Why the Spanish Civil War continues to haunt Gothic literature

The spectre of the Civil War continues to haunt Spain in many different ways. It manifests itself overtly in conflicts over Catalan independence but also more subtly through art, literature and film.

Why the Spanish Civil War continues to haunt Gothic literature
The ruins of a church in Belchite, Zaragoza, which was devastated during the Spanish Civil War. Shutterstock/gonzalovidania

By Xavier Aldana Reyes, Manchester Metropolitan University

Many will remember Guillermo del Toro’s haunting Mexican-Spanish co-productions The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). But it is especially prevalent in the works of writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón. His novel The Labyrinth of the Spirits, the last in the international best-selling quartet The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, is being published in English in September.

Those who can read Spanish had access to El Laberinto de los Espíritus as early as 2016. But as it is just shy of 1,000 pages, it is not surprising it has taken nearly two years for this mammoth conclusion to see the light of day in translation. Its epic proportions, as well as Ruiz Zafón’s usual concoction of suspense, melodrama and humour – all set against a heavily Gothic Barcelona – is sure to delight his readers.

The introduction of a new character, the detective Alicia Gris, also provides some much needed new blood to a series of books that has been steeped in an exploration of the horrors and silences of the Spanish Civil War.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón in Cologne, Germany, in March 2017. EPA/SASCHA STEINBACH

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

The other volumes in Ruiz Zafón’s quartet, namely The Shadow of the Wind (2001), The Angel’s Game (2008) and The Prisoner of Heaven (2011), are also variously set during the Civil War and its direct aftermath. They each interweave the classic formulae of Gothic literature with a revisionist social realism strongly imbued with the war and Spain’s recovery from it as traumatic event – the perception of which has been affected by recent historical and social changes.

As I have argued in my book on the Spanish Gothic, the fear in these novels is not strictly spectral. It is derived from the war, the subsequent fascist regime and its followers. The Gothic anti-hero in The Shadow of the Wind, Julián Carax, turns out not to be the villain of the novel, but the man who saves the protagonist from the real monster: police officer Fumero.

READ ALSO: 14 best books about the Spanish Civil War

The Civil War is imagined in all its cruelty and visceral brutality in Ruiz Zafón’s novels. The war is Gothicised as much as its setting, a fallen, rainy and depressed Barcelona which contrasts strongly with images of the city in the contemporary tourist industry.

Even the library that becomes the catalyst of all events – appropriately named the Cemetery of Forgotten Books – stands as a poetic image for those killed in the war. It is described in The Shadow of the Wind as an “endless necropolis” where volumes “remain unexplored, forgotten forever” until rescued by a daring reader who may become their protector. These daring readers are naturally modern day Spaniards, some of whom have been quite literally digging up the dead since the first exhumation of a war mass grave in 2000.

‘One doesn’t talk about the war’

This casual injunction, a phrase I heard often when growing up in Spain in the 1980s and 1990s, may be read as a distillation of the country’s attitude towards a conflict that took place 80 years ago, but which is still very much present in the lives of the Spanish. It is a bit like a ghost, but more like a cursed legacy. It is an echo of “the sins of fathers (being) visited on their children to the third and fourth generation” that Horace Walpole suggested was the main moral of his The Castle of Otranto (1764) – broadly seen as the first Gothic novel.

It has been suggested that the repression of trauma (a typical Gothic trope) may not be appropriate for the case of the Spanish Civil War. The reason for the relative lateness of the “memory boom” (1990s and 2000s) could be due to a reluctance on the part of those who lived through the conflict to tell their stories. The decision to break with the past after Franco’s death, the argument continues, may have more to do with not wanting to let the past affect the future than with deliberately attempting to silence it.




Lluís Companys, the president of Catalonia from 1934 and during the Spanish Civil War.

However, the conflicts over the Catalan independence vote in 2017 demonstrate that the very idea that the past may not affect the future is not only untenable, but reactionary. This position may inadvertently mask a desire to let the status quo go unchallenged. On this note, it is interesting that Ruiz Zafón’s books are set in Catalonia, a part of Spain with a history of resistance to centralist policies and whose president during the War, Lluís Companys, was eventually executed by the regime.

Spain’s modern Gothic tale

The Civil War remains Spain’s favourite modern Gothic tale. This is because Spain, as a country, is only beginning to deal with the war’s legacy openly, with its impact on the lives of those directly affected by it. It could not have begun to do so any sooner given that the crimes committed during Francoism have not even been legally recognised, let alone sanctioned.

Whether the past can ever be truly laid to rest is a contentious issue, but it seems to me that only the recognition of its effects – and the way that current discourses around nationalism have been coloured by them – can lead to the end of the type of alienation, fear and anger that Ruiz Zafón and other artists have been working through in their work. We should continue to read and talk about the Civil War and to condemn the brutal acts of murder and repression that have affected Spain for at least three generations. As philosopher George Santayana once warned, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat”.

Xavier Aldana Reyes, Senior Lecturer in English Literature and Film, Manchester Metropolitan University

This article was first published on The Conversation. Read the original.

READ ALSO: Ten must-watch films about the Spanish Civil War

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Why Spain is still in the wrong time zone because of Hitler

As Spain again prepares to put the clocks forward on Saturday night, we look at the fascinating reasons why the country has been in the wrong time zone for the last 75 years, the possible effects of this historical blip on Spanish society, and why there's still no sign of it changing.

Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)
Nazi leader German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (R) shakes hands with Spanish Generalísimo Francisco Franco at Hendaye train station on the French-Spanish border in October 1940. (Photo by AFP)

Why is Spain in the wrong time zone?

Madrid lies directly south of London. Spain is geographically in line with the UK and Portugal. It makes sense, then, that Spain was in the Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) zone until around 75 years ago.

But that all changed in 1940. With Nazi Germany occupying Belgium, Holland, and recently invading France, Spain’s own facist dictator, Francisco Franco, travelled to the French border to meet with Hitler, the man he and many other believed would go on to dominate Europe.

The momentum was clearly with the Nazis, at the time, and Italy had already pledged its support to Hitler. Although he wanted the same from Spain, Franco, however, didn’t have much to offer. With the country ravaged by its own recent Civil War – in which Franco’s victory was heavily supported by Hitler –  Franco felt obliged to make a gesture of some sort.

Although ultimately remaining neutral in the war, Franco decided to show his support for Hitler by agreeing to put Spain’s clocks forward by an hour in an act of solidarity with Nazi Germany. 

Spain has remained in the Central European Time zone ever since, in line with countries as far east as Poland. That means that Madrid currently has the same time as Warsaw in Poland 2,290km away but is one hour ahead of Lisbon which is only 502 km away. 

The consequences of Spain being in the wrong time zone

But Franco’s decision all those years ago isn’t just a quirk of Spanish history, or testament to the extent to which the legacy of that period still looms over Spanish society, it was a decision that, experts say, has had a lasting impact on Spanish culture and society that underpins everything from Spaniard’s sleep cycles and meal times to the country’s birth rates and economic growth.

In recent years there have been calls to make the switch back to GMT because many believe the time zone quirk is affecting Spaniard’s productivity and quality of life. In 2013 a Spanish national commission concluded that Spaniards sleep almost an hour less than the European average, and that this led to increased stress, concentration problems, both at school and work, and workplace accidents.

Some experts believe this explains the Spanish dependence on siestas – that is, that the lack of sleep makes them necessary – but in reality the siesta has been a consistent feature of Spanish life for centuries for many of the same reasons it still is today: in southern Spain, the fierce summer temperatures make it necessary to stay at home during the afternoon. 

Spain's most famous clock is the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr
Spain’s most famous clock is at the Puerta del Sol in central Madrid. Photo: Jorge Franganillo/Flickr

One effect of the siesta however is that the break in the day means Spaniards work the most hours in Europe yet at one of the continent’s lowest levels of productivity. A lack of sleep contributes to siesta taking which, in turn, means Spaniards work later into the evening and could partly explain Spain’s notoriously nocturnal lifestyles and late meal times. 

Despite the country running on CET, Spaniards’ eating patterns roughly mirror GMT. Many Spaniards eat lunch at what would be 1 or 1.30pm in London (the traditional 2 or 2.30pm in Spain) and dinner at a reasonable 8pm in London (but 9pm or even 10pm as is customary in many parts of Spain).

Making the change and returning to GMT would, according to Nuria Chinchilla, professor at Spain’s IESE business school, help Spaniards “return to the natural order of our circadian rhythm (our 24-hour physiological cycle) that goes with the sun… and the sun in Greenwich, not Germany”.

“If we don’t (change to GMT) we lengthen the day, eat very late and then don’t sleep,” she added.

Why hasn’t Spain moved to the right time zone yet?

The debate about which time zone Spain belongs in was reinvigorated following recent proposals at the EU level to scrap entirely the daylight savings custom. 

In 2018 the EU Commission announced a proposal to abolish the custom after polling showed that 80 percent of Europeans are in favour of staying permanently on summer time.This debate naturally had many in Spain wondering about whether they were in the right time zone.

But owing to a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, and various other bureaucratic difficulties, the proposal was shelved. Member states cannot decide unilaterally on the question of daylight savings, but they can decide which timezone they want to be in. 

Spain has had various commissions over the years exploring the impact of daylight savings and timezones, but no concrete proposals over a return to GMT have ever been made, despite the benefits experts claim it could bring.

Although the government’s focus has been drawn by more pressing issues in recent years – and the issue of time and daylight savings shelved at the European level – expect discussion of whether Spain is actually even in the right time zone this weekend when the clocks do go back, or if the linked issue of daylight savings is eventually taken off the shelf at the European level.

Article by Conor Faulkner