In Ana María Matute’s Primera memoria, the civil war is doubly displaced. In the first instance, the novel is set entirely on an island in the Balearics, so while the conflict rages on the mainland, news comes only indirectly via the newspapers and the radio. In the island’s atmosphere of “hypocritical peace,” the conflict comes to seem ghostly or “phantasmatic: far away and close up at the same time, perhaps more fearful because it couldn’t be seen” (15). The narrator, a fourteen-year old girl named Matia, finds herself stranded there as she is visiting her grandmother when hostilities break out. A brief vacation turns into months of isolation in a world she doesn’t fully understand. Second, Matia’s sense of distance from both her surroundings and the war is exacerbated by her youth. Her extended stay coincides with a point of transition as she hovers on the threshold of adulthood but has yet quite to put childish things aside. The war is most certainly an adult affair and Matia has her own preoccupations as she is forced to study alongside her fifteen-year-old cousin, Borja, who with his mother (Matia’s aunt) is likewise unable to return to the mainland. Their tutor is an ex-seminarian, not much older than them, called Lauro. The two of them escape from their family and Lauro as often as they can, to indulge in all the usual activities of coming of age and extended vacations: idling, smoking, drinking, conspiring, exchanging confidences in hushed tones, and fighting and finding love with the local youths. All this leaves little time to worry too much about the war’s progress.
And yet, distant and displaced as it is, the war pervades everything. There is a marked sense of tension throughout the island, and an undercurrent of violence and hatred. The young people have their own war among themselves, which pits them against each other along battle lines that clearly inscribe class difference: young Borja, future inheritor of his grandmother’s estate, ropes in on his side not only his cousin Matia but also the local doctor’s son and the children of his grandmother’s majordomo; against them are arrayed a ragtag group of kids from the local village, including the sons of the blacksmith, the carter, the carpenter, and the washerwoman. But their conflict also invokes older enmities, as they scrap on the site where years before the island’s Jews had been burned alive. Cruelty and suspicion are all around, as if burned into the landscape by the harsh and unforgiving sun.
It is just that the conflict remains mostly repressed, a matter of rumour and innuendo. But if the truth were told, the lines of alliance and enmity would be more complicated than they first appear. Matia’s and Borja’s fathers, both fighting on the mainland, are ranged on opposite sites of the conflict: the one a Republican, the other a colonel with the fascist forces who (Borja proudly boasts) “can order whoever he feels like to be shot by a firing squad” (58). What’s more, when Matia and Borja come across a dead body, a man shot by the local bully boys for supposedly being a “red,” it slowly emerges that the victim’s family is strangely entwined with their own. His son, Manuel, may well be Borja’s half-brother, both of them (Manuel knows and Borja likes to think) bastard offspring of a distant and somewhat mysterious relative, Jorge de Son Major, who has broken off from the family and is now a semi-recluse who shelters behind his property’s high walls, attended to only by an aged retainer. The kids pluck up their courage and visit, hoping perhaps for some kind of resolution, but inside the walled garden all they find is further confusion and mockery: a hall of mirrors in which nothing is quite as it seems and Jorge urges a parody of matrimony on Matia and Manuel while the retainer (Matia thinks) “poison[s]” them with his guitar music. No wonder that Matia should conclude that the “pathetic grown-ups” are “dirty and kitsch” (154), and that she should cling on to childhood (her doll, fairy stories) as long as possible.
So the truth will not be told. The novel ends with a dramatic scene of confession and revelation that in fact serves only to muddy the waters still further. Meanwhile, Borja effectively blackmails both Lauro and Matia, in his cousin’s case by threatening to denounce something that isn’t in fact true, but that is perhaps all the more believable as Matia herself has been trying to get Borja to believe it. As a result, Matia becomes complicit in the expulsion of her friend Manuel from the island. This is a punishment that, given the ill will and malice that infect the place, might almost be taken to be a liberation. But Lauro’s fate indicates otherwise: as Borja and Matia’s long vacation finally comes to an end, he enlists in the army only (we are told by a narrative voice that occasionally interjects to indicate that all this is a memory from long ago) to be killed at the front just a month later. There seems little chance of relief in this novel marked by claustrophobia, fear, suspicion, hysteria, malice, and hatred.
However much the children are repeatedly escaping–they avoid the war by being on the island; they slip away from their lessons and from their imperious grandmother–they end up all the more tangled up in everything. Displacement is an illusion, if it doesn’t just make things worse. This is a bleak book, and while you may want to applaud its refusal to indulge in the kind of moralizing search for heroes that mars other narratives of the war, when you realize that it’s merely the first in a trilogy you have to hope that things get better in the subsequent volumes. But the fact that their titles are Los soldados lloran de noche (Soldiers Cry by Night) and La trampa (The Trap) suggests that they probably don’t.