Interesting and easy to read, Elena Moya’s novel “The Olive Groves of Belchite” is a first-rate piece of historical fiction.
By exploring the still-living scars of the Spanish civil war, the author develops a fascinating brew of issues — ranging from generational differences, religious extremism, and female homosexuality to the crisis of traditional family expectations — all within the magical realism setting of olive groves and vineyards.
The novel starts in 2008, and tells the story of three women of the same family who are struggling to progress beyond the ultra-conservative military dictatorship period known as “Franquismo” that began in the post-civil war Spain of 1939.
While the Franquist period — named after the victor of the Spanish Civil War, Gen. Francisco Franco — officially ended with his death in 1975, the author finely illustrates how vestiges of this authoritarian “modus operandi” still impregnate the fabric of contemporary life.
The novel revolves around the character of twenty-something Maria, who is a business-degree graduate working for a company that produces the Catalan champagne “Cava” and is trying to expand out of the lackluster Spanish economy into the bustling London market.
Maria’s conservative husband-to-be, Jordi, faces his own struggles. His secret Opus Dei — a prelature of the Catholic Church that teaches people to seek holiness in their daily lives —membership rules his life and natural urges to the point of violent self-repression.
A significant portion of the novel takes place in Belchite, the town that was purposely bombed and looted by Franco’s nationalist forces in the 1930s.
Thousands were brutally killed, including dozens of youthful, idealistic American volunteers from the Abraham Lincoln and George Washington brigades.
The rubble-rich, broken and hollowed-out emptiness of buildings form the skeleton of Belchite in Aragon province, located in northeastern Spain. Prisoners of war were forced by the triumphant fascist regime to build the “new Belchite” next to the destroyed “old Belchite.”
The past is present in Belchite, perhaps like no other place in the world — a reminder of the annihilation that war brings to human populations and emblematic, because it stands unchanged as it did on the day of its body-strewn surrender on Sept. 1, 1937.
Through the use of single-narration, the author portrays the past tense in the present with clarity, rather than actually taking the whole storyline to the civil war years.
This page-turner gives solid perspective in understanding the gripping past and present of Spain or of post-conflict societies in countries like El Salvador, Chile, and even the post-Civil War United States — countries struggling with the ghosts of past internal conflicts.
The novel is a first for journalism graduate Elena Moya, who is a alumni of the University of Navarra in Spain. With a specialization in creative writing at Birkbeck College of the University of London, she has worked for news service agencies such as Reuters, and the Guardian in the United Kingdom. Her second and most recent novel, “La Maestra Republicana,” has been released with much anticipation in the United Kingdom. She currently lives in northern London with her partner.
“The Olives Groves of Belchite” can be found at the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library or be purchased at local bookstores. It is available in its original Spanish version and has been translated into English.