There are historical novels that encrypt almost everything in an adequate reconstruction of the time. In the tightness of the painting of the prevailing environment at the time the plot unfolds. Others, without neglecting the previous point, contain an analysis of the period they deal with and try to contribute to the full understanding of the historical figures and the role they played in their period of action.
To the second type belongs undoubtedly Legend of the visionary Caesar, by Francisco Threshold. The author gives us a study in the form of a novel about Francoism in formation, during the Spanish war.
The book is from 1990. At that time, Threshold had a vast career in fiction and essays. And he dedicated part of his writing homework to the so-called “Ciclo de Francesillo”, his peculiar tribute to the propensity for novelistic sagas, so common in Hispanic literature. Especially from Pérez Galdós onwards. The work at hand is included in this series.
The “César” of the title is the dictator himself, with the military coup underway, the republic resisting him and advanced the construction of its all-encompassing and indisputable power.
And the “legend” component is shown as a product of his conscientious work to build around his person an aura of an extraordinary subject. That in many cases bordered on the attribution of supernatural powers, which soon included the gift of ubiquity, with a simultaneous presence in the government palace and on the combat front.
It all started in Salamanca.
The narrative takes place above all in that conservative and devout city, headquarters of Franco’s barracks. From there the Generalissimo directs an embryonic state apparatus, with more of a “camp” than a more or less “normal” government. He is accompanied by a retinue of generals, bishops and Falange leaders. And, without qualms about nepotism, his brother Nicolás and his brother-in-law Ramón, close collaborators at the zenith of his influence.
They all have their place in the story.
The plot has three nuclei: One, more fictionalized, is made up of the misadventures of “Francesillo”, a young Republican whom circumstances and geography led to review in the rebel army.
There, in addition to the action itself, the letters written to his mother, “red”, who cannot receive them because she is in Madrid, which continues to defend itself under Franco’s siege, are reviewed. Those missives will be the boy’s great consolation, until they turn into his downfall.
In this correspondence, the young man poured out his peculiar understanding of the conflict, his horror at the regime that was being born, and his growing unease as hopes of a Republican victory faded.
The most painful moment for the young “national” soldier comes when he is taken away from tedious but peaceful office work. Not to fight at the front, as he feared, but to shoot prisoners. Guilt and fear invade him.
Following in the footsteps of his creature, the writer approaches the basement of genocide. Both the extrajudicial executions and the appalling treatment of prisoners crammed into the darkest places.
For that matter, in the basement of an improvised convent, where townspeople huddle together, with no other gravitation than having been mayor of a village or a teacher at a school lost in the middle of the countryside.
Another center of the narration is located in the café gathering of the Falange intellectuals. There are portraits of Pedro Laín Entralgo, Dionisio Ridruejo, Agustín de Foxá, Ernesto Giménez Caballero, Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Luis Rosales (Lorca’s poet friend who sheltered him in his house). And as the mentor of the entire group, Ramón Serrano Suñer, at that time the most powerful figure after Franco.
Part of them very early militants of the party founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera, have remained “widowers” of the leader who was shot. And they discover, to his displeasure, that they have more potential to worship their late boss than to challenge for power with any real chance of success.
They cultivate certain “humanist” and even “romantic” whims, while they command the most iron censorship against culture and the press. And they profess wide admiration for the Führer, undeterred by the Nuremberg laws or the first “camps”.
The novelist recounts the tribulations of this entire group. They see how the Head of State discards his bids “anti-bourgeois”, “unionists” and identification with Hitler and Mussolini. In the passages dedicated to “los lains” (this is how Franco belittles them in allusion to Laín Entralgo) the dialogues are more important than the action.
In particular, the ironic and irreverent statements by Foxá, the author of Madrid cut Cheka, perhaps the one who wrote best among all of them.
On the other hand, it is through Giménez Caballero that this part of the plot is linked to that of the unfortunate soldier sunk on the wrong side. Giménez takes it out of his previous location to place it in the printing house that supports his work as editor and journalist. An eccentric character, coming from the literary avant-garde, EGC runs a newspaper from which he contributes to the mythology surrounding Franco.
The professional reading of its pages will lead Francesillo to further reinforce his already very negative vision of the dictatorship in the making.
Giménez encourages superstitions from his press organ such as that of the apparitions of Santa Teresa. The one from Ávila, protector of the Caudillo, the first beneficiary of his “visits”; and guardian of sacred relics of the saint.
Franco, for God and for Spain.
And finally, the space dedicated to the dictator himself, whom Threshold portrays as a man of inexhaustible cunning, guided above all by his desire for power. That he manipulates the “families” of the regime: military, ecclesiastical, and the acolytes of the radical and rebellious Falange of its beginnings. He pits one against the other, with frequent results of reciprocal nullification between them.
Everyone is weakened except him, who can exalt and please someone, to dismiss him abruptly and quickly. At the time of arbitration, there is no other power than his will, nor other principles than the preservation of his unquestionable authority.
For example, while endorsing, not without reluctance, the devotion of his brother-in-law Ramón to Nazism, he supports Cardinal Segura, “dean” of the fundamentalist prelates, who hates the Falange and rejects fascism in general and the Falange as “anti-Christian”. German in particular.
One observation that could be made of Threshold in this regard is that he somewhat overestimates the non-fascist components of Franco’s thought and action. What has as a counterpart the accentuation of the military and “national-Catholic” component of his ideas and actions.
Not devoted to anyone other than himself, it is true that the man born in El Ferrol did not have deep doctrinal concerns. This does not mean that his implacable hatred of communism and the purpose of establishing a corporate regime based on a single party endowed with its own militias brought him very close to the Italian and German “models”.
Drawing attention to the plurality and heterogeneity of the alliances in which “Paco” was based is very necessary. This should not diminish the leading role of the fascist constellation in its social and political options.
The limits that he imposed on the influence of the Falange and his successful endeavors, which the narrator highlights, to replace wayward leaders with others “domesticated” and faithful to him above all else, do not make a difference. It requires no wisdom about Nazism’s record to know that Hitler shot down the outbursts of independence of “his brownshirts.” And that didn’t make him any less of a Nazi.
The Galician general had someone to take lessons from.
Richness and nuances.
The author with his book.
The writing of the novel is very rich in resources. The traditional narration in the third person, the interior monologue (particularly in the character of Franco) and the epistolary style are combined. The dialogues have their important place. Both the “spicy” ones between Francesillo and Camila, as well as those of intellectual or at least ingenious aspiration of the Falangist gatherings.
The action follows different rhythms, speeding up or slowing down depending on the moment. And the vocabulary abounds in somewhat archaic terms that, well dosed and located, add attractions to the prose.
The fine irony, radicalized from time to time in merciless mockery, is another of the ingredients that assign complexity and chiaroscuro to the novel. That is where the ghost of Ramón del Valle Inclán walks, to whom a few years later (1998), Threshold dedicated an appreciated biography.
One of the successes of the plot is the introduction of threads of unreality and fantasy in the midst of the gloomy picture of the times of the “uncivil war”. Thus the adventures of the novice Camila, Francesillo’s lover, who uses her nun’s habit as cover for an unbridled exercise of sex, without distinction of sides or gender.
And also an enigmatic and very elusive character, who presents himself as a mysterious incarnation of the “Absent”, hypnotizing Falangist militants and peasants from the Castilian plateau.
His irruptions took place in small towns where the execution of José Antonio was unknown. Which made a ragged man with signs of dementia credible as a return or “resurrection” of the founder of the future “single party.” Like that impostor of Borges, its lack of similarities with the original only reinforced its credibility.
Historical novel, political novel, this book incorporates various elements for the understanding of Franco and Francoism. To which is added the drama of Francesillo, the component that provides the look of the “other side”, in the very heart of the “Crusade”.
Pleasant reading and also a source for historical and political reflection, the book closes with the pleasant feeling of having learned a lot about that dictatorship that lasted four decades.