Storytellers of War: The Power of Narratives in Constructing Identity

I am many things: an avid doodler, a fairly average student, and an almost offensively green transcriber, as I’ve quickly learned from working on this project. But in the growing days of sitting -with surprising discipline- in front of a computer, trying to decipher the elusive sounds of Andalusian Spanish only to melt into a pool of confusion and consolation chocolate, it is my passion as a storyteller that grounds me in the reality of the work. The voices of victims and survivors who speak with almost casual conviction. The intimate nature of their testimonies like confessions liberated from decades of silence, some of which are inherited through parents and grandparents. These are stories that demand their pain to be recognized and, above all else, felt.

At the moment, I’m most familiar with a man named Euripides’ memories of his father Angel, who spent six years exiled in Málaga only to face execution at the hands of the Phalangists. Euripides recalled how his father endured the sweepingly subhuman prison conditions and how Angel, in chains, would pave the streets in Prado del Rey with his fellow inmates. Perhaps the most evocative moment was when Euripides spoke of Angel’s attempts to instill in him the desire to pursue esoteric knowledge. Euripides would inherit his father’s mantra, “Listen to those who know, and learn how to listen,” and indulge in writing personal poems as a therapeutic means of expression. As I listened to his story, I could not help but see fragments of my own father’s experience as an officer in the Vietnam War inadvertently reflected in Angel. My father would spend seven years in a POW camp, which preached reeducation through intense physical labor, before immigrating to the States to relentlessly teach me the value of education. Without realizing, I had become personally invested with a stranger’s story, one of a different time from a different place. Yet the themes of war and perseverance would transcend both, and I found myself in deep and humbling sympathy. Herein lies the story’s and, to a high degree, the testimony’s evocative power: its capacity to function on both the literal and metaphorical, ultimately informing the listener while appealing on a personal level.

I don’t think it’s productive for me to argue between the legitimacy of History and collective memory because that is not my goal. For those interested, Sebastiaan Faber offers a convincing analysis for the role of testimonies in his essay “‘¿Usted, qué sabe?’ History, Memory, and the Voice of the Witness” where he observes that although memory is subjective, it can also produce valid knowledge. Instead, I would argue that both should be viewed as constructions and, as such, fall to the mercy of rhetoric, at times following structures found in fiction. Then what’s important is not the “realness” of the story, but rather the representation and how it functions as a means of self-fashioning. In regards to diaries and personal narratives, Joan Didion says, “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters,” to which I’m inclined to agree. The same can be said of testimonies. If I were to be cold and purely academic, I would say speakers like Euripides and their testimonies should be examined as cultural artifacts, texts that offer insight not only to the pervasive oppression of the regime but also the emerging post-Franco society.

To understand the impact of narrative on constructing identity, I refer to Marshal McLuhan’s essay The Medium is the Message, in which he explores how a medium has social consequences and, therefore, changes the way we behave or perceive information. For example, a lightbulb, by its mere presence, brings instantaneous light, allowing us to create environments that would normally be left in the dark. This change also allows us to reimagine our schedules differently by expanding the range of certain activities (we can read whenever so long as there’s a light source). Essentially, technology affects the way we think. However, technology is not limited to the tangible; rather, if we consider narratives as a sort of technology capable of impacting the way we interpret our lives, we start to see how we organize and relate specific events according to defined structures. Beginning, middle, and end. Climax and denouement. Character archetypes and narrative tropes become extremely relevant as war stories model themselves after other genres, including the classic hero’s tale, the martyr’s demise, the tragedy. These structures become superimposed onto our lives, and we subconsciously subject ourselves to their limitations.

On a national level, as Brian Bunk notes in his book Ghosts of Passion: Martyrdom, Gender, and the Origins of the Spanish Civil War, the rhetoric used by the Republicans and Nationalists to craft a coherent identity was strikingly similar to each other. He attributes this parallel to the idea that both parties only had a limited number of Spanish narratives to define themselves, which tended to revolve around religious imagery, traditional (religious) enemies, and conceptions of masculinity based on legendary Spanish heroes. Indeed, Stephen Greenblatt contests in his book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare that the construction of identity depended on the range on narratives available. What’s fascinating is that, through their own means, the factions tried to reinterpret the nation in a way that was compatible to their own ideologies while still maintaining a sense of continuity within the nation’s history. That is to say, the Republicans’ empowerment of the proletariat was justified because Spain’s identity always originated from the people; conversely, the Nationalists’ reverence for the Church was justified because Spain’s identity always originated from the Church. In both cases, what is essentially Spanish remains constant even though each party seeks to redefine the nation from its current state.

Once Spain became a democratic republic after Franco’s death, an explosion of literature and artistic expression revealed a country desperately recovering from the trauma of war. Film and publications would begin to candidly address the atrocities of the war and the fates of the desaparecidos. And testimonies like Euripides would emerge to this day with the hopes of informing the world of the institutionalized system of fear used to oppress an entire nation and serve as a means to denounce their relatives’ killers. During my transcriptions, I’ve heard so many stories about the horrors of war, people being executed and women being raped for mere differences in ideology. But despite the overwhelming pain, I believe the reason these stories are so abundant and necessary are because they are redemption narratives. These are stories inherited by the children and grandchildren of those who died fighting for the Republican cause, a lifetime’s worth of stifled despair passed through familial blood. Yet, it is precisely the children who redeem the stories through their testimonies because they prove that Spain would embody the very ideology that they died to preserve. That the defeated would at last win. And perhaps most importantly, like my experience with Euripides, these testimonies offer new narratives for those who lack voices and who find themselves reflected in the stories.