‘The blue box’ (Suma) is the title of the second novel by José Antonio Ponseti. A novel in which the well-known sports journalist completely changes register to tell a personal story and travel to 1938, to the battle of the Ebro, where his grandfather, Antonio Zabala, disappeared in combat fighting on the Republican side, and to the subsequent search for the that four women in his family carried out, in secret, for years.
-What is the blue box?
-The blue box is silence, pain and hope, in equal parts. And let me explain, it is silent because it was the box where the four women of the house – my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother and my aunt Teresa, who was the sister of the man who disappeared in combat, Antonio – kept all the letters for years they had from the front, but also all the documentation they find during their search, which begins when he disappears in combat. And it’s also silence because silence was used as a weapon, because looking at 38 and 39 for someone from the losing side was not easy or something to brag about. Then there is a part of great pain because in the end having a disappeared person in the family is tremendous. To have a missing person is to be permanently emotionally kidnapped, thinking that the next day he will appear. There is also hope, because I have taken the best of all this and I have been able to recover my grandfather, a grandfather that I did not know and about whom I knew nothing. And really that part has been the most beautiful.
-How do you find the blue box?
-The blue box comes to me under very special circumstances. My mother, who had a terminal illness, in the last days of her life, decides to give me the box. The only thing she asks me is that she not open it as long as she lives and she tells me that if I decide to open it, find out what happened to my grandfather. She tells me that no one in the family knows what’s in the box, because it’s something those four women handled. It took me years to open the box, because for me, emotionally, it was my mother. When I opened it, I understood that it was the pain that did not allow them to speak or did not want that pain to spread in the family. In my house there was no talk of the civil war. I knew that my grandfather disappeared in combat, but little else. And I remember once asking and the phrase was always: ‘when you grow up, we’ll talk.’ No, and we never spoke, of course.
-The blue box is the story of your grandfather but it could be the story of many Spanish families…
-There are thousands of blue, green, red boxes… One of the great discoveries has been the number of people who come up to you to tell you stories. That my great-grandfather was there, is that my great-uncle was… And you realize that we have not closed this positively. Almost 85 years have passed since the Battle of the Ebro and it cannot be that we still have it under the rug. In the Ebro, I am not talking about the political aspect, many people died on both sides. People from the Republican side and the rebel side approached me under the same conditions. Because unless you had stripes or were from a high-bed family, if you died on the battlefield, you stayed there and nobody picked you up. What happened to my grandfather, forced to mobilize, could have happened to him on the other side. The battle of the Ebro is so brutal that to this day we have not agreed on the number of dead or missing, because there are those who say that they were from 30,000 to 140,000.
-What do you discover about that battle that you did not know?
-Most. I studied the EGB and I realized that I did not know many things that were discussed in my grandfather’s letters and that I needed to know what happened before and after the battle of the Ebro and how it got there. I had no idea. Four names of politicians and soldiers and little else. And I start reading books like a scoundrel and like a madman from the civil war. It was like an obsession and at home they even laughed. And if I didn’t know, my younger cousins have been fascinated by the book. First, because they have no idea about the civil war. Second, because they couldn’t even imagine that we had been the protagonists in that civil war. And so that has been almost like the most beautiful part of this story, sharing it with them because I have discovered something about the family that they would never really have known. Nor myself either.
-At what point do you decide to turn that story of your grandfather into a novel?
-Well, at the very end. I start writing for myself and also for that family story. I go through the archives, the libraries, I cross the Ebro where my grandfather crossed, I visit those places and the Historical Memory centers and I talk to many people. Many recognized me for my sports and radio facet on these sites and told me, ‘but what are you doing here, man?’ And people that I have been greeting in those places contact me and begin to tell me what they are finding about their relatives and they tell me that they feel comforted to have someone a little better known in a job that is a job of absolute solitude. . Many people who work in the archives told me ‘if you dare, you don’t know what a favor you are going to do us’. And then I decide to do the novel, when I see that probably if I tell that there are many of us who are looking for relatives, that would help.
–The battle of the Ebro is spoken of as that great battle, but when you visit the area, that memory, on the ground, is hardly perceptible. Wouldn’t it deserve a much higher memory?
-That is one of my wars. Now it is no longer like that, but for many years the issue of historical memory was better in Catalonia than in Aragon. The archaeologists told me what they did at night with the bones they found in Aragon. They crossed the Ebro, left them in Catalonia, returned, called the police and said ‘hey, what have we seen some bones there under a tree’. The mossos picked them up, they did DNA tests. This no longer happens. Today it is done everywhere. Very important work is being done throughout the Fayón and Mequinenza area. There is a very nice museum in Fayón of everything that has been recovered from the battlefield. So it can’t be that we already have it swept under the rug. Those of us who are alive are grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It is not a question that it can hurt someone or not hurt. It is closing a tightly closed page from a terrible time.
-Would you like to see this recognition of those who fell in the battle of the Ebro?
Man… For example, there is a monument to the 226 mixed brigade in Los Auts, near Fayón. My grandfather fought in the 226 mixed brigade. That is now left of the hand of God. If someone passes by, they probably won’t even see it, because it’s next to the road, you have to stop, you have to enter a field with fruit trees. And there is the monument, and if you walk a bit, it is easy to see the holes that were hiding from the bombings because the legion was in that part and then the 226th mixed brigade went up and then the legion took it again. And you keep seeing all those defenses that are there but everything is left. No one has done to recover that. And I insist that it is probably the most important battle of the modern era. It marked a before and after in the Second World War, because many of the weapons used by one and the other in the Second World War were tested in the Ebro. So it is a tremendous piece of history that we have on our soil. Those were 100 terrible days.
–In his letters to his family, your grandfather talks about his fear of going into combat, about his feelings, about the pain that distance causes him. In the letters that were sent to him, hunger is very present. Has your vision of a war changed? changed?
-My vision of war is savage. Those letters speak of the reality that they were experiencing. And so now you see, that this is repeated in Ukraine with Russia. My grandfather, when he read in the newspaper, while at the front and saw that Badalona had been bombarded, it took him five or six days for the letter to reach him and for him to find out if his family was alive. But also, when he read this letter, they had already bombed again and therefore he did not know if they were still alive or not. Reading those letters I can’t even imagine what they went through. I can’t imagine what my grandmother’s life was like, whom I never knew, with my five-year-old mother, her youngest son who died by her, her husband who disappeared from her, pregnant the night she they said goodbye to her.
– Is war epic?
-I do not think so. I think you discover that war has no epic. War has pain, grief, broken lives on all sides and it is utter nonsense. And especially a civil war, a war between neighbors. It’s tremendous. You realize that on one side and on the other they had a hard time. Then they won some and built the world in their eyes. And?