Montana State University

Silenced by language: MSU professor explores Spanish Civil War literature

July 5, 2005 -- by Jean Arthur, MSU News Service


John Thompson (L), MSU Spanish professor, and Chisco Fernandez Naval (R), a Galizan novelist, lecture on the importance of narrative fiction of the Spanish Civil War during a recent presentation in Spain. (Photo courtesy of John Thompson.)    High-Res Available

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Bozeman--In the Galizan area of northwest Spain, John Thompson finds war stories. The Montana State University modern languages professor researches Spanish Civil War literature written in the Galizan language.

On the MSU campus where Thompson teaches Spanish, students benefit from Thompson's vivid literary interpretations of the 1936-39 war as detailed in the narratives of Galizan authors. His students read narrative fiction written in Spanish and the occasional Galizan story translated into Spanish.

Thompson's literary analysis will be finished this fall. His book "Galizan Narrative Fiction: The Long Path between Oblivion and Memory," will be published in Spain.

"Galizan victims of the civil war were silenced by language," Thompson says. "Up until the Spanish Civil War, Galizans spoke their own language. The fascist regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco (himself a Galizan) repressed the language because he wanted to rid the country of those involved in left wing and Galizan politics. The language was prohibited."

School was taught in Spanish, business conducted in Spanish and until Franco's dictatorship ended in 1975, little of Galiza's literary past was available in print. The community experienced violence under Franco's fascist regime and still struggles for recognition as well as for the preservation of its distinct language and culture.

"The importance of Galizan literature is similar to the importance of Holocaust literature or other political-social trauma literature in teaching the past to those who have not lived it," Thompson says.

Thompson says that his analysis of Galizan literature is analogous to presenting the Native American view of U.S. history, providing context to historical understanding and legitimizing non-majority views and experiences. He explores the "transmission of memory," the repressed memory of Galizans through the civil war fiction.

Galiza, annexed in the 14th century, is one of several autonomous regions of Spain like the Basque country or Catalonia. The people retained their Galizan culture and language, which is similar to Portuguese. Three million people speak Galizan worldwide. Galizan influences can be found in Montana's video stores with the film, "Butterfly," and among fine Galizan wines such as Albarinno.

Thompson's interest in Galiza began when a distant family member invited him to leave Billings Senior High School for a year in Spain. He completed his last year of high school in Galiza and later graduated from the Universidade de Compostela. He finished his Ph.D. stateside with a dissertation examining the civil war in Galizan literature.

Last year, Thompson received an MSU Research Enhancement Award to research and lecture abroad. When in Galiza, his lectures were broadcast on radio and praised in newspaper reviews.

"Thompson not only analyzes in detail the importance of the facts of the civil war in Galiza for the recuperation of historical memory, but also ... transmitted his vision of the living consequences today of the war," said a Radio Galiza commentator.

Thompson analyzed several novels that focus on the trauma of fascism and explored how the writings teach the past.

"Thirty years after Franco's death, Spaniards are finally digging up mass graves and exposing the fascist atrocities, which the democratically elected governments and media have suppressed," Thompson says. "I compare these processes of digging up bones to the novels that metaphorically dig up memory. Whether in Spain, Vietnam, Rwanda, the U.S. or wherever, by learning about the past, we can change the future and construct a freer and more democratic society."

While MSU students receive a significant dose of Spanish history in Thompson's literature course, it is the residents of the Iberian Peninsula who applaud the loudest.

"Through the novels, the Galizan people use language to reappropriate their culture," Thompson says. "They are no longer silenced."

Contact John Thompson jpthompson@montana.edu or 994-6445