Rescue What We Can: Julio Llamazares and the Fight against Oblivion

November 19, 2017
Julio Llamazares (courtesy of the author)

Julio Llamazares (courtesy of the author)

Julio Llamazares was born in 1955 in Vegamián, a small town in the province of León, in the north of Spain, where his father worked as a teacher. In 1968, Vegamián disappeared from the map. Along with five other towns, it was submerged in a huge artificial lake. The Francoist state, allied with the power companies, forcibly evacuated Llamazares and his family. The displacement marked him for life. His work as a poet, novelist, and essayist deals with memory and loss, embodied in beautiful but ruthless landscapes. All we can do is try to survive in the face of “the river of oblivion.”

Like the British writer John Berger, Llamazares is preoccupied with the fast destruction of rural cultures in Europe and elsewhere, along with their millenarian customs, wisdom, and storytelling traditions. His best-known novel, The Yellow Rain (1988), is written in the voice of the very last inhabitant of a ghost town in the mountains of Aragón. His first novel, Wolf Moon (1985), tells the story of anti-Francoist guerrilla fighters from the Civil War who survived for years in the mountains that separate Asturias from León, hunted down mercilessly by the Civil Guard. In Spain, Wolf Moon helped inaugurate what would later become the grassroots call for the “recovery of historical memory.” This movement has sought to rescue victims’ testimony from the war and the Franco years, exhume mass graves, and hold those responsible accountable for their crimes.

More than 30 years after it first appeared, the novel is now available in English, translated by Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles (excerpt here). In late September, I called Llamazares at his home in downtown Madrid.

Is it strange to see Wolf Moon appear in English now? Spain and the world have changed quite a bit since 1985.

When I wrote it, I was completely unaware of the social and political impact it would have. I just wanted to tell the stories I heard as a kid in the ‘60s from the people in my father’s town, where there were several people who’d fled to the mountains. I didn’t mean to settle any accounts with the past. Of course reading it now is a different thing altogether. For one, the events that the book narrates have receded much farther into the distance. When I wrote it, it was a testimonial novel. For high school or college students today, who haven’t lived Francoism or the years immediately following it, it’s simply a historical novel.

The novel is set in León. Is it a coincidence that the historical memory movement, too, started in León, when in the year 2000, Emilio Silva went in search of his grandfather’s remains?

In reality, the desire to look at the past with different eyes was emerging all over Spain. Still, León was almost immediately occupied by Franco’s troops. And, given its landscape, it saw a large number of Republicans flee to the mountains. For that same reason, there was a lot of repression during and after the war. The memory of those years has marked the rural communities deeply.

Do you consider Wolf Moon a political novel?

Everything is political because everything has a point of view. The novel is told by one of the refugees, not by one of the police pursuing them. But in reality the book is a reflection on the instinct for survival. It could have been situated anywhere and at any time. In that sense it’s a literary novel, not [a] political one. Still, in the last instance, a country’s historical memory are its literature and art.

Are young people in Spain interested in the past? Do you still visit high schools?

I used to, but much less often now. Kids read less and less. Literature doesn’t interest them. For them, the events in Wolf Moon are as long ago as the Carlist Wars or the French Revolution. They don’t see this history as something that might explain the present. But of course the Spanish present has a lot to do with that history.

How do you feel about this waning interest?

I accept it with melancholy. The wind of life never stops blowing. Life is a river of oblivion. As writers, our job is to rescue what we can, so that the river doesn’t take it all.

Unlike some other members of your literary generation, like Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina or Arturo Pérez Reverte, you’ve kept to yourself. And unlike them, you don’t occupy a seat at the Royal Academy of Language. How come?

(Laughs.) I don’t occupy a seat anywhere. I’m an odd bird in the literary world. Truth be told, I barely have contact with other writers. The public has appreciated my work more than the literary establishment. Maybe they think the Spain I write about is less modern and cosmopolitan—less falsely modern and cosmopolitan—than the image of Spain they’d like to transmit to the outside world to strengthen the country’s brand, la marca España. That said, in literary terms I am part of a very Spanish tradition: Machado, Quevedo, Cervantes, Bécquer.

As a writer, I’m not interested in prizes or other forms of recognition, nor am I willing to do what it takes to be considered for them. All I want is to move my readers the same way I’m moved when I write. For me, literature is a goal in itself, not a means to get to something else. A writer, for me, is someone who’d write even if she couldn’t publish ever. In Spain, there are many people who publish books who are not writers in this sense. For them, writing is a means to achieve success or fame or money. Not that I judge them for it. To each their own.

You actually publish relatively little.

I don’t publish much but I write a lot. I write slowly. Telling stories is easy—but to do so with a maximum emotional intensity takes a lot of work. I once met a reader in Italy who gave me the highest compliment I’ve ever received as a writer. He said that reading my poetry felt like being shocked—as if he’d stuck his fingers in an electrical outlet. That’s my goal.

Sebastiaan Faber teaches at Oberlin College. To read an except of Wolf Moon, click here.