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Carlos Rojas: El valle de los caídos (The Valley of the Fallen)

El valle de los caídos [The Valley of the Fallen] of the title is, in fact a monument to those who died in the Spanish Civil War and it was and remains controversial. This novel is not about this monument or, indeed, the Spanish Civil War but about Goya, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII and Franco. It is the first in a loosely-related trilogy about Spanish history.

The novel has three stories, which are intertwined, two of which we follow chronologically. The book opens with a description of Goya’s Charles IV of Spain and His Family. Much of the information that Rojas gives on this painting and on subsequent works of Goya can now be readily found on the Internet though obviously, this book was written before the days of the Internet. However, Rojas also adds a more detailed historical background as well as his own interpretation on what Goya’s intention was behind the painting. In this one, he compares it to Velazquez’ Las Meninas, a painting of members of Philip IV’s court and which acted as a model for Goya’s painting. Velázquez’ painting is stylised, showing the court members in an idealised way, while Goya’s painting is thoroughly realistic to the point of being grotesque. Though it certainly does not flatter Charles IV’s family, it seems that they approved of it. It was unfinished, as Ferdinand VII’s future wife, Princess Maria Antonia was still in Naples and Goya could not paint her, as he had never met her (contrary to the Wikipedia entry). Rojas uses this to give a very critical decision of Charles IV and his family. Subsequent sections will discuss other Goya works. These include Pepe-Hillo, a portrait of a bullfighter, which allows Rojas to discourse on the role of bullfighting in Spanish life and, in particular, how the bull if a metaphor for death in Spain and how bullfighting shows Spain’s obsession with death as a spectacle, which he likens to the period leading up to Franco’s death; 3rd of May 1801, Goya’s famous painting of the executions of partisans by the French, an expiation for Goya, who had painted the French when they were in power but which also, according to Rojas, showed the violence found in Spanish history; Blind Man’s Buff; The Duchess of Osuna and others.

The second series also involves Goya but consists of comments, mainly in the form of letters, that he writes, starting in March 1828 which, as we know (or can check), is the last month of Goya’s life, as he died in Bordeaux in April 1828. In these writings, Goya ruminates on life, his work, his family and the times in which he lived. It is here that we meet, in particular, Ferdinand VII, as Goya visited him in 1826, on his last visit to Spain, and they had, at least according to Rojas, a long conversation. Ferdinand interestingly points out that the age of absolutism is, post-Napoleon, dead and that monarchs must pay more attention to the people. Ferdinand also points out to Goya that both behaved badly during the French occupation, as both kowtowed to Napoleon and the French. When Ferdinand asks Goya what his idea of happiness is, he said it was to die before his son Xavier, as he has already buried four children and his wife and does not want to survive Xavier. Ferdinand feels that he might be the only genuine royal from his family, as he feels that his siblings were fathered by Godoy (about whom we learn a lot more.) However, we learn a lot about Goya’s thoughts and activities, as well as his dealings with the monarchs of Spain.

The final series is set in the days preceding the death of Franco on 20 November 1975. (Interestingly enough, there is another Spanish novel on this site set during this period – Rafael ChirbesLa caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid].) This series tells the story of Sandro Vasari, who claims to be descended from Giorgio Vasari, the painter and art historian. Sandro was a university lecturer and had spent much time in the United States where he had been married and divorced twice and had had two children by his second wife. He now has no contact with either his children or ex-wives. He is now living with Marina, who has left her husband for him. The relationship is somewhat fiery and they fight more than once. Sandro is writing a work on Goya, both a biography and a catalogue raisonné of all his works. Much of this part of the novel concerns Sandro’s views on Franco and his supporters, the implications of Franco’s death as well as comparisons Sandro (and Rojas) make between Spain in Goya’s time and in Franco’s time. Indeed Sandro feels that things have barely improved and that not much will change after Franco’s death as the same people will still be in charge (he has no faith in the royal family.) This is not a country. Spain has never existed., he comments. He is not only critical of Spain but also of the United States (which he claims, helped Franco in the Civil War more than the Germans and Italians did) and the Pope. Rojas throws in another twist. Sandro has a friend known only as R. It is R. who introduces Sando to Marina, who got him the contract to write Goya’s biography, who gets an abortionist when Marina becomes pregnant, who provides them the house where they live and Sandro is writing the biography and who persuades Sandro that he should visit his children in the United States when has finished the Goya biography. It is Marina who points out that R. is controlling their lives and it soon becomes clear that R. is, of course, Rojas, and, indeed, as their creator, he is controlling their lives.

This is often considered Rojas’ best book, though to fully appreciate it, a knowledge of Spanish history is helpful, not least because Rojas’ main theme is that things are just as bad now as they were then, as regards despotism and brutalisation of the people (he specifically refers to the execution of young demonstrators, the last execution approved by Franco). Sadly, it is not available in English and, indeed, apart from Spanish, seems to be only available in Bulgarian, Hungarian and Russian, though Edith Grossman is working on an English translation.

Publishing history

First published in 1978 by Destino
First English translation by Yale University Press in 2018