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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > Writing the Image: an analysis of the labyrinth-grave as “denkbilder” and framework for re-imagining a narrative about the aftermath of violence
Writing the Image: an analysis of the labyrinth-grave as “denkbilder” and framework for re-imagining a narrative about the aftermath of violence
Author: Penny Simpson
Penny Simpson discusses her inter-disciplinary approach to the development of a new fictional framework to narrate human rights issues.


In this article I discuss the inter-disciplinary approach I am taking to the development of a new fictional framework to narrate human rights issues. This framework has been shaped by exploring the forensic practice of creating “imaginative assemblages” of material objects and textual documentation to aid physical identification of human remains. These “assemblages” have been given textual form through utilising Benjamin's concept of the denkbilder. My storylines are connected through a series of denkbilder, the central image that of the mass grave as labyrinth-archive. My denkbilder, or “bone seeds”, form the weft and warp of the narrative; they are tiny, visceral palimpsests, which break the frame of a linear narrative to present a more nuanced and elliptical account of the human rights violation of enforced disappearance and clandestine burial, the consequences of which cross geographies and generations. This analysis is extended with two short extracts from buried, my work-in-progress. In conclusion, I argue it is an approach that points to a potentially new direction in writing texts which re-shape a contested reality.


Keywords: memory; identity; forensics; narrative; labyrinth-archive; mourning; exhumation; denkbilder



The aim of this article is to consider the methodology I am creating to fictionalise events that followed on from the Spanish Civil War (which took place between 1936 -9), in particular the exhumation of mass graves in post-Franco Spain. These exhumations only began in 2000 and they continue to this day. In the words of social anthropologist Francisco Ferrándiz, “a cartography of terror and repression” maps the Spanish landscape. (Ferrándiz 2010: 312) It is the landscape that has inspired buried, my work of fiction, and a very particular challenge – to create a novel that responds to the representational vacuum left in the wake of historic acts of enforced disappearance and clandestine burial.

This is a novel about legacies that are not always visible – be it an unknown bloodline, or an artistic legacy (my three major protagonists are all makers or artists). Accordingly, my narrative is fluid and non-linear; it contains complicated legacies of transmission, which take place across multiple geographical sites, as well through the physical body itself, informed by procedures of identification used in the field of forensic anthropology. For the forensic anthropologist, the corpus delicti, the body of the crime, is the individual’s physical body: “Since the jury cannot directly handle or observe human remains in situ or in the courtroom, it is up to the forensic anthropologist to bring to life, so to speak, the individual’s human identity and the condition of the skeletal remains.” (Nafte 2009: 44; my italics).

So, how is it possible to make fiction, fact and scientific theory speak to each other, and how is it possible to make such a process relevant to the sphere of transitional justice, in particular, the representation of the human rights violation of enforced disappearance? Sociologist Avery Gordon argues the “borders between literature and science are not always as secure as institutional mandates presume” (Gordon 2008: 25). Gordon states a work of fiction is an “ensemble of cultural imaginings, affective explanations, animated objects, marginal voices, narrative densities and eccentric traces of power’s presence” (26).

I take this idea of a work of fiction as an “ensemble” to develop an interdisciplinary research and creative writing practice that explores a more open interpretation of the function of the law. Drawing on the literature of trauma and the creative practices of pioneering forensic anthropologists, such as Francisco Ferrándiz, I suggest a novel of aftermath can produce a more active engagement on the part of those who might not (or cannot) be represented in the criminal trial process. In particular, I use fiction as a means to confront a very particular obstacle facing those engaged with the exhumation of the mass graves of post-Franco Spain: the trauma of trying to mourn

for a body “unknown or unremembered” (Renshaw 2010: 126). There are instances where over seventy years separates the memories of those killed during the Civil War from the present day. In effect, the experiences undergone by the disappeared lie outside memory; they are denied. So, how is it possible to break open this conundrum in a work of fiction?

In Shoshana Felman and Doris Laub’s analysis of a literature of testimony, testimony is seen as a means of “breaking the frame”, that is to say, moving beyond what is not available as statement, be it personal testimony, or a piece of reportage. Felman and Laub state that a “radical historical crisis of witnessing” followed on from the horrors of the Shoah, the Holocaust. (Felman & Laub 1992: 62) Such a crisis, they argue, has to be met by a “radical re-inscribing of biography and history.” (Ibid.: xvii). My response to the call to “break the frame” is to turn to forensic practice itself, in particular to the work of forensic anthropologists whose task is to recover and analyze skeletonized remains.

My work of fiction is constructed through the forensic practice of “imaginative assemblage”, the drawing together of biographical and verbal accounts of the past, ante-mortem data, such as photographs and farewell letters (written by victims before they were killed), along with objects removed from the grave (Renshaw 2011: 35). In other words, character is written through an “ensemble” of image and movement, material object and photograph. Recurring images and “objects of return”, such an earth crusted pocket watch found in a grave, create patterns of knowledge that accumulate throughout the novel, tracing legacies and defying the silence that has surrounded the existence of the mass graves. I will turn to a more detailed account of this shortly, but first a brief introduction of my novel’s themes and principal characters.


Writing the image:

My novel buried consists of three inter-locking narratives, each introducing a different artist-maker. Artist Nell Costello is inspired by objects she finds in an old shirt box to create The Tailor’s Archive, a site-specific installation held in a former synagogue in London’s East End. She divides her time between London and Andalucía, Spain, where she is involved in an exhumation of a mass grave that has been discovered beneath her stepbrother’s house. Isabel Galán is a cartonnier and tapestry worker, living in exile in Paris, after being forced to flee her native Málaga during the Spanish Civil War. Her colour notebooks become a key element in telling her story. The third protagonist is Félix Conesa, a tailor and Spanish refugee living in London’s Whitechapel. He makes shirts out of a very rare fabric – “weeping silk” – and sews the names of the dead inside the collars of his shirts to create a book of mourning.

The “why of making” is a question that runs through their lives; the practice of each of their individual crafts a means to help shape identity and destiny. My characters also become part of the story surrounding the making of real artworks, including Picasso’s painting of Guernica (and the tapestry it inspired, which now hangs outside the office of the United Nations Security Council in New York), and the art exhibition, The Nature of the Beast, created by Goshka Macuga to mark the re-opening of the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2009 after a major programme of refurbishment. (Macuga took a key moment in the Gallery’s history – the display of Picasso’s Guernica in 1939 – and re-contextualized it through the prism of the “war on terror” of the 21st century.)

The three principal characters are bound in an intricate relationship that spans geographies and decades. buried is a novel which sees its characters displaced more than once, forced to create their own maps to navigate a changing world; for example, they read their worlds through a cartonnier’s code of colour, or through the words of a censored poem hidden in the weave of a tapestry. The reader is also required to excavate, interpret and re-read the fragmented state of the world of the exile. To that end, the fictional framework of buried has been constructed using a process of “writing the image”, inspired by the forensic practice of forging “imaginative assemblages”. The process has been further developed through reference to Walter Benjamin’s concept of the “Denkbilder”, or “reflections in imagery”.

Benjamin’s concept of Denkbilder was inspired by the use of montage by the artists of the Dada movement in the early 20th century; in montage, the context in which an image is inserted is interrupted in order to counteract the illusion of what is being seen (Buck-Morss 1986: 67). For example, in Benjamin’s montage novel One-Way Street, a city of the Weimar Republic is literally walked into being by a narrator who paces its streets, recounting its strange, fragmented topography in sixty short prose pieces, consisting of seemingly random aphorisms, dreams and city landscapes. The montage novel is also a useful device for layering time frames, just as Benjamin sought to achieve in his concept of Denkbilder, which he understood as “critical constellations of the past and present” (ibid.: 290).


The bone seeds

I include many different stories of disappearance in my novel, which I want to be read like palimpsests upon each other. To that end, I have adapted the concept of Denkbilder in my fiction by writing a series of “bone seeds”, or short fragments, which puncture the text. The stories found in the bone seeds interact with one another and with the events found in the three interlocking stories about each of the main protagonists discussed earlier. This interaction takes the form of a patterning of imagery, colours and sounds. The reader has to cross-reference the bone seeds across the text to discover alternative modes of reading the story, such as the significance of the small flower that has seeded in the sword-carrying hand of the fallen soldier in Picasso’s Guernica. The painting itself is transformed into a bone seed, largely through manipulating small details, such as the flower, to create a series of recurring images, which dovetail with the lives of the three main characters. The motif of the flower is introduced in an early scene in the novel, set in the tunnels in Madrid in 1937 where the Republicans are fighting Franco’s rebel army. Félix Conesa is a Republican fighter. In trench-city, he meets the elusive Alba:

Alba is a sniper, one of the best in the Republican ranks. An enemy is an enemy, she says, even if they are concealed inside a Faculty of Philosophy. Alba sends the enemy bullets, accompanied by softy-whispered poem-prayers, before turning up at Villa Pasionara to read out passages from Lorca, celebrating the glories of hidden gardens, of moss-covered saints abandoned in ruined churchyards, of rusted crosses, a chained-up dog, and gravestones stacked in dark corners, the inscriptions long since faded. Félix understands she speaks through another’s words because she struggles, like they all do, to describe what it is to fight in a city inside another city.

Alba is a sniper. She loves gardens, the writings of Lorca.

Does she love him? Let him turn this question round: what is love when it must be expressed in a city inside a city? Where does love find anchor in a place that shape-shifts, so much so he is forever walking back into the past, even as he shoulders his rifle for sentry duty. […] His mother claimed she could read his mind. She can read it now, he is sure of it, as he picks a flower and tucks it behind his ear […] If he closes his eyes, he hears the noise of the sewing machines and the pressing irons in his father’s tailoring shop. Alongside that noisy buzz, the distinctive smell of a blue grape hyacinth. It comes from the flower he wears, but it has fallen down, down on the pillow where Alba lies, plucking its petals.

What is unleashed in the scent of a flower overwhelms him.

Alba is a nom de guerre

she loves gardens

blue grape hyacinths

prayer-poems.  (Simpson 2018[i])

The flower motif is picked up in the bone seed fragment, which describes the clandestine burial site in Andalucía. The site is situated at the foot of a valley beneath the house which once belonged to Nell Costello’s step-brother:

March is for my cold hands, wrote the poet.

He lies in another grave.

Y abajo Marzo es un momento – and below March is a moment

the moment a little girl pulls up a blue grape hyacinth

and pulls

and pulls


and finds bones

Yes, says her father. I killed y ya está – and that was that.

Another motif which is used to link the flower, the painting and the burial site, is a pair of boots, found in the grave by a young boy who secretly looks after the burial site:

Look well, and see how he’s rubbed the boots back into shape with a greasy paste made from lanolin and lavender. A symbol has been carved on the soles: it takes the form of a capital letter ‘A’ surrounded by a capital letter ‘O’. “A is for Anarchy,” the boy recites. “And ‘O’ is for Order. Anarchy is the Mother of Order.”

Returning to story of the tailor, Félix Conesa: in 1939, he is living in exile in London where he goes to see Picasso’s painting Guernica in the Whitechapel Art Gallery:

Mrs O’Leary makes him a present of her husband’s work boots. A dock worker by trade, and the boots barely broken in before he was sent to fight overseas. Stepping into a dead man’s shoes, but they are a good fit. Picasso has asked visitors to Guernica to donate a pair of boots by way of entrance fee. They are to be sent on to the Republican troops fighting in Spain. 318 pairs have been donated to date. The crowd around the painting is dense and Félix must wait for a gap to open up. He decides to put his boots under the flower, close to the bottom of the painting. The flower is barely visible, little more than a ghostly outline; he imagines it is a blue grape hyacinth, drenched in the debris and dust from the explosions that have ripped out the heart of the town of Guernica. The flower grows out of the hand of the solider. Félix adds his boots to the pile, just below the flower, and the tally increases to 319; he adds his boots, which are also Mr O’Leary’s boots. He walks home barefoot.

His feet are raw with January cold. Snow melts in gutters. He feels a moriña, a homesickness, which overwhelms, more so than the freezing cold. He loses sensation in his toes, but his heart still beats hard, and in his heart, he remembers Málaga; he remembers tertulias held with friends in Café de Chinitas, long afternoons of debates, storytelling, and daydreaming. His eyes sting with the cold. He can no longer feel his ears. His jaw aches. The painting he has just seen in the gallery is another kind of truth. The dying soldier, one hand stretched out, as if in readiness to catch the child that hangs above him. The lifeline cuts into his hand, like a scar; in the other, a blue grape hyacinth has seeded […] […] Félix remembers; he remembers an idea he has of stitching the names of the dead inside the collars of the living. He remembers this is his secret, just like the little blue grape hyacinth is the dying soldier’s secret…

By the end of the novel, the motif of the soldier-flower-hand, inspired by the detail in Picasso’s painting, takes on another role: it draws together the tangled legacies of Isabella Galán and Nell Costello. In the following extract, they visit the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2009 to view the tapestry version of Picasso’s Guernica. Nell’s story is told in the first-person:

I place my palm against the soldier’s. […] Isabella sits back down the chair in front of the tapestry and places her hand over mine. “I first saw Guernica in Pablo’s studio,” she says. “Max took me there. I was a shabby refugee, newly arrived in Paris. And I had fallen in love for the very first time. Then I saw this painting. I had never seen anything like it before.” […] I feel the warmth of Isabella’s hand on top of mine and the texture of the wool beneath, pressing against my palm, a friction between heat and touch. I close my eyes. And the image stays. Light leaks in behind my eyelids, colour bleeds

into the wool, a pool of colour building and blending into an image that depicts all the people who have gone missing in Isabella’s story. And the ones that are missing from my own story. It is a broken constellation, its fragments waiting to be recovered by the spectator who is both mourner and survivor. Isabella says, “They are here.” And in that moment, I see Mama’s face, she is inside this picture too; she is the mother grieving, and she is running from the falling debris; she is the defenceless child, and she is the woman with hands upstretched, imploring protesting. […] The imprint of the warrior’s palm transfers on to my palm and then seeps into Isabella’s. Our knot of hands is a constellation, circling, searching, touching, remembering.

The extracts quoted above illustrate the means by which the reader is encouraged to cross-reference patterns of recurring imagery found within the bone seeds and the wider text. It is a means of tracking the nexus of legacies within the novel, which criss-cross time and space. The first quote is taken from a scene in Madrid in 1937; on the one hand, it is a detail found in a story about a love affair, but it also acts as a more complex point of reference when the leitmotif of the blue hyacinth reappears across other sites, such as a clandestine burial ground in Andalucía in the 1950s, or the exhibition of a tapestry work in London’s East End in 2009.

Meaning accrues to the symbol of the flower, and further enhances the idea of storytelling as a process of “writing the image”, an ensemble of visual elements that interact with “facts”, such as the existence of a trench-city in Madrid in 1937, or an installation in a 21st century art gallery. This interaction helps create a cyclical narrative where colour, sound and material object prompt connections between protagonists beyond conventional biographical markers, for example, someone’s place of birth, which might in a post-conflict setting be an indeterminate place, or simply unknown. The motif of the blue grape hyacinth is given additional traction as a narrative device through its presentation alongside other patterns of imagery, such as the military boots with the engraved soles and the figure of the fallen soldier in Picasso’s painting Guernica. Recurring images accumulate to contribute to the formation of a palimpsest text, revealing the intricate chains of connection that exist between those displaced by war, even when separated by geography, and time.


The labyrinth-archive

The central Denkbilder, or bone seed, which pulls the narrative threads together is the representation of the mass grave as labyrinth-archive. It is a concept informed by the use of literal and metaphorical labyrinths as an interpretative tool in classical and medieval literature. A key feature of the labyrinth is, as Penelope Reed Doob states, its quality of “convertability” (Doob 1992: 38). For example, in medieval times, the margins of scholars’ manuscripts were filled with textual clues to discover what lay within the body of the text. Reading them was a deeply immersive experience, “a perpetual process”, or quest, to follow the many chains of reasoning that led to understanding. The bone seeds that interrupt my text act like these textual notes; they resemble Ariadne’s “clew of thread” of legend, tightly bound, intricate, labyrinth-like histories made up of interweaving narratives, a fugitive knowledge of contested histories, silenced voices, and competing truths. To read and interpret the bone seeds, is a “perpetual process” because they transplant memories, material objects and tactile sensations in and out of place. They are like the labyrinth’s bivia, or detours, and they are imagined archives, containing stories that disrupt the linear and weave their own trajectories, in parallel or in opposition to stories inhabited by the central protagonists.

The following extract comes from the opening of the novel and it establishes the idea of the mass grave as a form of labyrinth-archive. In addition, it introduces recurring motifs such as the black widow spider, the wild dogs, and the man and boy whose identities emerge as the web of images depicting the burial site expands throughout the novel. In the description of the site of the mass grave it is possible to see how the concept of the bone seeds takes on another layer of meaning: they represent the bones of the dead breaking out of the grave to bear witness to a crime against humanity:

In shadow, punctured by starlight, bone seeds find their way above ground. The curve of a shoulder, a half-moon growing out of the earth; the contours of a skull wrapped in thread spun in the belly of a black widow spider.

Wild dogs scatter petals of bone

In shadow, she traces the familiar journey from shoulder to wrist, pressing down gently, because she doesn’t want to disturb her man. His arm is draped, like a protective wing, over the boy who lies beside him. She repeats her gesture, sweeping her palms from shoulder to wrist and then out towards the bunched knuckles. The man and boy lie coiled together, lit by stars. It is a sight that bewitches and numbs. She curls into his back, stretching her arm out, like a second wing. She reaches as far as his fingers, or maybe it is the boy’s fingers. It doesn’t matter which, only that she is able to feel their presence.


The land remembers, always. There are layers and layers to the story it tells. The wind reshuffles dust and leaf; the roots of the olive trees snuck their way between eye sockets and punctured skulls, threading together necklaces of white bone. Up come the bone seeds; twisting and turning, and there is the boy, wrapped in the wing of the man’s arm […] And the beautiful curve of his skull invites a delicate touch, that of the woman who has walked for over two hours to come and lie with her man, and the boy he protects for ever. And still no one speaks, but the land [...]


To develop the idea of the labyrinth-archive further, I draw on the writings of academics in contemporary memory studies, such as Marianne Hirsch and Griselda Pollock. Exploring the concept of “post-memory” through art works created by the children of Holocaust survivors, they argue for the creation of “a new archive […] that incorporates the memory of the body missing” (Pollock 2013: 241). This new archive is made up of fragments and the viewer is actively engaged in the process of making connections between the traces presented. It is another “perpetual process” and it requires a new framework of viewing, forging links between documents, marginalized texts, and artefacts from diverse research sites. Marianne Hirsch defines this landscape of post-memory as one mapped by “connective histories” and “shadow archives” (Hirsch 2012: 159). The strategy to map such a landscape is built around narrative fracture, embodied in “objects of return”, such as family photograph albums.

I transfer the “shadow archive” and “objects of return” into my writing process. For example, a visual artist creates a contemporary art installation in a former synagogue using “objects of return” found in a shirt box that once belonged to the tailor, Félix Conesa. Vintage photographs, a packet of needles in a paper wrapper, a prayer medal in a hand-stitched wallet, these objects set up connections with different passages that lie far apart in the text. Collaborating with a photographer, I have created images using these “objects of return”; in effect, they are the bone seeds as visual palimpsest, not mere illustration. They take on a narrative function through their association with the site of trauma (the mass grave) and, by way of extension, serve as a connective device to link cross-generational histories.

Another device has been to incorporate different narrative devices to break through the frame of the text, such as lists, interview transcripts (Nell interviews one of Félix’s former colleagues for her archive exhibition), and dialogue from conversation classes run for refugees in the Upper Hall at the Whitechapel Art Gallery:




Upper Hall, Whitechapel Gallery. Monday and Thursday evenings from 6 – 8 p.m. 

A charge of 3d per person (members of Affiliated Organisations, 2d) is made to cover lighting, heating, etc. No profits made! Teacher Miss A.F. Jefferies has several years’ experience of working amongst children in Spain. Everyone welcome.


Talking about yourself: Jobs and The Family


 “Está listo? Good evening. My name is Félix. However, I am not the cartoon cat.”

(The class laughs. But they should know how the British love this cartoon cat)


“The government here calls me a 'Friendly Alien Enemy.' It is true. I am friendly.”

(Señorita Jefferies shouts 'bravo!')


“My father is a tailor.”

(He is missing, presumed dead)


“My mother is a seamstress.”

(She is missing, presumed dead)


“My first brother Joaquin is a soldier.”

(He is missing, presumed dead)


“He and his wife Dulce have two children, Joan and Milo.”

(All missing)


“My second brother Ignacio is a soldier.”

(He is missing)


“Ignacio’s wife is called Ana.”

(Ana is missing)


“My family lives in Málaga.”

(No longer)


“Today, I live in Whitechapel. I make shirts for men.”

(This is true)


“I live in a room. No, I rent a room.”

(It is a “one-room mansion,” according to my friend Kornbluth)


“Jack Frost is a ghost on my window.”

(This is not correct. The blackboard is full, but señorita Jefferies, “Alice to my friends, and you are my new Spanish friends'” is a great improviser)



(She pronounces each of the letters, as she writes them on the floor, forming a circle round her feet)

“Repeat after me, everyone: Jack Frost is a reflection. Excellent!  And muchas gracias, Félix. Thank you. As it happens, I know Málaga well. Pavillon was my favourite restaurant. Bulls head on walls – beef on plates. It was tops. Everybody together now, please: 'Do you know the restaurant Pavillon?'”

(The restaurant Pavillon is like London Bridge. It is burning down, burning down...)


So, the novel of aftermath is also a story about the sensory experience of re-making the world. It is a story of legacies that twist and turn, like a needle running through material, or silk thread through the strings of a loom. It is also a novel that includes the making of an imagined archive – “The Tailor’s Archive”, an archival exhibition created by the fictional character of Nell Costello. The exhibition is another “imaginative assemblage”, one which pulls together found objects (from a tailor’s shirt box) and transcript interviews. Arguably, it opens up the intriguing question of determining what is process and what is narrative in such an undertaking. I include extracts from my research notebooks and sketchbooks, dividing the boundaries still further between “character” and “author”. In Andalucía, Nell visits places I once lived in, although the physical contours sometimes borrow from other settings. If the research included in a notebook becomes narrative, does that make it more “real” than a passage entirely imagined, or one more deeply “felt” if prompted by real life experience? It feels to me that narrative is itself a “perpetual process” in which the writer is continually re-defining the complex process of transferring “objects of return”, life experience, and facts, into the imagined lives of a “present” where the characters in stories exist alongside shadows of their “research” selves.

Rather than transpose facts and figures directly into the framework of a historical novel, I filter them through the bone seeds, and the “imaginative assemblage” of the archival exhibition, which, in turn, interact with the overarching storyline that reflects what novelist David Grossman describes as “legacies beyond time”, a powerful definition for the time lapse experienced between event and aftermath in cases of enforced disappearance and clandestine burial (Grossman 1990: 426). The mass-grave is the central Denkbilder, or bone seed: the grave as labyrinth-archive, its many stories spiralling outwards and touching the places of exile: geographic sites of aftermath, such as the city in the north of England where Picasso speaks out for peace (and visits the local barber), or a house on the edge of a valley which is an Ark of memory for those who remember the post-war repression of Franco’s Spain, and less tangible sites, like the silk shirts embroidered with the names of the dead, and “objects of return”, such as a bracelet made out of a loop of red wool.

This latter “object of return” links back to a key theme that is found in the story of Isabella Galán. Her story is a story about colour; she paints schemas for tapestries and she weaves a brilliant reproduction of the medieval tapestry La Dame à la Licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn), hiding in its weave the words of Paul Éluard’s poem Liberté, a symbol of the Resistance in Occupied France. Colour is memory for Isabella, and it defines her world:

Isabel uses too many colours. That is what they say at Atelier de Marcel Perriand, makers and purveyors of fine weave tapestries. What Monsieur Perriand admires most in his disciples is their ability to make precise – and cheap - copies of oils and watercolours within a strictly apportioned palette of colours. But she has always seen the world through a prism of a thousand and one colours and it is impossible to change what sees now, unless she goes blind. But even blind, she thinks she would understand what she hears and touches through the colours that have got stuck behind her eyes. Take the colour red. It is a temperamental colour, always on the lookout not to be outdone by the rest of the spectrum, but she knows it so well she can discern even its most subtle charms. She owns a red dress. The red of that dress is the one she matches all other reds against. It is the red of home, of resistance. If she finds another red like it, she will have found something so precious she will never want again. She closes her eyes, and she sees that red so vividly she might be swimming in it.

Red is a warrior, a warning, a statement. It resembles vermilion, sanguis draconus, dragon's blood, but it also owes something to the alizarin crimson, or rose madder, she has found in the yarns used in the atelier. Monsieur Perriand calls this shade “La Garance”. Inés, who works the loom next to hers, calls it “The Blood of the Sphinx”. It sounds like a schlock horror movie, but Ines claims the face of the sphinx was painted red in long ago times. A red thread will save her, if she ever falls into a labyrinth...

When she leaves Paris to escape the Nazis, Isabella unpicks her red wool dress and rolls it up into a ball of yarn. She makes two bracelets with the wool, one for her baby daughter Amelie, and one for herself. The bracelets are literally a “fil rouge” in her story (and the wider novel). At the end of the novel, Nell inherits Isabella’s ball of red thread:

I pick up the spool of red thread. I feel like I am entering my very own fairy story. I might be about to prick my finger on a needle stuck in the wool and my arm will be frozen into the wing of a swan. The wool has been wound and pinned to an old-fashioned bobbin. I hold it up to the light. Dragon’s blood. Sanguis draconus. The words Isabella has written on the last page of the last notebook are: “How do I want to live? I want only to hoard colours.” I curl up on the bed, the spool of thread on the pillow beside me. I stretch out my arm,

like a wing. I reach as far as I can, I reach out to a red shadow, or maybe it is an angel with red wings. I reach towards the tip of a wing, or maybe it is Isabella’s hand. It doesn’t matter, only that I touch something that is a riot of colour in this room of marble and silver.

Isabella is not a ghost. She is colour; she is the colour red. She is the red dress she wore to escape a fate that overwhelmed her family; her dress unravels and spins stories into a thread that ties her to a child that has gone missing […] Follow the thread further, and here it is, wrapped round my left wrist.

Isabella is a weaver; this biographical detail links back to the motif of the spider which appears in the bone seed fragments describing the landscape containing the mass grave. In turn, the image of the weaver-spider becomes a link between histories that stretch across generations:

At night, the spider demon explores a new location, the ruins of an adobe house which stand above the ravine. It makes a circuit of the empty rooms, like a rolling black bead, tumbling behind peeling stucco, and creeping along splinters of wood. A cascade of ash falls from the open door of a wood stove; lichens and moss pattern the damp stone walls, exposed to the raw night air. A plate lies cracked in a hundred pieces on the tiled floor and the spider sits in its broken centre, as if she were sitting at the hub of a useless wheel. The fragments of the plate mingle with the tiniest of bones, little ear ossicles, the bones of hearing. Malleus, incus and stapes; hammer, anvil and stirrup. The smallest bones in the body. The surprise is, they belonged to a man with the height and strength to wield a hammer. But he had to go into hiding; he had to fold up his great length and tuck himself away into crooks and crannies. He went to the caves, but was caught in the woods above the town hunting for rabbits. And he was brought to the house on the edge of the ravine, which, like a storybook house, was lit up with a hundred candles. But the house hid its purpose, just as many people did after the war was over. A new war had started up almost at once, a war which sung hate and condemnation into three little bones, the smallest bones in his body. Inside the bones, three names echo: the names of his sons. He will not answer when they ask where they are. And so, they demolish those little bones, crush them with hammers, tear out his tongue, and leave him deaf and mute, but the names stay close, and do not spill with his blood on to the stone floor of a house, standing at the edge of the world he is soon to leave […]




The starting point for my novel buried was an historic event documented in the Whitechapel Gallery Archive – the showing of Picasso’s Guernica in 1939 to raise funds to support Republican forces fighting in the Spanish Civil War. From this point, I began to consider how to create a work of fiction that would reflect a similar interplay between art and political agency in the 21st century. I adopted the device of “imaginative assemblage” from the forensic anthropologists working on the exhumation of Spanish Civil War graves to create constellations of fictions and fictionalized realities. For example, two of my characters visit Goshka Macuga’s The Nature of the Beast at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 2009, whilst another, a Spanish anarchist living in exile in London, deposits his working boots beneath the original Picasso painting exhibited in the same space in 1939.

The concept of mass grave as a form of labyrinth-archive was developed to tell the story of history’s silenced victims, of sites of burial hidden from view. To trace such ambiguities, I followed an inter-disciplinary approach, one that combines art history, fantasy, photographs, memory studies and forensic anthropology in a labyrinth-like text built around the iconic image of Guernica. buried is, at one and the same time, novel and “shadow archive” under construction.

[i] All extended quotations are from same source.



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Penny Simpson is currently an AHRC/CHASE (Consortium for the Humanities and Arts South-East) funded postgraduate research student in Creative Writing at the University of Essex. Her research-based practice has developed out of her previous career as a journalist working with organizations such as the BBC and British Council. She has a particular interest in the emerging field of transitional justice and the arts, and how a writer of fiction (and some non-fiction) can contribute in ways that will expand knowledge on key issues to a wider audience, including those of enforced disappearance and clandestine burial, the subject of her novel, buried. She has had two novels published and a collection of short stories. Her recent short fiction has been published in The Refugees and Peacekeepers Anthology and in the Women and Words 4 Anthology, both launched in 2017, the former at the Essex Book Festival and the latter at The Writers' Centre, Norwich.