Ian Gibson, outside St. George’s Church in the English cemetery. Patricia Merchán
Dublin born hispanist, biographer and novelist Ian Gibson saw the completion of a full circle on Wednesday. He had come to talk about his new novel at the very place where the seeds for the story were sown: the English cemetery in Malaga.
The author has several reasons to feel emotional in this “unique place in_Europe”. Here lies his “maestro” Gerald Brenan, “the greatest hispanist” of them all, whose body was buried in the English cemetery thanks to Gibson’s intervention.
However it was another grave that provided the inspiration for Gibson’s most recent novel “La berlina de Prim”, published in Spanish by Planeta, and awarded the 2012 Fernando Lara prize. He explained how he was moved when he saw the tomb of Robert Boyd, the young Irishman who “gave his life and money” for freedom, ending up facing the firing squad alongside General Torrijos and fellow liberals on a Malaga beach in 1831. This visit to the final resting place of a man who felt to Gibson “like a close friend” led him to create a plot whose main character is Boyd’s fictitious son Patrick. Fruit of Boyd’s relationship with a woman from Algeciras (“half Irish and half Spanish, a good mix”, pointed out the writer) Patrick comes to Spain as a journalist to investigate the assassination of Prim, the president of the Spanish council of ministers who was killed in 1870.
Gibson explained how his investigation into the murder that “changed the direction of Spanish history” permitted him to use his novel to reflect on Spain and what he sees as one of the main obstacles to the country’s progress, a profound identity crisis.
He puts this down to Spain’s constant changes, a lack of stability which has led to a lack of confidence in the future and in the country’s politicians and leaders. He holds up Carlos Dívar, the chief judge who resigned after claiming thousands of euros in expenses for weekends in Marbella, as a prime example.
Much of the blame, though, he placed with the Catholic Church, joking that as he was on Protestant ground he felt he could express himself on this issue freely.
The Church, he claimed, has a problem with the Spanish identity, which is not complete without two essential parts, Islam and Judaism. The Catholic Church’s “obsession with pure Christian blood”, said Gibson, is something the country needs to overcome in order to progress. “Spain is different”, he stressed, a place between Europe and Africa which affords a “potential that is unique in the world”.
“Why not create the great Federal Iberian Republic with Portugal?” he proposes, taking up an idea suggested by the late writer José Saramago.
Gibson is probably best known for his biographical works on Federico García Lorca and his campaign to have the poet’s remains located, exhumed and given a decent burial. But Lorca is known the world over, he is the best known of all of Spain’s ‘desaparecidos’ and his discovery would give publicity to “what happened”, which for many is still difficult to accept, explained the writer. There are still some 130,000 bodies still buried on the roadsides where they were shot during or after the Civil War, he pointed out.
The author criticised the Spanish right wing’s attitude towards the recovery of historical memory, and their reluctance to allow these bodies and other buried secrets to be unearthed using the excuse of not wanting to reopen old wounds. “The right should be more Christian”, he said. “Opening wounds is not stirring up hatred. I haven’t seen a thirst for revenge, just a thirst for justice”.
Every hispanist’s dream, said Gibson, is to see an end to the ongoing conflict between two Spains. “If we don’t face up to history together, how can we go forward together?” he asks. “This country could have great faith in its future”; once, that is, it has joined forces to get through this crisis.
‘La berlina de Prim’, which Gibson says is unlikely to be translated into English - he would have to tackle the issue differently for a non-Spanish public, he explains - contains references to Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, “a miraculous novel”, Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and Gibraltar, a place he admits he “detests”. It’s a “British ghetto in the heart of Andalucía”, he maintains, when it could have been a “great bilingual university”.
The publication of the novel has not been without its controversy. Gibson was accused of not having read the case summary concerning the death of Prim. The author’s research for the novel had, in fact, brought him up against a significant obstacle: large parts of summary had been destroyed or robbed. The information was incomplete but he had seen the 18,000 pages in the National Historical Archives.
“In this country people are very quick to accuse others of lying”, he pointed out, perhaps holding up a further example of Spain’s difficulty facing up to the truth of its past.
“Santiago Carrillo was not the instigator of the Paracuellos killings”
Speaking to the press the day after the death of Santiago Carrillo, questions related to the Paracuellos massacre were inevitable. In 1983, and again in 2005, Ian Gibson published ‘Paracuellos, cómo fue’ in which he examines the shooting of several thousand Francoist prisoners as Madrid was about to be taken by the Franco troops in November 1936. Carrillo was in charge of public order at the time, with the job of preventing the Fascists from entering Madrid. He was later accused of organising the massacre, an extreme he always denied.
“Santiago Carrillo did not instigate the Paracuellos killings” said Gibson on Wednesday. “He knew what was happening but I don’t believe he was responsible. It was others, under the influence of the Russians”, he concluded.
“Carrillo played a fundamental role in the transition”, stressed the author.