Manuel Rivas' Carpenter's Pencil
Repository: Alison Menezes Personal Collection, Warwick, England
Contributor: Rivas, Manuel, 1949- Alfaguara
Fond or Collection
Repository and Location
Alison Menezes Personal Collection, Warwick, England
Date Created: 1998
Extent: 1 item
This carpenter’s pencil, embossed with the name of Manuel Rivas’ 1998 novel, The Carpenter’s Pencil, was offered free with an edition of the book, and represents the material culture of memory in 21st-Century Spain.
Rivas’ short work explores the heroic agency of its protagonist, Dr Daniel Da Barca, and the issue of perpetrator trauma through the figure of Francoist soldier Herbal. The action is set in Galicia, which escaped major battles during the Civil War. Falling quickly under rebel control, the region was spared the long and bloody confrontations endured elsewhere, but it did not escape the Francoist repression. Recent research, including database compilations such as the Nomes e Voces project based at the University of Santiago de Compostela, has sought to uncover unacknowledged dimensions of Galicia’s Republican resistance, as well as its tradition of liberal and nationalist sentiment. Galicia has thus been doubly afflicted by the vagaries of memory during the dictatorship and transition to democracy: not only was there the national blockage in Civil-War memory until approximately the turn of the millennium, but the absence of major battlefields in this autonomous region has impeded more than elsewhere the transmission of conflict memory. Manuel Rivas’ novels on the period, including The Carpenter’s Pencil (first published in 1998) and Books Burn Badly (2006), constitute a vindication of this forgotten history.
The carpenter’s pencil of Rivas’ novel is a memory icon which offers a tangible, emotive connection to history. It stands for the lost stories of the many unnamed but quietly heroic victims of the Francoist repression. Within the novel, the pencil acts as a metaphorical connection between the lives and experiences of the various characters who own and use it, including the Painter, who draws the faces of his fellow prisoners as if they were saints on the façade of Santiago Cathedral’s Portico of Glory. The pencil ultimately falls into the possession of Herbal, a Francoist soldier brutalized by his father and a harsh upbringing. Crossing the seemingly unbridgeable divide of history, the pencil thus indicates a questioning of easy categorizations of victimhood and perpetration, leading Herbal to reassess his life and to bring to light the heroism of those he was charged with detaining and ultimately killing during the war.
As a material item, the pencil also evokes the recovery of objects such as pencil leads from mass grave exhumations conducted in Spain in recent decades. While these exhumations post-date Rivas’ novel, his work points to the importance of preserving material traces of the past as a means to connect physically to lost histories.