Giles Tremlett,
Ghosts of Spain
(Faber, 2006)

London Guardian correspondent Giles Tremlett has spent his adult life living in Spain and has produced this major book about modern life in that country.

In a lively mix of social analysis and political commentary, his main theme is that Spain still hasn't dealt with the trauma of its 1930s civil war. After 40 years living with a dictatorship, Spain just got on with it. Those who committed atrocities on the losing side were punished, but those who were aligned with the winners died, for the most part, peacefully in their beds.

Spain, says Tremlett, made a pact with itself to forget the past and move forward. As a result, the country has done extremely well, both economically and socially, over the past 20 to 30 years.

As well as dealing with the ghosts, Tremlett also looks at the social mores of Spaniards, with some of his best passages describing how children are treated. They are dressed up like little dolls and cared for by the whole community. They are also institutionalized into a peer-group setting at a very early age. Yet, as teenagers, they do not reject their families. For someone who grew up in England, it is a revelation for him to watch children who are not ignored, but rather treated as special beings. Families are an integral part of Spanish social life. To his credit, he considers this a good thing.

On some issues, though, the Spanish don't seem as progressive. On childbirthing, for instance, they seem stuck about 30 years behind North America and Northern Europe. Normal childbirth is still treated as a sort of disease; there is little natural childbirth and a high rate of caesarians. This, he says, is typical of a society where the doctor is treated with utter deference.

Tremlett also covers most of the key contemporary issues in his book, mostly those he has reported on at length for his newspaper: the growth of tourism in places as different as Benidorm and Marbella; the poverty of the Roma or gypsies in Andalucia, and of course the regional counterpressures on the Spanish state.

The Madrid March 11 bombings are addressed, as is the subsequent election of the Zapatero government. Conservative Prime Minister Aznar, he says, raised hopes initially but left more or less in disgrace, having been utterly wrong about the perpetrators of Madrid (he blamed the Basque armed group ETA), possibly trying to manipulate the situation for his party's advantage. Tremlett gives Aznar a huge benefit of the doubt on this, perhaps unwarranted. It is unlikely that Aznar, who was obsessed with ETA, could have failed to see how the Madrid bombings differed so radically from ETA's usual modus operandi.

Certainly, Tremlett (like Aznar) has no time for nationalism, especially for stateless nations like Catalonia. Indeed, one of my harshest criticisms of this book is that he fails to really differentiate between nationalism, separatism, and violent separatism, in Spain's various constituent region-nations. Instead of just observing nationalism, he has to pronounce on it.

Tremlett goes out of his way to discredit Basque nationalists. The controversial Sabino Arana is trotted out, while Jose Antonio Aguirre, a well-respected figure, is not. In Tremlett's view sovereignty is an unrealistic goal, since the Basques have not enjoyed it since the Middle Ages. He treats the Basque language as small and insignificant. He focuses on ETA and paints a very negative picture of Basque society.

Similarly, the chapter on Galicia focuses on crime and drugs. Perhaps this is because these are the main news stories he has covered in these two areas. He has never lived there. He is taking the easy path, and focusing on the negative. I had hoped this author would be as positive and open to Basque, Galician and Catalan culture as he is about Castilian Spanish culture. These smaller cultures are rich, vibrant and complex, and merit a more open examination.

The above criticisms aside, it is a fascinating, well-written book, and Tremlett does engage his readers. When he's on firm ground, he's interesting and knowledgeable.

by David Cox
10 February 2007

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