Destroy the Miracle!

Lorna Scott Fox

  • Books Burn Badly by Manuel Rivas, translated by Jonathan Dunne
    Vintage, 592 pp, £8.99, February 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 952033 7

Manuel Rivas writes in Galician, the least known of Spain’s official languages. Franco’s repression of the four regional languages ended up doing a great deal to stimulate their revival, and Rivas chooses to write in Galician even if not all his characters would have spoken it, even if it means his work’s literary life will be led mostly in translation. Jutting out over Portugal, whose language Galician resembles, the region fell quickly in 1936 to paleo-Catholic supporters of Franco and is still viewed in Spain as a mythic, backward, soulful place, closer to Brittany or Ireland. Galician nationalism has varied in strength since the Romantic period, but local literature has always been sparse compared to that of the Basque region and Catalonia. Books Burn Badly wants to be Galicia’s first great national novel; its subject is the region’s modern history.

Born in 1957 in the port of A Coruña, where the novel is set, and now based in the region’s capital, Santiago de Compostela, Rivas is one of Galicia’s leading cultural and political figures (his name was on a death list discovered after the failed right-wing putsch of 1981). He helped found the ‘Nunca Máis’ (Never Again) environmental pressure group after the oil spill that followed the wreck of the Prestige off Cape Finisterre in 2002 and is a columnist for El País. He has always bridged milieus, a quality evident in his writing, where poetry melts into prose, oral and literary registers mingle, reportage and imagination overlap.

Books Burn Badly, published in Spain in 2006, is his first full-length novel and, as if to make up for lost time, it’s a doorstop. It’s also a glittering edifice of tableaux and fragments; flashbacks, premonitions and non-sequiturs; short stories and tall tales, mostly set between 1936 and the late 1960s. The book’s core scene is the one that gives it its title. It is 19 August 1936, and Falangist officials, helped by locals with an eye on the future, are staging a bonfire at the docks in A Coruña. The fire is fed with volumes and pamphlets from workers’ associations, radical bookshops and rationalist schools, and with books from the vast library of Santiago Casares Quiroga, the Galician-born last Republican prime minister, who resigned a month before Franco declared war; he had opposed, Allende-like, the distribution of arms to the people.

Calling out the titles in lewd or gloating fashion, young soldiers supervised by Ricardo Samos, an ambitious local lawyer, cast books into the flames as if in preparation for Spain’s shutters being closed. ‘Does God Exist? Aurora Library. No more questions, Aurora, darling! Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. Hell’s not miserable. Madame Bovary. One less ovary!’ The books resist being consumed, releasing a viscous, sickening smoke. They are like creatures – ‘he saw it suddenly fan out its fresh pollack’s red gills’; ‘a cluster of birds reduced to ashen silhouettes and glowing yellow or orange beaks’ – but the prevailing metaphor is of human flesh. Polka, the anarchist grave-digger who is forced to bury what is left of the books, recalls ‘the folds and tips of toasted skin, the nervous resistance of gut-string, the bony splinters of shrivelled paper. The books’ remains.’

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