WAITING TO REACH THE SURFACE
There have been lots of historical novels written on the Spanish civil war. There is For Whom the Bell Tolls, written by Ernest Hemingway, or Soldados de Salamina by the Spanish writer Javier Cercas. However, Les Llavors del Silenci (Silence’s seeds*), novel by Àlvar Caixal, goes one step further and is no longer just about the war. Instead it goes in depth about the human condition, highlighting the importance that our origin has in building our identity and emphasizing how the past shapes our present and therefore demonstrating that oblivion always has negative effects.
The Spanish civil war ended many years ago but in Spain there are still some open wounds, particularly in relation to what is known as “historical memory”. Many victims of the Franco-era were buried without being identified and some living relatives, frustrated by the Spanish government, have turned to Argentina´s judicial system for help to push the government to carry out exhumations. Àlvar Caixal’s novel is more relevant today than ever: only last month, Ascensión Mendieta, a 90-year old woman, managed to see the reopening of the common grave where her dad had been buried after he was executed by Franco’s soldiers.
For people like Ascensión, the past cannot be buried and forgotten. Alfred, the main character of the novel, feels the same way which is something that troubles him deeply. After his father’s suicide he discovers some hidden documents that relate his mother to members of the International Brigade who went to Spain to fight for the republic. Consequently, Alfred starts digging into his family’s past searching for the secrets that had always been hidden from him. His search to discover more about his origin and identity leads him to England, the country where Emma Tavistock lived. She was a young woman who loved a British volunteer who fled to Catalonia and the reader learns her story through some letters that her niece has kept safe for many years.
Àlvar Caixal, as the main character, is a digger himself: he is an archaeologist and Les Llavors del Silenci is his first novel. When he won the BBVA Sant Joan award in 2013 he was completely unknown in literary circles. Him winning was quite surprising because in the previous years, the prize had only been awarded to famous authors. Being an archaeologist has certainly had an impact on his writing. Not only that he did an exhaustive documentation for the historical episodes and worked slowly, digging into his characters past layer by layer, but it even took him four years to finish the novel. He wrote and rewrote until he was satisfied with his work.
In spite of the apparent realism of the novel, throughout the story magic elements appear, such as dreamlike images and inexplicable facts. Alfred is convinced that a sort of “power of nature” is responsible for all of the strange things that keep happening to him and that seem to be leading him to the answers he longs for. It’s in that sense that the novel reminded me of the magical realism of the Latin American writer Gabriel García Márquez, who accepts magic as intrinsic in the rational world. These magical elements don’t undermine the credibility of the whole story but paradoxically they create an atmosphere of surreality that is really easy to believe.
In a world where everything is consumed at a high speed –fast food, tweets, instant news -, books like Les Llavors del Silenci can modify your reading habits; it is not something you can read on short journeys in the underground, but a novel to be read slowly, without any distraction. Only this way you won’t miss the delicacy of the prose, the exquisite, chromatic portraits of the sceneries and filled with plenty of adjectives. Every single word that appears in the novel seems to have been chosen very carefully and accurately. A novel written in such a poetic and lyrical style requires you to take time delighting in it. Even the title is poetic and suggestive: Alfred’s family had been silent about their past, but those secrets had germinated into the next generation, waiting to sprout out and finally reach the surface.
*Literal translation, the book hasn’t been translated.