Patrick McGrath’s father, an Irish Catholic, was medical superintendent at Broadmoor, and as a boy the author would meet his father’s patients, previously violent men diagnosed clinically insane. McGrath’s novels – Spider and Asylum are examples – often depict, with compassion, those on the margins: underdogs, the mentally unstable, people knocked off course by traumatic events.
Last Days in Cleaver Square portrays a fragile old man suffering from delusions. It’s autumn 1975 and poet Francis McNulty, our first-person narrator, is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. He fought on the Republican side and now, nearly 40 years later, Franco keeps appearing to him, mostly at Francis’ home, though once the dictator, bowler-hatted, pops up in Horseferry Road, causing the elderly poet to scramble off a bus in pursuit.
Franco is actually still alive in Madrid, though terminally ill. In Francis’s Cleaver Square home, daughter Gilly – engaged to Sir Percy Gauss of the Foreign Office – is worried. After her father wakes screaming at seeing Franco at his bedside, she summons her Aunt Finty from her home on Mull. Finty and brother Francis, still close, were raised in Cleaver Square. Its current occupants include Gilly, Dolores Lopez, orphaned in the civil war, and Francis’ cat Henry Threshold.
The author has a unique way of mixing the cosy and domestic with the disturbing and violent. Dolores beats a rug on the washing line, watched by the cat: “She was really whacking it. Henry was fascinated.”Inside, Gilly questions her father about Spain. “Sometimes I scrubbed for Doc Roscoe, American surgeon… there was a medical student, Felipe… it was his job to keep the vehicles running. One morning they wouldn’t start… they took him out behind a wall and made him kneel with his face against it and then they shot him in the back of the head.”
Not only Franco’s forces were cruel. Francis’s politics, however, remain steadfastly of the left and, though at first the author focuses sympathetically on the bewildered old man, the theme widens as fragments of Francis’ past in Spain come back and he recalls other dramatic events, such as this one in bombed Madrid: “from under this dead woman… a small child crawled out… like a little black frog emerging from under a stone! A life – literally – tousled, filthy, a small girl, alive and we hauled her clear.” The child was eight-year-old Dolores, and Doc Roscoe, the American surgeon who Francis admired, was with them that night.
The Spanish Civil War is still an open wound, though being addressed by Spain’s citizens, politicians and historians. Countless victims’ bodies have still not been found. I recall a disturbing sermon in Seville’s cathedral in 2008 where “sangre” – blood – was shouted repeatedly, with a kind of triumph.
The novel jumps about rather and I enjoyed more my rewarding second reading. With his depiction of troubled Francis, McGrath seems to be writing also of a troubled Spain, and of that country’s suppression of its past. Francis too has secrets he has tried to suppress, one being homosexual leanings. His other secret is more worrying and, in the novel’s second half, McGrath seems to suggest that the Franco sightings are triggered by guilt about a cowardly act committed long ago.
At last, in November 1975, Francis returns to Madrid after nearly 40 years, with Gilly, her now husband Sir Percy, Dolores Lopez and Manchester Guardian journalist Hugh, who’s been interviewing Francis. Franco dies during their visit, and Francis begs to visit the Valley of the Fallen, built by the forced labour of Franco’s political prisoners. He finds himself loathing its 500-foot crucifix “in all its bruto-Fascist severity”. Franco’s body will shortly be put in the crypt there. I won’t reveal Francis’s questionable behaviour regarding the crypt, but on 24 October 2019, Spain’s socialist government, with some opposition, had Franco’s remains moved to a family vault.
This subtle, deep and sometimes playful novel – Franco and Francis share a Christian name – whetted my curiosity about Spain. I lived in Madrid till I was three. I played in the Casa de Campo, where bloody fighting had occurred. I wonder about the old Spanish Catholicism with its pageantry, piety, yet also its cruelty and intolerance, which surely has no place in Christianity.
The book’s ending, where Francis attains peace, highlights individual conscience, and the value of confession, forgiveness and absolution. I have no idea whether the author is a Catholic but it seems that Catholicism, at its best, has influenced him.
Elisa Segrave is the author of The Girl from Station X: My Mother’s Unknown Life (Aurum Press)
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.