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A terrific mosaic of modern Spain

  • Apr 5, 2010
Giles Tremlett is the Spanish correspondent for The Guardian of London. When Ghosts of Spain was published, late in 2006, he had been living in Spain for over 10 years, first in Barcelona, then in Madrid, where he is still stationed. The tone of his book is entirely different from John Hooper's The New Spaniards, 2nd Edition, though both are excellent in different ways and complement each other nicely. Hooper's tone is detached throughout; though his commentary is always smart and to the point, he maintains a certain distance. It is clear that his book was written by someone who is very familiar with Spain, but who no longer lives there (this may have been less evident in the first edition, which was written after he had just completed an 8-year assignment there). The reader learns very little about Hooper, other than his obvious expertise about Spain. Tremlett, in contrast, takes a much more personal approach - repeatedly drawing on his own particular experience to illustrate a general point, grounding his analysis in the quotidian details of ordinary life. As a result, there is an immediacy to Tremlett's writing that is missing from Hooper's book. Some readers might find Tremlett's willingness to place himself in the foreground a little offputting - it didn't bother me, as I found him generally engaging, smart, with the knack of a good journalist for asking interesting questions.

Hooper takes a very systematic approach to a book that is obviously intended as a comprehensive treatment, with separate, clearly delineated sections (transition to democracy, private life, the monarchy, regional autonomy, social issues, culture and the media). I doubt that Tremlett was interested in writing a comprehensive account of contemporary Spain; his book is structured more like a collection of essays on different aspects of Spanish life. Though both books seem to have come out in 2006, Tremlett's appears far more up to date, reflecting a journalist's focus on topics of immediate public interest. Of course, as his book's title indicates, understanding current events often requires an examination of past history, and this is nowhere more true than in Spain, where the ghosts of the Civil War have yet to be laid to rest.

The specific trigger for a reexamination of past events was the exhumation of bodies for reburial from first a handful, later scores, of mass graves dating from the Spanish Civil War. The vast majority were bodies of Republicans killed or executed by Franco's forces; many had disappeared with little or no information about the circumstances of their death, and had been buried in unmarked, communal graves. It took almost 30 years after Franco's death, but suddenly, in the middle of the last decade, old wounds were reopened and old hostilities resurfaced as relatives of the dead began to demand exhumation, proper burial, and some measure of accountability. The question of the graves, and coming to term with the past, received a major increase in traction when the right-wing government of Jose Maria Aznar lost to Zapatero's socialist party in the general election of 2004 (it was still a hot topic in 2009). It provided the impetus for the opening three essays in Tremlett's book: Secretos a Voces (Open Secrets), Looking for the Generalisimo, and Amnesty & Amnesia (The Pact of Forgetting).

The number of books about the Spanish Civil War now exceeds 2000, a number that gives me a major headache. Tremlett's material is nonetheless interesting, because he is specifically focused on how it still affects life in Spain seventy years later. 100 pages examining the legacy of civil war, in Spain or anywhere else, isn't exactly a walk in the park, though Tremlett is clear and engaging. Fortunately, each of the remaining chapters is largely self-contained, so they can be read in any order. Later chapters are (generally) given over to more cheerful topics, specifically:

* How the Bikini Saved Spain (Benidorm and the rise of tourism)
* Anarchy, Order and a Real Pair of Balls (the importance of enchufe, corruption and scandal)
* The Mean Streets of Flamenco
* Clubs and Curas (Sex. Prostitution neither legal nor illegal. Decline of the influence of the church)
* Men and Children First (Role of the family)
* 11-M: Moros y Cristianos (terrorist attacks of March 11th, 2004 and the aftermath)
* In the Shadow of the Serpent and the Axe (ETA and the Basques)
* The Madness of Verdaguer (those crazy Catalans)
* Coffins, Celts and Clothes (Galicia)
* Moderns and Ruins (the frenetic pace of change)

Tremlett and Hooper are obviously covering some of the same ground. Both are worth reading. What I particularly liked about Tremlett's book is the way all of his writing is grounded in the vivid details of everyday life. He is much better at capturing how it feels to live in Spain. The cacophony of noise in Madrid, the necessity for having and using connections (enchufe) to get anything done that pervades all aspects of Spanish life, first-hand encounters with the health and educational systems through the birth and education of his child, a visit to the municipal jail in Seville (conjugal visits), a brothel in Almeria - the mosaic of Spanish life that Tremlett constructs is detailed, colorful and vibrant. Cumulatively his delightful collection of essays do manage to capture both the charm and frustration of Spanish life.

I highly recommend Ghosts of Spain.

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Praise for Ghosts of Spain:

"[Tremlett] paints a rich, multicolored canvas of one of Europe's most fascinating nations."—Entertainment Weekly

"This well traveled journalist…knows his subject as he ventures through the past to explain the present personality of a country so varied that even in modern times its complicated medieval legacy is part of everyday life." Washington Times (Ann Geracimos)
"Tremlett has written a smart and highly readable book that mixes incisive political history with sophisticated cultural reporting."Seattle Times (Robin Updike)
"[An] incisive and engaging book….[Tremlett's] sober analysis of how the Madrid train bombings of March 11, 2004...exposed deep fissures in Spanish society is the best report I've read on the subject….[A]n invaluable book. Indeed, since it appeared in Britain last year, 'Ghosts of Spain' has become something of a bible for those of us extranjeros who have chosen to live in Spain. A country finally facing its past could scarcely hope for a better, or more enamored, chronicler of its present."—New York Times Book Review (Sarah Wildman)
" [An] affectionate, deeply informed tour of the country…. a highly informative, well-written introduction to post-Franco Spain. Mr. Tremlett’s taut recounting of the 2004 train bombings in Madrid makes especially timely reading, with the suspects now on trial."—New York Times (William Grimes)
"Mr. Tremlett['s]...affectionate ...
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ISBN-10: 0802716741
ISBN-13: 978-0802716743
Author: Giles Tremlett
Publisher: Walker & Company

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