Ian Gibson: “I am deeply pained that Spain is not at peace with itself”

Renowned Irish scholar publishes book looking back at six decades of work on all things Spanish

Natalia Junquera

He arrived in Spain at age 18, nearly 60 years ago. He has held Spanish citizenship since 1984, is probably the closest thing to a genuine Madrid native in the neighborhood where he lives, Lavapiés, and he claims that he can make a “pretty decent” Spanish omelette – a tortilla de patatas. But Ian Gibson, a renowned historian and scholar of all things Spanish, says that he has not lost the emotional distance he needs to keep between himself and his subject matter.

Irish historian Ian Gibson.
Irish historian Ian Gibson.Claudio Álvarez

“I am a Dubliner,” he tells EL PAÍS in an interview in Spanish. “I am not part of the crowd here, although I do feel at home.”

The hispanist is presenting a new book, Aventuras ibéricas (or, Iberian Adventures), a 412-page journey across six decades of expertise spanning a wealth of places that he has seen, characters he has met and books he has read.

I didn’t know anything about the Civil War; I was a stray Irish sheep

In the beginning, even before falling in love with history and with the work of the “most famous missing person in the world,” a reference to the poet and playwright Federico García-Lorca, there were the birds. He confesses as much in his book.

“Birdwatching was my passion, especially wild geese. I was fascinated by them. When I learned from a well-known naturalist, Michael Rowan, that nearly 100,000 of them spend the winter in Coto de Doñana [in the Doñana National Park], I could scarcely believe it,” he recalls.

The chance to observe the geese made Gibson choose Spain over Italy. At that point, he explains, “I didn’t know anything about the Civil War, or about the dictatorship, or about censorship; I was a stray Irish sheep.”

The thing that struck him most on his first visit to the country where he has ultimately spent most of his life was “the fear.”

Federico García Lorca in a picture taken by French writer Marcelle Auclair.
Federico García Lorca in a picture taken by French writer Marcelle Auclair.Marcelle Auclair

It was a uniformed Spain that he was seeing. Widows dressed in black. Gibson rented out a room in the home of one widow who never dared tell him what had happened to her husband. And there were “men in gray” who ran after other people – the Armed Police Corps, put in place by the Francoist state to quell opposition to the regime. “They were very tall and strong. Before seeing los grises, I had never been afraid of the police,” he recalls.

At age 26, he settled down in Spain permanently with his family and with the determination to write a dissertation on the popular roots of Lorca’s literary oeuvre. The research work became “a detective-like investigation into his murder.”

In his book, Gibson reveals that he committed “small crimes” to obtain information. “I stole a few documents, nothing important. I wanted to steal another one but didn’t dare in the end, and I also made myself some phony business cards.”

While following the writer’s trail, Gibson walked into a military command center and introduced himself as Michel Groyane, “a professor of botany at Grenoble University.” His goal: to get his hands on maps of Viznar, the area in Granada province where Lorca was shot. His body has yet to be found.

Question. Of all the native Spaniards whom you have interviewed in the last 60 years, which one impressed you the most? Who has helped you the most to understand this country?

Answer. My encounter with Salvador Dalí was fascinating. He received me in a white silk outfit and a red Catalan cap. He had Parkinson’s disease and there were tubes coming out of all the holes in his face. He spoke to me in a mixture of Catalan and French about his relationship with Federico [García Lorca]… It was one of the climaxes of my life. Also [Communist leader] Santiago Carrillo, and [Catholic right-wing politician] Gil-Robles…

Dalí spoke to me about his relationship with Lorca… It was one of the climaxes of my life

Q. Your book mentions some of your own predecessors, such as Richard Ford, the British author of a book that you consider “the best guide to Spain.” Ford stated that the main problem affecting Spaniards was that, with a few exceptions, they had been ruled by corrupt leaders for centuries. This was written in 1845. What would you say is Spaniards’ main problem today?

A. Spain has lots of problems. One of them is its identity problem. It does not promote that wonderful blend of races, cultures, languages… why are children not taught a few rudimentary lessons in Arabic? And people complain that leaders get rich and then walk away. They think that if you have a post, you have to make the most of it, as Ford used to say. There are constants like that which keep repeating themselves. During the Second Republic things began to flourish, but the left was divided and the right was united. We want a solid democracy, but everything is too provisional. Now, [Spanish PM Mariano] Rajoy has the sword of new elections hanging over his head, while the Socialist Party does not know who its leader is going to be, whether it will be Susana Díaz or Pedro Sánchez…

These events are reminding me of the Second Republic, with Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto. If they’d let Prieto be the head of government in 1936, I don’t think events would have unfolded the same way, because he would not have sent Franco to the Canary Islands, he would have kept him close at hand to better control him. But Largo Caballero’s people didn’t let him.

In any case, this book is a call for common sense. Spain has all the necessary ingredients to be a great nation if it can solve its pending problems, if it stops doing and undoing, as [19th-century writer and politician] Larra used to say. If there is a true territorial chamber where all languages are used. It is important for other Spaniards to know a little Catalan. I dream of the Iberian Federal Republic.

Q. Does Spain cause you pain?

A. Yes. Of course I have cried over Spain. I am saddened to see its unfulfilled potential, and I am deeply pained that this country is not at peace with itself; the topic of war makes me feel anger and pain.

Spain has all the  ingredients to be a great nation if it can solve its pending problems

Q. The US journalist David Rieff has just published In Praise of Forgetting, a book that rejects the notion that keeping historical memory alive is a moral duty. Should Spain forget?

A. What do you gain by forgetting? You can forget when you know the whole truth. It can be faced because a long time has passed since 1936. The Civil War should be a study subject at all schools, and the dead should be dug out of the roadsides. This country’s right needs to admit that there was a holocaust here, instead of opposing exhumations. The Popular Party (PP) has acted in a vile way on this issue. [The Nationalists and their descendants] exhumed their own [victims], and denying others a dignified burial falls within the realm of sin. Lorca is a symbol for all that. Some people have said that I want my picture taken next to his skull, but the truth is that I could not bear to gaze at his remains, I would have a heart attack. What I want to know is where he is and what they did to him. And I will want to know this until the day I die.

Q. What is your favorite spot out of all the places you have visited on your extensive travels through Spain?

A. There are two. One is Granada, and the other is Cabo de Creus in [the Catalan area of] L’Empordà, the epicenter of Dalí’s world, where I spent many intensely happy hours of research. Those are Lorca and Dalí territories in their full diversity. There, I feel like a fish in water.

Q. And where will you never return?

A. To the Valley of the Fallen. It is the most sinister place I know. I have never visited something so gloomy. It was terrible seeing what was probably the biggest Spanish murderer of all time lying under that oversized cross. I am not setting foot there again until they take out Franco, the only cold Spaniard who ever existed, the one who signed death sentences while he sipped on a cup of coffee.

English version by Susana Urra.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS