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The Spanish Flu: Narrative and Cultural Identity in Spain, 1918 by Ryan A. Davis (review)
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Reviewed by
Ryan A. Davis. The Spanish Flu: Narrative and Cultural Identity in Spain, 1918. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. xii + 255 pp. Ill. $85.00 (978-1-13733-920-1).

In many countries since the turn of the century the number of publications about the Spanish Flu has increased. One of the reasons for the renewed interest in the 1918 epidemic was the worldwide impact of the A(H1N1) flu of 2009. Nevertheless, the main reason for the growing number of publications is that a great deal of research has been conducted regarding the multiple perspectives of disease and how it affects our society. The Spanish Flu: Narrative and Cultural Identity in Spain, 1918, by Ryan A. Davis, is one of the most original books on the subject.

During the preparation of his book, Davis, assistant professor of Spanish at Illinois State University, undertook detailed research of the most widely circulated daily newspapers in Spain circa 1918: ABC, El Liberal, La Vanguardia and El Sol (in addition to medical journals, conference reports, society magazines, etc.). In order to “analyze the role of narrative in structuring Spaniards’ collective experience of the epidemic in such a way as to make sense of it” (p. 6), the author shows how the notions of national identity and modernity were constructed side by side in narratives regarding the Spanish Flu.

According to Davis, the medical and scientific debates that were taking place in the country concerning the epidemic and its contradictory symptoms were reported in the newspapers in the form of cartoons and as news using José Zorrilla’s popular character Don Juan Tenório and his ever changing characteristics to express the undefined nature of the epidemic, in addition to discussions on the subject of degeneracy to portray the microbe of the flu as an intersexed monster. Defined as a flu (a theory that was viewed with caution by some doctors, and with skepticism by laymen), it was first combated mainly by border controls. As Davis shows, regional differences in Spain apparently disappeared amid the actions taken by the state to reorganize public health agencies so that they could take action nationwide and portray the conflict as “sanitary Spain versus epidemic.” In other words, the situation was portrayed as a clash between the ideal of a national identity, modern (healthy), and a nation divided and outdated (diseased). As the author points out, “indeed, the very construct itself of ‘sanitary Spain’ that emerges in Spanish flu discourse reveals not just a desire for Spaniards to be healthy, but [End Page 360] also for Spain to be modern” (p. 79).1 As Ryan Davis shows, this “public health dictatorship” was also endorsed by narratives that circulated among the Spaniards. In 1918 the popularity of the operetta La Canción del Olvido, which borrows dramatic conventions from Don Juan Tenório, led to the Naples Soldier becoming a popular nickname for the Spanish flu, and this operetta provided a generic narrative-dramatic model to help Spaniards understand the epidemic. According to Davis, “just as La Canción del Olvido neutralizes Leonello’s threat by rewriting previous Don Juans, flu discourse aims to neutralize Spanish influenza by rewriting the epidemic as the Naples Soldier story” (p. 124). Especially during the second wave of the epidemic, imagining that the Naples Soldier had a body (“the first step toward containing the epidemic threat he embodies”), and considering that he frequented public places “would seem to emphasize both the collective threat of the epidemic and the need for a collective response” (p. 125). A “public health dictatorship” was this collective response (seen as modern and national), and Davis asks whether it is possible that this response “helped lay the groundwork for the Primo de Rivera dictatorship that would soon follow” (p. 82).

This book provides us with a competent study of the 1918 flu in Spain. The author’s multifaceted analysis of the construction of a narrative concerning the disease shows how the study of this devastating epidemic sheds greater light on the social and cultural view of the country at that time.

Liane Maria Bertucci
Federal University of Paraná, Curitiba, Brazil


1. Davis also discusses...