‘It’s about being able to say goodbye’: Spanish graphic novel explores early Franco-era reprisals | Spain

‘It’s about being able to say goodbye’: Spanish graphic novel explores early Franco-era reprisals | Spain

At the beginning of the new Spanish graphic novel El abismo del olvido (The Abyss of Forgetting), a murdered man climbs out of his grave, lights a cigarette and takes stock of the past eight decades. “When western archaeologists opened the tombs of ancient Egypt, it was said that the souls of their occupants had been freed after millennia of silence,” he says. “In a way, the same thing is happening to us. All we did was wait in silence for more than 70 years.”

José Celda – Pepe to his friends – was shot dead against a wall in the small Valencian town of Paterna at five in the afternoon on 14 September 1940. The 45-year-old farmer, whose body was buried in a mass grave, was one of the thousands of represaliados, or victims of reprisals, who were murdered by the Franco regime well after the end of the civil war in April 1939.

El abismo del olvido, a collaboration between the graphic artist Paco Roca and the journalist Rodrigo Terrasa, examines the atrocities and the generational agonies they inflicted, and continue to inflict, on the families of the dead.

Scenes from El abismo del olvido
Thousands of represaliados were murdered by the Franco regime after the end of the Spanish civil war. Illustration: Astiberri

As well as telling Celda’s story, the comic chronicles the tireless and solitary struggle that his daughter Pepica waged to fulfil her mother’s wishes for his bones to be found and reinterred with hers.

Pepica Celda, who was eight when her father was murdered, began her quest after the socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduced its landmark 2007 historical memory law that was intended to bring a measure of justice and comfort to Franco’s victims. She made headlines a few years later for becoming the last person in Spain to secure a government subsidy for her search before the conservative People’s party (PP) took power in 2011 and ended the funding.

Terrasa, who interviewed Pepica Celda in 2013 after her father’s remains had finally been identified in Paterna cemetery’s mass grave No 126, was enthralled by her story and her resilience in the face of so much time, opposition and bureaucracy. As the years went by, Terrasa became more and more convinced there was a book to be written on Pepica and her father. That book, he soon decided, should be a graphic novel, preferably drawn by his friend Roca.

Rodrigo Terrasa and Paco Roca
Rodrigo Terrasa and Paco Roca: ‘This is about so many families that only have that very human urge to … bury their loved ones with dignity.’ Photograph: Alberto Di Lolli

The problem was that the artist had a string of work commitments and was not fully convinced by his friend’s proposal. All that changed when the pair sat down with Pepica Celda.

“Listening to what she said first-hand won me over,” Roca said. “You had this woman talking about her motivation and her story; about how her father had been murdered during the dictatorship.”

But it was not only her story that struck him. “We got really emotional when she told us about the last time she’d seen her father,” he said. “Before she went to see him in prison, her aunt asked her to promise not to cry so that her father’s last image wouldn’t be of her in tears. She said she swallowed those tears and had never cried since.”

Scenes from El abismo del olvido
Scenes from El abismo del olvido (The Abyss of Forgetting). Illustration: Astiberri

Roca soon realised that Pepica Celda’s story would have an appalling resonance for many other people. “This isn’t just about Pepica, it’s about so many other families that only have that very human urge to be able to get their loved ones out of a mass grave and bury them with dignity,” he said. “It’s about being able to say goodbye and to close up those wounds and turn the page. Take away all the politics – which muddy all this in Spain – and it’s just something totally human that any of us would want to do.”

No less important a character in the book is the extraordinary figure of Leoncio Badía, a young republican gravedigger who risked his life by logging the identities of the murdered men he buried in Paterna and snipping off locks of hair and fragments of their clothing to give to their grieving families.

Badía’s bravery and kindness was never forgotten by the families he helped, but his actions only came fully to light a decade ago when archaeologists exhuming the graves he had dug came across tiny glass bottles that had been buried with the bodies. The bottles contained rolled-up pieces of paper with the name of the victim and the date of their death; Badía had hidden them on the bodies so that they could be identified in the future.

Although the novel draws its emotive power from images of Badía’s little bottles, of Pepe Celda’s black hair turning white as he waits for death and of his daughter’s still-denied tears, its digressive reflections also invite the reader to consider the importance of a decent burial. Interspersed with their stories are pages that revisit the Iliad and Achilles’ furious and vengeful refusal to surrender the body of Hector to his grieving family.

Scenes from El abismo del olvido
The novel invites the reader to consider the importance of a decent burial. Illustration: Astiberri

Terrasa, who knows only too well that today’s newspapers “are the wrappers for tomorrow’s sandwiches”, hopes the form, content and poignant simplicity of El abismo del olvido will cut through some of the political noise. He and Roca also hope it will remind people of what happened, and of the thousands of Spaniards who still lie in mass graves waiting to be reclaimed and reburied by their families.

History, however, has taught them not to expect too much. “Take the place in Paterna where they shot José Celda and 2,000 other people,” Terrasa said. “There’s no plaque or memorial at all like you’d find in any other civilised European country. If you go there now, you might find a bunch of now-rotten republican wreaths that were left by a memorial association, but the rest is rubbish and bottles.”

The book ends with a picture of that refuse-strewn mass murder scene, and with a rhetorical question: “You can tell a lot about a society from the way it buries its dead. What would they say about ours?”

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