writes, was “intrinsically brutal”). But he questions the 2007 law’s stipulation that, with a few exceptions, all commemorative plaques and statues to the other side were to be removed. One recent study of the Franco period, he tells us, “begins with an admission – or is it a boast? – by the two editors that they are not interested in hearing anything favourable about the regime”.

A former editor of the Times Literary Supplement, Treglown spends much of his time in Spain. He has written distinguished biographies of Roald Dahl, Henry Green and VS Pritchett – the last of whom, significantly, noted (in The Spanish Temper, 1954) the “limited imagination” of the Spaniards; the frankness of their hatreds; the pride they took in being, by their own avowal, “the impossible people”. Seldom can any country have had so critical a friend; by comparison Treglown is the soul of tact.

Even so, he is dismissive of the claim on the left that there has been a pacto de olvido (“pact of forgetfulness”) about the excesses of the Franco regime. If there has been a “silence” on the subject of the civil war, it has been a remarkably noisy one, he points out, given the tables in every bookshop stacked with novels, memoirs and historical commentary. (True enough, although the observation hardly does justice to how long it’s taken to reach the present clamour.)

Where Treglown does find forgetfulness is in the attitudes of the educated – as much in Spain as outside – to the achievements of writers, artists and film-makers under Franco. At the heart of this enthralling book is the exhumation of a Spanish culture far too recent to have been forgotten, and too rich to have been dismissed out of disdain for the dictatorship. Whilst Treglown has much to say on the way the period has been recalled by more recent writers such as Javier Cercas and Antonio Muñoz Molina, his great accomplishment is the reinstatement of what went before.

Granted, a film director such as Luis García Berlanga had to contend with Franco’s censors: even so, in Welcome Mr Marshall!(1953) he took some swipes at the regime. The son of a Falangist leader, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio barely mentions the civil war in his novel El Jarama (1955) yet there is a suggestiveness in the way it keeps reminding us that, in Treglown’s words, “a generation gap is also an experience gap”. And who, Treglown asks, would quarrel with José Luis Fernández del Amo, founder in 1951 of the Spanish Museum of Contemporary Art, in his calls for works with “an experimental character”?

Close in its engagement and alive to the complexity of its subject matter, Treglown’s book reminds us just how reductive we are being when we talk of “Franco’s Spain”.

Jeremy Treglown will be talking at the FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival on Saturday March 29, oxfordliteraryfestival.org

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