Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Colm Tóibín’s “Summer of ’38” was originally published in the March 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m a fan of Colm Tóibín. It’s been nearly four years since we’ve had any of his fiction in The New Yorker, so this is a treat. And what a treat it turned out to be, too, this story about secrets and fear and the unspoken loyalty that might emerge from the two.
“Summer of ’38″ is set in Spain, where Tóibín lived for a while and where he set his first novel, The South. The story begins some fifty years after the summer of 1938, when Montse, getting old, is visited by a man who is writing a book about what happened in the local community during the Spanish Civil War. She immediately says she had nothing to do with the war, nor did her father and she had no brothers. He says that’s not why he has been looking for her. Rather, he has gotten in touch with one of Franco’s soldiers who had been in the small town during the war. This soldier and eventual general told the man he’d come to the town and tour the town, explaining how it was set up during the war. The general said the only person he remembered from the town was Montse, and he asked if she might join them for lunch. Montse denies remembering much of anything, something ingrained in her through a lifetime of habit. He asks her to consider and he’ll check in later.
The story flashes back to 1938. Franco’s soldiers have entered the valley to guard a dam. While at first the people were afraid, soon they started venturing out again, some even to the parties the soldiers would throw. Even Montse herself went, eventually hooking up with Rudolfo, one of the quieter soldiers who, we have no reason to disbelieve, treated her well.
As the summer dwindled and the weather changed, people started to understand how this was going to end. People were already disappearing, either because they fled or were killed. It would be very dangerous to have anything to do with Franco’s soldiers. Fortunately, Montse didn’t have to worry that much.
Instead, she hoped that those who had noticed her presence at the soldiers’ bonfire would have their own reasons to keep silent about it. In the years afterward, everyone — even those who had been there every night — pretended that none of it had happened.
Unfortunately, after Rudolfo is gone, Montse realizes she is pregnant. These were dangerous times, and it wasn’t going to get better. With the end of the war, Montse knew there would be accusations leading to arrest or death, and no matter who the father of her child was no one could protect her from the presumptions that were ultimately correct anyway. How to keep this secret locked away? The only thing she can think of is to chase after the one man who had been pursuing her for years, Paco, a pathetic man who seemed to love Montse though she and her family made it clear he was well below her standards.
Montse’s father laughed at him, and for her mother and her sisters the idea that he had been pursuing her since she was sixteen or seventeen was a source of regular jokes. She did her best to avoid him, and if she could not avoid him then she openly rebuffed his efforts to speak to her.
Now she urgently wanted to meet him.
She didn’t love him. It wasn’t about that at all. But: “If had wanted her before, she figured, he would still want her now.” He would be a protection.
I found the story strong throughout, but I must say I particularly liked the final bit, when we know all that has happened and are allowed to see where, in this instance, this time of “don’t speak” led. An excellent story.
In “Summer of ‘38,” Colm Tóibín depends upon understatement. Set in Spain, an elderly Spanish widow is presented with the possibility of meeting with a lover of many years before. Her oldest daughter, Rosa, was conceived in that short affair, but Paco agreed to marry Montse — and raised Rosa as his daughter. As time went by, Montse had two more daughters, and came to feel intense “loyalty” for everything Paco did for her and her family.
The long-ago affair is complicated by the setting for the love affair having been the Spanish Civil War, raising questions of “loyalty,” collaboration, and treachery. Montse resists the several invitations to meet with “the General,” and in the end does not meet him for lunch. Instead, she meets with Rosa, and specifically gives her an album of family pictures. The pictures, though, have no images of Paco, perhaps because Montse does not want Rosa to see how little she and her son resemble him.
The difficulty lies in the fact that one of Montse’s other daughters has met an emissary of the General. The persistence of the emissary indicates that if he wants to make contact with his daughter, he will do so through the sister, and so the truth will not lie buried after all.
The silence that Montse tries to enforce mirrors silences in the greater society of countries torn by civil war and internal violence: Spain, Chile, Argentina, Ireland, Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Syria, to name just a few.
There is the very understated suggestion in this story that countries not only bury the memory of violence but they re-write history to keep the truth buried. Tóibín does not address the effects of the silence or the rewritten history. It is just proposed that history is buried and struggles to re-emerge.
This is the first story I have read written by Tóibín that was set in Spain. I feel like I need to read that larger body of work to grasp the gravity of what he is trying to say. Faulkner dealt with buried truths, and it took him volumes. Ondaatje, too. I am also unfamiliar with the current arguments in Spain that I think have resurfaced regarding the Civil War and buried truth.
Understatement as a foundation, however, allows the reader the space to think and question. Given that political writing at its worst is polemical, strident, bombastic, and untruthful, an approach that stresses calm thinking is an important contribution to the conversation. I also feel that surface clarity helps the reader relax into the work, and then be more receptive to difficult ideas and deeper mysteries.