My first novel, The Island
, was inspired by a chance visit to a tiny island leper colony off the coast of Greece on our family summer holiday. It was a sleepy afternoon and I had felt that my children needed to do something other than lie on the beach, hence an outing to a place that had once been home to hundreds of people who suffered from leprosy. (A place, as I was to discover, that had much in common with the a leprosarium in the U.S. in Carville, Louisiana.)
It was a visit to a very specific place that also inspired my second novel, The Return. This time it was in Granada, Spain, where I was doing a dance course. I was learning how to do salsa dancing — perhaps one of the most carefree forms of dance, when I look back on it — and an unlikely way to find myself drawn into the story of a brutal civil war. One idle afternoon, I strolled down to the summer home of Federico García Lorca, the playwright and poet. I had seen some of his plays in London, but I knew very little about him and was vaguely curious.
What I learned that afternoon about Lorca fired my imagination. When the military coup that led to Spain's civil war took place in the summer of 1936, Granada was one of the first places to fall into Franco's hands, and during the first few weeks of military rule in this small city, thousands of people were rounded up and executed. Lorca was one of these early victims of the war, and one of the most famous. The simple white house, the Huerta de San Vicente, now set in some formal parkland only 10 minutes walk from the center of Granada, told me the story of his life and death and, more importantly, painted a vivid portrait of his personality through a collection of photographs and memorabilia.
It seemed to me that Lorca was a life-force. Not only could he write both plays and poetry, he could paint, design, and play a number of musical instruments. Pictures of him portray a gregarious individual, always at the center of a social event, happy and smiling. Clearly this was a man of passion, warmth, and charisma — added to which he was a celebrity. When he had arrived in Granada in the ill-fated summer of 1936, for example, it was reported in the local papers. Unsurprisingly, his arrest and execution shocked everyone who supported the legal Republic.
The charges against Lorca were never made clear. Though he came from a wealthy family, he believed in social equality and had brought plays to the people with his "Barraca" travelling theatre. He was not a political activist, however, and did not, for example, hold membership of the Socialist party. So when he was shot in the back (some say in the backside), liberal-minded people were horrified. His only "crime" was probably being gay, and since the new fascist regime particularly despised homosexuals, Jews, and masons, this made him a potential target and was probably enough for them to justify killing him and burying him in an unmarked grave.
My walk back into the center of the city that afternoon seemed strangely unreal. I looked at the place in a new light. The enormity of those events in Granada seemed to have been entirely erased except in the description of Lorca's last days, narrated by photo-captions in his house. I began to look for monuments to other fallen Republicans in the city, but there were none. The quiet streets had once witnessed these atrocities, but memories of them had long since faded.
So began my research into the Spanish Civil War and the germ of the idea for The Return. I soon learned that Lorca was only one of more than half a million people who died during the 1936-1939 conflict (with at least the same number being driven into exile, many of them to Mexico). It was a war that literally tore the country apart, and yet most people who visit Spain know very little about it. One of the first things I discovered was that there was a collective agreement to forget the atrocities of the war and the conditions under Franco for those who had fought against him. It was known as the pacto de olvidado (the "pact of forgetting"). Rather than dwelling on the destructive events of the past, this was how Spain chose to move forward to rebuild itself. This no doubt has contributed to many people's ignorance about the war.
The starting point for my research was in libraries (and bookshops!). There are said to be over 20,000 books written about the Spanish Civil War, making it one of the most written about conflicts in history, and I read as many as I had the heart and stomach for. Equally important were the people I spoke to. Though I did not immediately find people in Granada who would talk to me about their experiences of war, I eventually found some in the UK. These were Spaniards who had been exiled as children and never returned to their homeland. Their memories were invaluable in painting a picture of the suffering and damage that this conflict had caused. Like Lorca, my exiled friends were the real inspiration for this novel, and, like the playwright, they helped to give the impersonal history of war a very human face. I hope, in The Return, that I have done justice to the losses they suffered.