Almudena Grandes, who has died of cancer aged 61, achieved the rare feat of being both a very popular and a highly serious writer. A bestselling novelist, newspaper columnist, radio commentator and outspoken leftwinger in her native Spain, she became the main literary voice of a mass movement to recover her country’s historical memory.
The government of José María Aznar in the early 2000s encouraged rightwing revisionism that falsified the history of the Spanish civil war and prettified Franco. In response, anti-Francoists and their descendants began to speak out against the murders, torture and imprisonments of the dictatorship. Even today, disgracefully, over 114,000 victims of Franco still lie in unmarked graves.
“Spain is the only democracy in Europe,” Grandes wrote, “that turns its back on its own anti-fascist tradition.” She embarked on the ambitious project of a series of six novels with the title Episodios de una Guerra Interminable (Episodes in an Endless War), to record the forgotten struggles and suffering of anti-Franco fighters, especially women. Five of the six have been published, selling some 1.3m copies between them.
The first, Inés y la Alegría (Inés and Happiness), came out in 2010. It is the story of the communist invasion of the Vall d’Aran in the Pyrenees in 1944, told not in heroic terms of military prowess, but mainly through Inés, cook for the partisans. The fourth, Los Pacientes del Dr García (Dr García’s Patients, 2017) won the Spanish government’s national narrative prize.
Grandes’ model was Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920), Spain’s pre-eminent realist novelist, whose Episodios Nacionales (National Episodes) covered most of the 19th century. Like Galdós, Grandes focused on the lives and feelings of ordinary people trampled by history. Both were writing historical fiction in order to change the present and shape the future.
She was a supporter of the political coalition United Left and took part in election campaigns, movements against male violence and for women’s rights, and campaigns against repressive legislation.
One of four children of Manuel Grandes, who ran a plumbing business, and his wife, Benita Hernández, Almudena was born and brought up in Madrid. She told how she was a fat child who never got a part in the Christmas play. Her intimate revenge was in reading and dreaming of becoming a writer. She studied geography and history at Madrid’s main university, the Complutense – to please her parents, she said, though she would have preferred Latin. Belonging to the generation that came of age in the new post-1977 democracy, she plunged into the Madrid Movida, the youth explosion of freedom following the grey, repressed years of the dictatorship.
After graduation she worked as a writer of encyclopedia texts. The research and time limits gave her, she said, the discipline to write. Her first completed book was the taboo-breaking Las Edades de Lulú (1989, translated as The Ages of Lulu, 2005), which won the Sonrisa Vertical (Vertical Smile) prize for erotic fiction. Not just literary porn, the novel explored the difficulties and joys for women in the new Spain, though many feminists saw it as a fantasy for men. Its unexpected success (more than 1m copies sold in 20 languages) gave Grandes the confidence and cash to write full-time.
Her 1990s novels were mainly stories of young women finding their feet in the whirlwind of 80s Madrid. Los Aires Difíciles (2002, translated as The Wind From the East, 2006) is a saga of family conflict and secrets revealed, set mainly in Rota, on Andalusia’s Atlantic coast, where Grandes herself spent her summers for 30 years. Like most of her novels, it is long, packed with stories and characters and is almost a typical beach-read blockbuster; but it is slower, with deeper psychology, more like a fine 19th-century novel. Grandes entertained with powerful stories; and also wanted her readers to think.
El Corazón Helado (2007; translated as The Frozen Heart, 2010) deals with a family shattered and split by the civil war. It opens with a young woman whom no one knows appearing at the funeral of a wealthy man. This device borrowed from sensationalist novels at once pulls in the reader. Like subsequent novels, it is a sweeping epic, covering decades of history and, in the case of The Frozen Heart, geography from Russia in wartime to contemporary Madrid.
Grandes is survived by her husband, the poet Luis García Montero, whom she married in 1996, their daughter Elisa, her son Mauro, from a previous relationship, and her stepdaughter, Irene.
• María de la Almudena Grandes Hernández, novelist, born 7 May 1960; died 27 November 2021