Books Burn Badly
By Manuel Rivas
Translated by Jonathan Dunne
Harvill Secker £18.99 560 pages
FT Bookshop price: £15.19
The wounds of the Spanish civil war still run deep. Atrocities committed by both nationalists and republicans between 1936 and 1939 continue to haunt the country, not least because the conflict led to the rise of an oppressive dictatorship that kept a tight lid on historical records until the death of its leader, Francisco Franco, in 1975. Even the early years of Spain’s transition to democracy seemed veiled in a tacit agreement of silence, as if collective forgetfulness was the price to pay for national reconciliation.
It has fallen on the generation of fiction writers who came of age in the post-Franco years to illuminate the uncomfortable realities of the war and its long aftermath. This includes authors such as Javier Cercas, who in Soldiers of Salamis dramatised some of the war’s myriad acts of moral resistance and moral compromise.
Manuel Rivas, another member of that generation, has written memorably about the Spanish civil war in novels such as The Carpenter’s Pencil. His most recent, Books Burn Badly, is his boldest take yet on the war’s repercussions in his native Galicia. It is an admirable and challenging attempt to steer literature into the murky episodes that historians have glossed over, or left untouched.
One such episode was the public burning of thousands of books on August 19 1936, in the Galician port of Coruña. Barely one month into the war, the town fell to Franco’s troops. In a conspicuous display of power, they lit pyres in the main squares and fed the fires with “questionable” volumes taken from the town’s public and private libraries.
Described in vivid detail, this event is the emotional core of Books Burn Badly. In a fragmented narrative that spreads out from that pivotal moment, Rivas tells the stories of young men and women whose lives were changed forever by the symbolic act of violence: Arturo da Silva, a lightweight boxing champion; Hercules, an aspiring boxer; Luis Terranova, a gifted tango singer; Polka, a gardener; Olinda, a laundress; the photographer Leica; Ricardo Samos, who supervised the book-burning and would become a judge; Dez, a soldier turned censor; Ren, another burly soldier turned police chief.
Book-burnings were not uncommon in Spain’s civil war. The most infamous occurred in 1939, when Franco’s soldiers set fire to the library of Catalan linguist Pompeu Fabra while chanting “Down with intelligence!”. But Rivas is persuasive in showing us that the builders of pyres were not always ignorant thugs. Often they were highly educated people with a grudge. Indeed, the future judge Samos executes his act of vandalism while secretly trying to salvage a particularly valuable tome.
The burning of books on the Coruña docks was in part an attempt to eradicate the memory of Santiago Casares Quiroga, a Coruña native who was the last prime minister of republican Spain and possessed the city’s finest library. He was so detestable to Franco’s regime that his records were ripped out of the registry books and his name deleted from Spanish encyclopedias.
“We can approach the mystery of life,” Rivas writes, “but it’s impossible to understand the mystery of hate. The kind of hate that causes people not only to kill, but to want to erase you from the census of births ... [Casares] was a symbol of the Republic and now he’s a crater.”
There’s an element of absurdity, too, in the book blazes. One soldier decides he must condemn to the flames an encyclopedia of meat –“the head imagines a treatise on lust, pictures of orgies” – before realising it’s merely a cookbook.
“Where are the readers of books? Why are they taking so long?” asks a homeless passerby who, being illiterate, finds the act especially offensive. Rivas makes clear how unnatural it was: “The book fires are not part of the city’s memory ... That is why the fire progresses slowly, because it has to overcome resistance, the arsonists’ incompetence, the unusualness of burning books.”
Ever the poet, Rivas stuns with his imagery: the fanned pages of a burning book glow like a “fresh pollack’s red gills”; clothes left by a stream “were spread out like a happy graft of people on nature”; a recurrent image describes “the sluggish flight of newspapers that haven’t been read yet”.
Even more powerful are his evocations of smell. A mountain fire in summer “smells of a mixture of vegetation and cricket and cicada wings, burnt song”, while the smouldering volumes smell “of leather mashed with flesh. Of boxing gloves”.
Books Burn Badly is a demanding novel, artfully translated from Galician by Jonathan Dunne. Its multiple narrative voices and unadvertised time shifts can be disorienting but it repays the reader’s persistence. Connections between characters and events become clearer as the various stories gradually bleed into each other.
The incineration of books was hardly the worst crime committed during Spain’s civil war but its figurative cruelty was inescapable. The pyre-builders and those they pursued were surely aware of the poet Heinrich Heine’s warning that “where books are burned, so too will human beings be burned”. Rivas has illustrated this forcefully in a work of unusual beauty.