‘Don’t go to Belchite at night,’ Manolo our neighbour says, ‘there are voices.’
It’s easy to believe there might be. Belchite is a monument to the Spanish Civil War, a village left in ruins after it was taken first by the Republicans in 1937 and then by Franco’s troops in 1938. By the end, in a deadly game of cat and mouse, any building still standing was pulverised as the Nationalists troops moved from house to house hunting down the last Republicans.
For a long time after the war the impoverished villagers went on living among the ruins, which Franco declared should be left as a monument ‘de victoria nacional’ and ‘Red barbarousness’. A new village was built alongside the old, but some residents refused to leave their old homes.
I didn’t know about Belchite except as a name in the history of the Civil War. It was only when my third novel, Albi, was published that somebody told me the haunting cover photo had been taken there. I’d asked, of course, but that’s the thing about book covers – the publisher rarely knows much about how they were put together.
It turns out Belchite is only a few hours away from the remote village where we have a house. So a month after Albi was published my husband Nick and I set off to see for ourselves.
Spain is a wonderfully earthy place and so are its guided tours. We march round the ruins with our guide Nati and a group of Spanish, most of them young. One of the girls mentions that her great grandfather came from here and Nati breaks off her spiel to discuss whereabouts he might have lived. We move off again, past the group of men tossing a section of mud-brick wall (fibreglass, it turns out – they are making a film), under a stormy sky that threatens rain.
The sun is fitfully hot, poppies bob their scarlet heads in the meadows beyond the perimeter fence, and it’s hard to take in the enormity of what happened in this place: in less than two years nearly 5,000 people lost their lives here. It was late August and extremely hot when the Republicans drove out the Nationalists in 1937. The bodies had to be hurriedly buried in a mass grave. A year later when the Nationalists took it back more than 2,400 people were taken prisoner, many of them dying later in the labour camps.
Nati barks this information through her microphone and leads the way towards a church which looks as if it might be the one on my book cover. Nick tells her why we are here and gives her a bookmark. She holds it up in front of her – is it here? Yes, it’s here. Off we go in pursuit but no, when we get up close the shell of the church is similar but the house wall in the foreground doesn’t fit with the photo.
No problem, Nati declares, there are still two churches to go, and a convent.
The photo, of course, might be from many years ago, before the ruins subsided quite so much. It might even be a digital reconstruction of different photos. By now I am handing out bookmarks with gay abandon and everyone is joining in the debate in lively Spanish, all reverence gone. We go round the village sizing up the ruins and arguing until we get to the last church, and there it is: wall and window in the foreground with an old iron bracket that might have been for a sign, and in the background the blind façade of the church.
So that’s all right then, we’ve found it, and Nati can go back to her spiel. We become reverential again, because high on a ledge of the ruined tower of the church an un-exploded shell is visible, still lodged in the stone. History is shockingly real at moments like this and for me it is a doubly profound moment. I have borrowed these people’s history. Have I done it justice?
As for my book cover, the buildings of Belchite are only half of it. I will never know the identity of the ghostly child whose face hovers in the background and that is as it should be. We write our stories and someone else’s history becomes our own, but once out in the public arena our stories no longer belong to us. They belong to the reader.
Hilary Shepherd has lived most of her adult life in Wales, farming and making oak windows and kitchens, but during the 70s and 80s she and her family lived in Ghana and in the Sudan, which provided the material for her first two novels (Animated Baggage and In A Foreign Country)
In 2001, with her second husband Nick, she started spending time in Spain, in a remote village in southern Aragon. This is an area where the resistance fighters known as the maquis hid out in the mountains after the Civil War, until well into the 50s, and there are many stories in the village about living caught between the maquis and the hated Guardia Civil. Thinking about what it must have been like was the starting point for her third novel, ‘Albi’ (published April 2018).