Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 19, 2010

Ghosts of Spain (2006), by Giles Tremlett

In some ways, Australian history is atypical  because we do not share the near-universal history of warfare on our own soil.   There are battlegrounds all over Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas, but Australia is so far away from everything that even the Imperial Japanese Army had no ambitions to invade it during WW2.  (They were keen to obliterate allied shipping tied up in our waters, so there were bombing raids on Darwin, Broome and other ports on our northern coast, but they recognised that landing an occupation force was just too hard).

In Vietnam in 2007 I was conscious in many places that I was standing where bodies of the slain might still lie, and this is true of countless places in Europe too.   But here in Australia, it’s true to say that the only battles fought on Australian soil were unequal ones between the Aboriginal resistance and the British colonists – and those between Aboriginals themselves before European settlement.  These were not civil wars between political factions, they were wars about territory or reprisals for breaking law.  Indeed, the idea of a civil war here seems fanciful, because Australians are so laid-back about everything, with a particular disinterest in politics.  For many immigrants, this relaxed attitude and the absence of old hatreds is what makes Australia so appealing.

So it’s sobering to read Ghosts of Spain and read about the Spanish Civil War.  After decades of silence about it,  witnesses and descendants alike are now asserting the right to examine its history.  Mass graves have been exhumed; archives are being explored; witness statements are being made.  Most significantly, memorials to the Republican dead are emerging while those of Franco’s supporters are shunned.  All this takes place in a country where the emphasis has been resolute about looking forwards not backwards and where there are ongoing separatist movements.

I already knew a little bit about the Spanish Civil War: I’d read Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, ( still my favourite book and I highly recommend Campbell Scott’s reading of it.  I’ve got it on my iPod, and have listened to it five times now).  I’d browsed through Anthony Beevor’s massive The Battle for Spain too but when I read these books I had no thought of visiting this place where people still remember bloodshed in their streets and old hatreds lie just beneath the surface.

What’s it like to live in a village where the people who slaughtered your parents prospered under Franco and have never been held to account?  Giles Tremlett  explores the national silence that suppressed all mention of the civil war, as perhaps only an ‘outsider’ can.  Only now, he says, is there a movement to exhume the mass graves and provide the dignity and solace of proper burial for the victims, but it’s risky because the old animosities are still pervasive.

The trouble is, that while I like to pay respect to the history of the places I visit by knowing a bit more about it than from the pages of my trusty DK Eyewitness Guides, Tremlett’s book is rather off-putting.  He sets the scene by describing how noisy and argumentative Spaniards are.  It’s an affectionate portrait – he lives in Madrid and his wife and children are Spanish – nonetheless I found myself wondering how I might survive it for three weeks.  As an introvert, I survive teaching – a job which has its noisy and argumentative moments – with lots of quiet time at home to recover my equanimity.  I’m a bit anxious now that I might not get any recovery time.

Tremlett’s book is also a bit gloomy.  That’s not his fault, I chose a book about the civil war because I wanted to try to understand how people come to terms with the aftermath of a civil war. I’m conscious now that the Vietnam I visited in 2007 was/is in the same situation as Spain was under Franco where the victors suppressed the history of the vanquished.  Perhaps one day democracy will bring about a similar movement there.

But reading about bodies in wells and ditches and long-suppressed hatreds still simmering under the surface isn’t really conducive to looking forward to a holiday!  I have to confess that I’ve put it aside, perhaps to finish on the plane…

Author: Giles Tremlett
Title: Ghosts of Spain, Travels through a Country’s Hidden Past
Publisher: Faber 2007
ISBN: 9780571221684
Source: Personal Library


  1. seems like a good book Lisa ,there are a number of great spanish novels dealing with the civil war now coming out manuel rivas carpenters pencil is very good ,all the best stu


    • Will you be reviewing these, Stu?


  2. HAVE reviewed Carpenters Pencil by him also slowly working through The Frozen Heart another spainsh book set during and about civil war, all the best Stu


    • Great, I’ll check them out in due course!


  3. I spent a summer in Barcelona some years back and absolutely loved it. I find Spain fascinating, thank you for bringing this book to my attention!


    • Hi Emily Jane:)
      I’ve actually found it quite hard to find books about Spain. I’d like to recommend HV Morton’s A Stranger in Spain for a view of Spain in the 1950s, but it’s not one of his best. I’m about to start Barcelona by Robert Hughes, which should be good because he writes so well and is so knowledgeable about art – I think someone on Good Reads recommended it to me:) Isn’t it wonderful to have the expertise of a growing online community so readily available!


      • Yes, it’s so great! Thank you for the recommendation, I’ll be sure to check it out :)


  4. I’ve lately made it one of my reading missions to read as many novels in translation by Catalan writers. Thanks for the review, though I think I shall limit my investigation to fiction. Non-fiction about the Spanish might be too much for me.


    • I’ll keep an eye on your blog for your reviews, Kinna. I’ve unsubscribed to all my favourite blogs at the moment because internet access is ruinously expensive in hotels so I’ve had to limit what comes into my inbox, but when I get back home I’ll be signing up to everything again.


  5. Lisa –
    You should try Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel (set in modern times) and his Captain Alatriste series (set in the 17th century. Both are set in Spain, I believe in Madrid, and I found them interesting and entertaining.

    There’s also Carlos Ruiz Zafon of course… but if you still want to stick with the Spanish Civil War, have you seen the film Pan’s Labrynth? It is dark, but I think it’s much more palatable as it’s essentially a fantasy film.

    I take it you’re vacationing in Spain? When do you go?


    • I’ll put these on my BD wishlist, thanks for the suggestion:)
      Spain? We’re on our way already! We’re in the UK now, and should be in Spain in mid October.


  6. I read this some time ago and found it a difficult read but well-worth the effort.

    I hope you’re travels are going well!


    • We’re having a lovely time, Tom:)
      We’re in Conwy at the moment, having travelled from London via the Cotswolds and it’s all been terrific. We don’t care about the weather – I would always rather have a bit of rain than be struggling with Summer crowds and queues, we don’t like hot weather at all.
      Tomorrow we’re off to Dublin – don’t forget you can keep an eye on where we are at my travel blog, the link is on the RHS menu and it’s called Travels with Tim and Lisa.


  7. Ah – just noticed you’re in the UK now – shame its wet today. But what do you expect in autumn in Britain!


  8. […] Trembath explored the post-Franco beginnings of the movement to investigate the past in his book Ghosts of Spain, published a couple of years after Soldiers of Salamis, but it seems as if there is still a long […]


  9. […] from the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).  If what I read in Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain (see my review) is right, this makes her writing brave, because there has been a ‘pact of forgetting’ […]


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