"It's a tolondrón", says Francisco Franco about another Spanish coup general in a hilarious novel by Eduardo Mendoza. The writer defends putting invented phrases in the mouths of relevant historical figures as a literary license, although the idea raises blisters among historians.
Franco "I did expressly talk in a way that was impossible, it was a parody, because I wanted to be part of the fictional world"says Mendoza about 'Riña de gatos', a story about Madrid prior to the start of the Civil War (1936-1939) with great doses of humor.
"To introduce a historical character in a novel you have to do it with the spirit of a fictional character", defends the author during a debate organized Thursday night by the Hispanic Studies Center of the London School of Economics (LSE).
Mendoza has written numerous stories set in historical moments, like the Universal Exhibition of 1888 in 'The city of the prodigies' or the turbulent Barcelona of the early twentieth century when businessmen hired gunmen to assassinate trade unionists in 'The truth about the Savolta case'. To create them "I read a lot, history, magazines, talked with people and then I left everything aside and I invented everything", explains to a small audience formed by students, passionate about literature and Spanish expatriates.
Reality and fiction should always be considered as "two separate worlds," he says. And defend: "When you read a historical novel you have to think that you are reading a novel and that the real characters are also invented, that they are not authentic."
But the simple idea provokes the rejection of prominent historians, like the British Helen Graham, professor of modern European history at the Royal Holloway University in London and author of several books on the Spanish Civil War. "You talk about the suspension of skepticism when we read a novel, but if the novel is set in a historical moment we all think that, despite what is invented, there is truth in the narrative because it is historical", he replies annoyed.
Paul Preston, professor of the LSE and one of the greatest experts in modern Spain whose books include biographies of Franco and Juan Carlos I, coincides with Graham. "When I read novels in which real people appear, a novel we say that has figures of the Spanish civil war as Manuel Azaña or Francisco Franco, I feel unworthy because when the novelist puts dialogues in the mouth of this person I think"I have spent 30 years studying this guy and I would never have said something like that '", Explain.
The trick is to use the "right tone to avoid confusion", consider the also Spanish Lorenzo Silva, recognizing however that in his own novels he has never dared to put in Franco's mouth anything that he had not said and was not documented because he believes that it would have been "lying".
"That's why Franco speaks so little in my novels!" Jokes the author of works such as "The mark of the meridian" and "Remember your name," set in the Civil War.
And he denounces that also historians can be mislead: investigating for an essay about the Civil Guard found in five history books – "Five!", exclaimed – the narration of how in the mid-nineteenth century his agents had killed a known band of bandits in southern Spain. "It was not true, the author of the first book had heard the story and the other four copied it, and I was the sixth who copied the story, so I had to correct my book in the second edition", after having evidence to the contrary found in official documents.
But, and these are they reliable?
Historians "we have a fetishism with official documents", Preston acknowledges, "as if the officials did not lie," he says ironically. Thus, he explains, when he wrote his biography of Franco 30 years ago, he "believed that it was true that Franco was not a corrupt one".
But since then "it has been discovered that Franco was incredibly corrupt, that for example the money from the various national bonds that were issued during the Civil War to buy weapons went directly to his bank account," he acknowledges, making a certain "mea culpa" .