“Velvet”: The Guardia Civil and ICE

Monday, January 20, 2020

Yesterday’s NYT Book Review devoted a full page to LORD OF ALL THE DEAD: A Nonfiction Novel by Javier Cercas (translated by Anne McLean). The review took note of how Franco’s tyrannical repression may have technically ended with his death in the mid-1970s, but Spanish society was only able to begin immersing itself in contemporary culture in subsequent decades because it subjected itself to what Norman Klein has described as “the social imaginary.” In this instance, Spain committed itself to complete silence about Franco’s “killing fields” and its vigilant brand of fascist rule.

Nowhere has the permeating intransigence of this silence been so palpable as in the delightful “Velvet,” which is the most charming soap opera I have ever watched. In fact, it’s the only soap opera I’ve ever watched, unless one counts “Project Runway” and “Mad Men” as soap operas; in point of face, “Velvet” has more than a slight echo of these American programs. The acting “Velvet” is superb, and on occasion the directing is as acutely alert to oblique angles as one could hope for. The story takes place over a long enough period of time that one sees the effects of age on the cast, and one finds oneself attracted to the characters as if to an hitherto unknown imaginary family of very distant cousins. The second half starts to drag, in terms of plot, and one could easily stop after the first two “seasons,” but by then one is hooked on the passions of the characters.

The story is set in Spain in the 1950s and 1960s. In not a single frame, however, does a member of the Guardia Civil appear, wearing his distinctive hat and carrying a submachine gun. My recollection is that they would patrol, at a minimum, in pairs, and they were still ubiquitous in the early 1970s. If anything, they seemed more on the alert, given the influx of hippie-type youth and the various leftist insurgencies of the late 1960s.

The erasure of the police state from “Velvet” remains a haunting image in and of itself. The show was apparently a major hit in Spain, before becoming internationally recognized, and surely critics in Spain must have taken note of this aporia. But perhaps not. If the scorn of the Frankfurt School for the seductive undertow of the culture industry is still accurate, then it is in such a show as “Velvet” that one can observe how willingly those engaged in commercial culture erase oppression and its consequences.

I wonder, therefore, what the equivalent might be forty years from now, if a “Velvet” type story — say of a social media company instead of a fashion house — were to be set in Los Angeles. It would probably not include any agents of ICE at work, with all the urgency of their commander-in-chief to “cleanse” American society. A novel is waiting to be written in 2050: “Lord of All the Departed…. And Refused.”

Post-Script: As noted in the NYT Book Review, Javier Cercas is also the author of “SOLDIERS OF SALAMIS,” first published in Spanish to considerable acclaim in 2001. Anne McLean also did the translation into English, and the book is available in a paperback edition.

Comments are closed.