The author tells Hilary A White how writing a novel was the best way to explore her feelings about her grandfather’s role on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War
While fighting in the Spanish Civil War, a bomb landed right beside José María Serrano Sos. Miraculously, it failed to go off, spurring the shocked soldier to decommission it himself and keep it as a souvenir of his brush with death.
Eighty-odd years later, fresh and sunny as the day we meet, his granddaughter sits in front of me. Not only is Anamaría Crowe Serrano able to laugh about how her existence came down to a faulty piece of munitions, but she delights in hinting that the shell may or may not still remain in the family as an heirloom. If there is truth behind her conspiratorial whisper, it is certainly not the only remnant of her dear grandfather to endure in her life.
The Spanish-Irish poet and translator has just published a novel that has been on her mind for decades. In The Dark tells of two sisters trying to overcome political differences while besieged during the nightmarish Battle of Teruel of 1937. It is a restless, sense-firing work that scours for love and humanity amid the horror. The jumping off point was her grandfather’s involvement in the wider conflict, the air of mystery surrounding that, and the fact he would never speak about it.
As well as these things, it sprang from Crowe Serrano’s need to reconcile that her dearly loved abuelo, a man of magical kindness and adventurous walks in the hills when she came to Spain for summer holidays, fought on the fascist side.
“I knew nothing much about Franco when I was a child,” Crowe Serrano says, “but I learned in school in Ireland that he was the baddie, basically, a dictator, and on the wrong side of history. I had trouble understanding that because I couldn’t imagine my grandfather would have fought for a dictator and fascist because he was not at all like that. He was just a normal person, a very humble man.”
As with many harrowing conflicts, a collective silence fell over Spain after its civil war, part stoicism, part obfuscation, and part a desire to move on. Crowe Serrano’s grandfather was not immune, and any time she tried to ask him about it, he would use playacting to deflect. Occasionally, something would leak out.
“We thought he was a bit quirky sometimes,” she says. “In Ireland, if you didn’t eat all your dinner on your plate when you were a child, you got, ‘There are babies in Africa who have no food, be grateful’. Well, my grandfather would say, very quietly, very subdued: ‘Eat your food – you don’t know what it’s like to go rummaging through dustbins with the hunger’. It was coming from a dark place and you couldn’t argue with it.”
As she grew older and came to understand the world better, one particularly difficult question niggled away at her — had he ever killed anybody.
“But you can’t ask somebody that question,” she smiles thinly, “not somebody you love. I realised that to ask implies the possibility that they have. And if he’d said, ‘Well actually, yeah, it’s not something I’m proud of but I did,’ what do you do with that information? So, I had to try and understand why somebody, anybody, would choose to fight for a fascist.”
Her plan to write a biography of José Marí, who died 16 years ago, would not have worked with so little information to work with.
In her deep research into the era, she saw that a novel might be a way to explore the complexities and realities of that chaotic and bitter civil war. What she learned was that people like her grandfather went to fight for the nationalist side not out of a love for fascism but a desire to see peace and order restored to a country tearing itself apart.
Deep love of language
The potted history she proceeds to give me is a detailed, wide-angle snapshot of a conflict I have never fully understood. It is told in the manner of someone used to looking deeply into things and then reassembling them for others to digest, which is perhaps unsurprising.
She was born in Dublin to a mother from Zaragoza and a father from Cabra, and the family relocated to Warrenstown, near Trim in Co Meath (“the middle of nowhere, literally”) when she was six. At 11, she won a third-class writing competition run by an “inspired” nun at Convent of Mercy. She has been writing ever since, publishing several collections of poetry, a short story collection and a novel . A deep love of language enveloped all of this, leading her to study languages and translation at Trinity and DCU. This led to a career as an award-winning translator and Spanish teacher.
Growing up, Spanish was literally the mother tongue, the language of domesticity, warmth, and mothering. But despite this and her Iberian looks, she never felt she was seen as exotic in rural Meath all those years ago.
No mention was ever really made of her Spanish connection, in fact, and she didn’t even know she was bilingual until age seven. Given the times we live in, it is something to hear her recount how “madly envious” she would be of her cousins heading off to Tramore for summer holidays when she and her younger brother were lumped with the Mediterranean (“I ended up marrying a man from around there in Waterford, so there you go”).
Even though Crowe Serrano insists she is so Irish that there is rain in her veins, speaking English to her own now-adult children felt too strange when they were growing up, so strong is the seam of nurturing and affection that runs through the Spanish language for her.
From her father’s side, meanwhile, there are more traces of conflict and expression. Coming from a family of stone masons, her paternal grandfather worked on repairs to the GPO after 1916. Her father, meanwhile, was a sculptor who did hand-chiselled commissions for Dublin City Council and religious orders that are still dotted around the city.
Writing is language, but it is also chiselling nothing into something, she agrees, and she grew up with a strong sense of her father’s toil leaving a physical imprint on the Dublin landscape. Things look to have trickled down as well. Rachael, her marine biologist daughter, is an aerial acrobat (“She sometimes works for the circus, and we always joke that she’ll run away with it someday”).
We’ve been sitting outside this whole time in a breeze annoyingly cool for the second half of June. Surely she can’t wait to get out of Dublin and hit the mother country when things are back to normal?
“I’m one of these people who is embarrassed to say I loved lockdown,” Crowe Serrano laughs. “I actually finished the novel during it. I loved not having to go anywhere really. And I love the rain. I love the north of Spain because it’s very green, but it’s not as hot here in Ireland and we don’t have mosquitoes.
“I’m always happy to see my relatives over there but happy to get back. I don’t have to go anywhere this year, which is great.”
‘In the Dark’ is published by Turas Press, priced €14