A Review of ‘Ghosts of Spain’ by Giles Tremlett

Back in late 2019 when I had got the offer to move here to Spain I started looking around on YouTube for expats who would talk about their experience living here in Spain, as opposed to influencers who were more centred around planning visits. One such rabbit hole search landed me at Spain Revealed’s channel. The first video I remember seeing had James Blick casually talking into the camera as he drove around in Madrid and talk about his life in Spain. Some time soon after that the pandemic swooped in and delayed all my plans for almost a year and to keep myself sane and still interested in the move I binged on almost all of this videos produced till then. It was in one of these videos that I remember first hearing about “Ghosts of Spain” by Giles Tremlett.

After moving to Madrid and settling in, one of the first things I did was to find a public library near me and look for this book. I then proceeded to pick it up from Pedro Salinas but probably being in a reading slump did not allow me to get started with it. One more move later across the country to Barcelona and I picked it up again only this time I powered through the book like there was no tomorrow. One major reason I attribute my success to this time around is the fact that for the not so few months, I have immersed myself into this beautiful country. I have travelled a little, watched a flamenco in Sevilla, marvelled at the Alhambra, got chastised by a waiter, been on the receiving end of some very generous hospitality and sweet treats from my neighbour, had some tapas (mostly patatas bravas), managed to rent a home twice in two different cities, got lost and asked for directions a lot of time, learnt to speak some Castellano and tasted a very tiny little slice of life here in Spain.

What makes Giles’s worldview of Spain more relevant is that he is a fellow expat. Although a seasoned one by now and an ‘AngloSajon’ looking through the lens of his writing as an outsider was a perspective I could relate to.

The book begins with talking about a dichotomy. Why are the usually chirpy Spaniards so quiet about their own history especially about the period under Francisco Franco and the years that preceded and followed it. Almost after 30 years of the ‘Transicion’ happening, why is the society struggling to come to terms with the horrors of the fascist rule?

The answer as Giles explains in the first few chapters is not so easy to comprehend. To begin with, there was no revolution or people’s uprising that causated ‘Transicion’ following Franco’s death. Franco had infact started decentralising some of his power and liberalising the country to some extent towards the end of his rule. This was followed by Juan Carlos, the king and chosen successor, voluntarily relinquishing his power and calling for free elections and a constitutional monarchy to replace to the rule of the tyrant.

This begs the question as to why would the oppressors give up power so easily and freely admit to their crimes? Naturally the only recourse was to collectively forget the past and make strides into the future, which was once again more easy for the oppressors than the oppressed. Even today a lot of people, mostly on the political left, seek retribution for their dead relatives, whose skeletons are unearthed very often on road side ditches where they were shot and allowed to decay without a proper burial, from those on the political right.

As time marches on I see that things do take a positive turn overall. While Giles describes a Francoist ceremony in the ‘Valley of the Fallen’, as I write this review in 2022 I know for a fact that the Caudillo’s mortal remains have been moved from the ‘Valley of the Fallen’ to this family grave. Nonetheless he still remains a very controversial figure and it may take a few more decades before Spaniards can reconcile with the past like the Germans did after the defeat of the Nazis in 1945.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book titled ‘How the bikini saved Spain’ talks at length about the birth of modern day package tourism in Spain. This chapter takes us along the sandy beaches and tourist havens to demonstrate how along with bringing in the much need ££, $$ and €€ this tourist wave also sweeps over the local pueblos in the south and drains these tiny hamlets of their resources. Giles points out that these tourists and retirees although living in Spain have their heads and hearts still set in England or the States. More often than not this leads to them building en-masse suburban style villages where the only Spanish you hear is from the South American immigrants working on the perfectly manicured lawns.

Being geographically situated at the cusp of many important sea routes that connect the new world to the old, Spain is sadly a perfect place to ship in African origin drugs from across the Gibraltar or their South American counterparts through Galicia which inevitably leads to a spike in the abuse of drugs by both the locals and tourists alike. Mafiosos also resultantly take a keen interest in local life and politics leading to rigged elections, rampant corruption and systemic overreach.

That being said, the picture is not always as gloomy as we imagine it to be. There have been many instances of powerful judges cracking down risking their own lives and safety, local women pushing back against crime in their barrios/pueblos for the sake of their children and powerful governments being toppled in elections time and again proving that generally ‘enchufa-phile’ people of Spain will not hesitate to reign in those abusing their power. Although not mentioned directly in the book, Juan Carlos, the former king of Spain is currently in a self imposed exile in Saudi Arabia after several corruption allegations against him surfaced in 2010’s. This might not seem like a punishment for the folks from some parts of the world but as an Indian I have never seen someone with so much political power brought to justice for any crime however heinous it may be.

Another parallel I can draw between India and Spain is how each region of Spain has its diverse culture, language and customs. Though they may all seem like a single entity to the outsider but even a very cursory glance will reveal a sea of differences between each of Spain’s regions. Giles dives right into this and explores how each regions vying for independence or greater autonomy dissents with Madrid in its own fashion. Mind you, this dissent is sometimes very violent and takes the form of armed resistance while sometimes it just means that the local languages will be preferred over Castellano in official business.

The biggest take away I have from this book though is discovering the artist Camaron de Isla. I don’t think I will ever find enough words to describe how his music makes you feel. His music now sits very high in my playlists along with the melodies of Ilayaraja, Rahman, SPB and others who I grew up listening to.

As I immerse myself into living in this beautiful country, I still crave to learn a lot more about its past. I wish to travel wide and across the Iberian peninsula and may be one day even visit the many islands that are a part of this country. May be I will visit all the 12 treasures of Spain someday soon and live to write about it.

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