Madrid, 6 August 1973––fifty years ago. The son of one of Franco’s generals has summoned us, a gang of rowdy friends, to his absent father’s luxurious home. Lounging on gold brocade sofas, merrily we smoke dope and drink booze till we’re high as larks and tight as owls.
At some befuddled point I pick up a large book from a stack on the gilt coffee-table beside me. Casually I flip it open. A photo album: head-and-shoulders mug shots.
I gape at the faces. They stare back dully, no spark in their eyes. That’s to say, most of them stare back dully. Those who have eyes, anyway; those who still have most of their heads. The others are… too terrible…
Hell! What a hallucination! Serves me right for getting stoned!
I force myself to examine the photos. Most of the faces seem young. Of course! A high school annual! The smiling class of ’36 or whenever. A bad trip, that’s all! That’s what’s twisting their cheery smiles into dead grimaces, and switching the innocent coffee-table book into a ghastly record of horror…
But the struggle is useless. The captions under each photo spit out the truth. Each pitiful, hideous face has a name, a date and a place of death. All are Franco’s ‘fascist heroes’; all have been shot by ‘the Reds’.
Most of the faces have bullet holes in them. Small and neat, most of them. And delicately placed right in the middle of the forehead. Insignificant, really.
But something weird has happened at the moment of impact. The bullet, after its fine, smooth entry, has for one chaotic instant convulsed, shuddered in some unimaginable way, and turned the skull and all it contained to liquid jelly. In that violent spasm the jerking features rearranged themselves. A bulging, staring eye slipped down below a cheekbone; a nose twisted grotesquely sideways. Jaws flopped; gaping mouths slid out of alignment. Then abruptly the whole set again, the face frozen into its new––and last––hideous jumbled pandemonium of madness.
In horror I slam the book shut, and fumble to replace it on the table. Panicking, desperate to forget what I’ve seen, I turn to the others. They’re laughing helplessly over some shared lunacy.
But there is no escape. Stoned as I am, images from the death book superimpose themselves onto the faces of my friends. I see each of them shot; it’s their features I see convulse and twist, their scrambled eyes that stare in different directions, goggle-eyed in death. Bits of their faces are missing.
I can only cover my eyes in grief and terror. So here is a glimpse––a flash of insight––into the truth of war. No trumpets. No glory. Just this.
Someone had collected those photos, arranged them carefully, captioned them, and printed them in a series of lavish, expensive volumes. And someone had eagerly snapped them up. The general and his wife. The parents of one of my friends.
Then they’d stacked the monstrosities neatly on the elegant gilt table beside the other coffee-table books—on medieval monasteries, the glories of the Andes and the lives of furry forest creatures—for their guests to explore at leisure.
How many bejewelled ladies and portly gentlemen with pencil moustaches had pored over those terrible books, crystal wineglasses in their hands? And how many children? In the homes of Franco’s devotees the series of volumes was apparently a common memento of the civil war. Doubtless the old propaganda had done its work impeccably, ramming home contempt for la canalla, the despised rabble of workers and peasants.
Would republicans have done differently if they had won the war? Would artistic books on fascist atrocities have graced socialist or communist coffee tables? We humans notoriously feed and water our old resentments. So who knows what some in a triumphant left might have been capable of? Certainly the Spanish Communist Party, nurtured by Stalin, had begun to kill off its Trotskyist and anarchist partners even while the war still raged. All sides had their hands steeped in blood.
So it may be prejudice that makes me detect in those coffee-table books a fearful smell of fascism. But it was just such fascist certainty, devoid of self-doubt, that prompted one aristocrat to send his fourteen-year-old son to Franco with a letter asking him to put the boy to work for ‘The Crusade’. I heard that son, by then a grey-haired, titled gentleman, quote that letter approvingly.
‘Since my son is far too young for the army, would you please arrange a position for him on a firing squad?’
During the civil war much of the navy, unlike the army and air force, had defended the Republic. A naval recruit told me of Franco’s triumphant, witty punishment: an order to sew up the flies on naval uniform trousers. Seaman, he said, should have to pee with their pants down. Just like women.
Fascism openly preaches elitism, military might, the power of leaders over masses, of men over women and white over black. Socialism at least dreams––however idealistically––of human equality and freedom.
But who knows? If carelessly left unexamined, the ‘us-and-them’ flaw still embedded in the ancient reptilian parts of our brains could entice any of us back to the swamp…