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Fight, Kill, Die!

The Cypresses Believe in God, Vol. 1 & 2


The Cypresses
Believe in God,
Vol. I

José María Gironella,
Cluny Media, pp.426, $24.95

The Cypresses
Believe in God,
Vol. II

José María Gironella,
Cluny Media, pp.444, $24.95

On the subject of fiction, Ernest Hemingway once told F. Scott Fitzgerald in a letter:

War is the best subject of all. It groups the maximum of material, speeds up the action, and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.

The statement needs some qualification. War can be an attractive subject; civil war rarely is—for writers of fiction at least. Classical Latin literature seems to demonstrate this: the internal strife that destroyed the ancient Roman Republic during the first century B.C. generated a great deal of prose (some of it brilliantly insightful), but no poetry or drama of value. The sole surviving ancient epic on the Roman civil wars, the Pharsalia by Lucan, epitomizes the problems involved with fictionalizing such a subject. 

Readers without Latin can get some idea of the Pharsalia’s qualities by reading out loud from Christopher Marlowe’s translation of the first book, which was published in 1600. For the first few pages you feel as though you are discovering a masterpiece. Your enthusiasm flags as you realize that you have been energetically declaiming for more than fifteen minutes and still have no idea what the main story is or who these people are whose names you have been reciting. Yet the Pharsalia’s most serious flaws are related to Lucan’s approach to his subject.

In a civil war, there is often no distinction between one side and another beyond a difference of belief for which all parties involved are willing to spill blood. If such a conflict arises within your own society, how do you tell the story of how people of the same culture, language, and heritage decided to kill each other without sinking into tribalism yourself? Lucan’s epic fails because the poet failed to present the civil wars except in terms that favoured his own side. You are never in doubt as to Lucan’s allegiances; he has no real insights into his material or the personalities involved in the conflict. The entire ten-volume epic adds up to an elaborate excuse to wallow in the good guys’ defeat.

With a subject as inherently divisive as civil or religious strife, you cannot take for granted that you will have an open-minded audience, particularly when you are writing about recent history, or an unresolved issue within your own society. If your readers have settled on some strict distinction between ally and enemy, and cannot bring themselves to regard their enemies as reasonable, rational, or even fully human, then unless you have the power to convince them otherwise you are stuck with an audience that will only accept self-affirmation and propaganda. 

The most literaryof all twentieth-century conflicts was the Spanish Civil War. True, the First and Second World Wars have generated enormous bibliographies. But much of this writing is scholarly or academic; whereas the Spanish Civil War resulted in an enormous mass of fiction and poetry, in English and French as well as Spanish, on top of all the history, memoir and contemporary reporting focusing on this dizzyingly complicated conflict.

In 1961, Hugh Thomas published The Spanish Civil War, which remains the finest single-volume introduction in English to the subject. But this is not a book to read in bed: you need to sit at a desk taking notes simply to keep track of all the names, dates, and acronyms involved, even though Thomas takes great care to separate all the different elements involved in this frighteningly bloody clash. Yet in the popular imagination the Spanish Civil War remains a simple story: there was a “nationalist” side, led by General Francisco Franco, which attacked the “republican” side, won the war with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, and imposed a dictatorship over Spain that lasted until Franco’s death. 

The republicans have become legendary thanks in part to the International Brigades (special military units set up by the Communist International). Liberals and socialists as well as communists were attracted to the Brigades. Over forty thousand foreigners volunteered to fight the nationalist insurgency; at least fifteen thousand of them died in battle. The American “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” attracted two-thousand eight hundred volunteers, of whom nine hundred were killed and one-thousand five hundred wounded. British casualties were almost as heavy: of two thousand volunteers, five hundred died, with another one-thousand two hundred wounded. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell are often thought to have fought in the International Brigades; but Orwell was associated with the Trotskyist Workers’s Party of Marxist Unification, while Hemingway worked as a journalist for the North American Newspaper Alliance and did no real fighting.

It seems impossible to write a concise history of the Spanish Civil War, which originated in a series of political crises that began in the nineteenth century, and already seemed impossible to resolve when Spain suffered a humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War. As these dragged on, intellectuals argued about how to reverse the nation’s decline. The rhetoric of the Radical Republican leader Alejandro Lerroux in a newspaper editorial from 1906 provided a foretaste of what would follow:

Young barbarians of today: rush into the decadent civilization of this unhappy country and sack it! Demolish its temples, destroy its gods; tear off the veils from its novices, and make them into mothers to make men for the species! Break into property records archives and make bonfires of the papers, so that the fire may purge our wretched social hierarchy. Enter the humble hearths of the poor, and raise legions of proletarians, so that the whole world may tremble before its awakened judges. Do not let tombs or altars stop you: fight; kill; die!

Lerroux would serve as prime minister of the Spanish Republic three times between September 1933 and October 1935.

A republican government was probably inevitable after the dictatorship of Captain General Miguel Primo de Rivera, who seized power in a military coup in September 1923, and effectively ruled Spain until January 1930. Initially popular, he proved to be lazy, erratic and self-indulgent. The flighty, irresponsible King Alfonso XIII was so severely tarnished by Primo de Rivera that he abdicated the throne in April 1931 and fled the country. On April 14, the republic was formally proclaimed. Then the republican factions began quarrelling with one another.

By spring 1936, order had broken down: riots and general strikes became commonplace; political assassinations, terrorist bombings, and incidents of arson multiplied. Public buildings and newspaper offices were ransacked; though the Church was the main target of violence. Between February and mid-June of 1936, one-hundred sixty Spanish churches were destroyed, with more than two-hundred fifty further partial destructions, mob attacks and arson attempts. By July 1937, two thousand churches and chapels across the country had either been sacked and plundered, or burned to the ground. Around six thousand secular clergy had also been murdered, or two fifths of the diocesan priests in Spain. In some dioceses as many as four out of five priests died violently.  

Nationalist army officers had been planning to overthrow the government for some time. They found their excuse on July 13, 1936 when the monarchist politician José Calvo Sotelo was murdered in a revenge attack; his body was dumped at the entrance of a cemetery. The funeral turned into a right-wing political demonstration; a few activists were shot and killed by police. On the weekend of July 17, coordinated military uprisings broke out in the garrison towns. This should have been a swift, relatively painless victory for the nationalists; the result instead was almost three years of horrifying butchery. 

The most notorious single incident of the Spanish Civil War is the bombing of civilians in the Basque town of Guernica on April 26, 1937. Guernica was a town of around six thousand at the time. For four hours, planes from the Nazis’ Condor Legion strafed and bombarded the town. Numbers of casualties are disputed; though at least one-hundred seventy people are thought to have died. George Steer was the first war correspondent to arrive on the scene; his reporting established a narrative that remains widely accepted to this day. 

Pablo Picasso based his famous Guernica painting on Steer’s account. He worked on Guernica for a little more than a month, finishing the picture on June 4. We know because he realized ahead of time that this would be an important work of art, so he allowed himself to be photographed working on it, carefully documented the creative process, and completed the final image in black and white so that it could be easily reproduced. Supporters of the Spanish Republic instantly hailed Guernica as a masterpiece; it has been celebrated ever since. Yet the symbolism is unclear, as indeed is the subject, not to mention Picasso’s explanation of the two most puzzling elements in the picture: 

This bull is a bull, and this horse is a horse . . . . If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it might be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.

In other words, this is a depiction of Picasso’s random whims, as vaguely inspired by the ugliness described in Steer’s reporting. Art historians tend to write about this picture in charged, emotive language, as if to head off the possibility of questioning their judgement. But if you did not know what Guernica was, you would presume it to be the sort of modern art usually found in four-star hotels and dentists’ offices. You must be told it is a great work of art to believe it to be one. But what would a successful depiction of the Spanish Civil War look like? This is not simply a matter of style, approach, or perspective. How do you find a central focus when the subject seems impossible to encapsulate? What story do you tell—and whose? 

Even today most Anglophone readers seem to form their impressions of what happened, not from historical accounts, but from Hemingway’s novel For Whom The Bell Tolls. Purely as a piece of skilful professional writing, this may be Hemingway’s most accomplished work. But is this a major, or even a good, work of literature? In chapter eight, a woman describes her visit to Valencia:

We ate in pavilions on the sand. Pastries made of cooked and shredded fish and red and green peppers and small nuts like grains of rice. Pastries delicate and flaky and the fish of a richness that was incredible. Prawns fresh from the sea sprinkled with lime juice. They were pink and sweet and there were four bites to a prawn. Of those we ate many. Then we ate paella with fresh seafood, clams in their shells, mussels, crayfish, and small eels. Then we ate even smaller eels alone cooked in oil and as tiny as bean sprouts and curled in all directions and so tender they disappeared in the mouth without chewing. All the time drinking white wine, cold, light and good at thirty centimos the bottle. And for an end, melon. That is the home of the melon.

This is exceptional—as tourist writing. But the Spanish Civil War was not about food, wine, or other sensual pleasures. Alas, Hemingway was a great writer only when he focused on his own experience; and most of his experience of Spain involved drinking in cafés and watching bullfights. Throughout For Whom The Bell Tolls Hemingway’s perspective is shockingly near-sighted: the details are convincing, but only in close-up range. Beyond that the picture is blurred until the conflict is impossible to make out. 

Unlike Hemingway, George Orwell really did take part in the fighting during the Spanish Civil War, which he describes in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell’s vision is sharp and clear; but all he can see are details that he cannot always explain. At least Hemingway knew about bullfighting; Orwell could not even understand the Spanish language, let alone Spanish history or culture, or the background to the conflict for which he was in theory willing to give his life. There are brilliant paragraphs throughout the book; yet they do not add up to much more than a picture of Orwell’s personal experiences as an isolated, strangely noncommittal foreign volunteer. If For Whom The Bell Tolls depicts the civil war as a blobby, out-of-focus watercolor background, Homage to Catalonia amounts to a haphazard collection of blindly uncomprehending snapshots.  

Too much commentary can also get in the way. The first full-length English analysis of the Spanish Civil War is The Spanish Labyrinth by Gerald Brenan, an aspiring novelist who moved to Spain in 1919. After reading The Spanish Labyrinth you will never again confuse the anarchists with the anarcho-syndicalists. Brenan also highlights important issues in the conflict, such as the need for land reform. But he suffers from the bore’s weakness for bombarding you with undifferentiated information. Even in his best chapters he has a shaky grasp of his own material. He has tried to analyze the situation before fully understanding it himself; there are numerous sections where Brenan’s text goes in one eye and out the other, as it were. Essential facts are lost in a thick fog of discussion; as a reader you are overwhelmed by a kind of psychic blindness. 

Readers who rely on the works of Orwell, Hemingway, and Brenan to understand the Spanish Civil War could be forgiven for assuming that the nationalists were purely reactionary, and had no positive reasons to fight, beyond their instinctive allegiances to tradition, family, property, and the Church. Some on the right complain that nationalist voices have not been heard in the English-speaking world: either their positions have not been fairly presented by historians, or their most persuasive writings have been suppressed. The truth is that the nationalists had few (if any) writers on their side who could convincingly articulate their position to an outsider, or win an argument against an opponent. Indeed, purely in literary terms, Spanish nationalist writing is either uninspiring or an embarrassment. As a starting point, the interested (or morbidly curious) may consult Pete Ayrton’s exceptionally well-edited anthology ¡No Pasáran! Writings from the Spanish Civil War. Many may swiftly conclude from this that the nationalists were indeed purely reactionary.

The most perceptive and open-minded memoirists of the Spanish Civil War tend to be anarchist sympathizers who are skeptical even of their own position; these include such figures as John Dos Passos, Luis Buñuel, and Arthur Koestler. Buñuel’s memoir will be found in the fourteenth chapter of his autobiography My Last Sigh and deserves special attention. We know Buñuel as a debonair surrealist filmmaker; many Catholics loathe him for his vicious anti-clericalism and provocative blasphemy. Yet his attitudes are complex and ambiguous, in his mature work anyway. For all his notorious taste for cruelty and verbal aggression, Buñuel shrinks from violence when he is confronted with the real thing, as is evident in his bracingly frank account of his experiences in Madrid at the outbreak of the civil war. One wishes he wrote more about the conflict, because he seems to be one of the only major artists to have said anything genuinely wise about it. Then again, few others of his stature managed to maintain friendships among every faction.

Other memoirists too often end up being blinded by partisan allegiance. Arturo Baréa, a socialist journalist who went into exile in England and worked for the B.B.C., wrote a three-volume autobiography, The Forging of a Rebel, that was once highly regarded. The first two volumes are indeed very good, but the third, dealing with the Spanish Republic and the Civil War, is drearily tendentious. He is so absorbed by his own memories and emotions that he sometimes forgets to communicate them to us. You get the sense that you had to be there.

Whatever the problems of Spanish Civil War memoirs, fiction inspired by the subject is afflicted by an even wider and more diverse range of defects that go beyond partisanship, or the writing of new lyrics to an overly familiar tune. During the past few decades, Spanish novelists and short-story writers have drifted into “postmodern” tendencies which might be described as conscious, deliberate, and “artistic” but are really the result of writers’ failure to make sense of their own thoughts, emotions, and memories, and to distinguish them from one another, or to separate them from facts, data, and evidence. The reader ends up being forced to do the writer’s job of sorting out basic materials. But why read such a thing, when you could easily make that sort of mess yourself? The Spanish Civil War is confusing enough without the additional complications of an author’s personality and neuroses.

Only one writer has succeeded in making real art out of this conflict. José María Gironella was no literary genius; at best he was a competent storyteller with a limited sense of invention. But he made up for his shortcomings through sheer hard work, energetically researching contemporary Spanish history and systematically arranging his notes until he could produce a day-by-day chronicle of the republic from the end of the monarchy to the beginning of the nationalist uprising. He had lived through all of this, of course, and wanted to tell the truth about what happened to his country without demonizing anybody. The result, Gironella’s historical novel The Cypresses Believe in God, is the finest work of literature to arise from the Spanish Civil War. 

The Cypresses Believe in God is divided into five parts, and ninety-three chapters; most editions consist of two volumes, each a little longer than four hundred pages. Yet Gironella does not waste words; by patiently building up characters and situations, he succeeds where even prominent historians have failed in taking the reader step by step through events, convincingly demonstrating how tensions escalated into civil war—all without forcing you to memorize confusing acronyms or to keep up with the life stories of politicians in Madrid. 

The novel unfolds in Gerona, a picturesque ancient city in Catalonia. Matías Alvear, an employee of the Spanish post office, has been living there since 1926. He comes from a staunchly republican family in Madrid; his brothers are radical. But under the influence of his Basque wife Carmen Elgazu he has become a churchgoer. Carmen Elgazu is pious and conservative; her greatest influence is Mosén Alberto, an influential priest who has an easy job overseeing the little-visited diocesan museum. 

Matías and Carmen Elgazu have two boys and one girl. Ignacio, the elder son, was born at midnight on December 31, 1916; César, the middle child, is two years younger than his brother. Pilar, the daughter, is younger than César by a year. She cultivates a charmingly frivolous air, though she turns out to be much sharper than she looks. The narrative centers mainly around Ignacio, who has spent a few years in the local minor seminary only to realize that he has no religious vocation. César, who is deeply pious, ends up training for the priesthood instead, and is sent away on scholarship to a boarding school. Meanwhile, Ignacio leaves school to work at a bank while he studies in the evenings in the hope of training as a lawyer.

The reader watches Ignacio grow into a man as society disintegrates around him. This character has a great deal in common with Gironella himself, though Ignacio’s point of view does not dominate. Every major political and philosophical position involved in the Spanish Civil War is represented by at least one character whose life experience, social position, and temperament have combined to determine his allegiance. Gironella achieves this without denigrating any position or caricaturing any particular faction. Throughout the novel it seems impossible to guess whose side he ultimately took. 

Gerona seems harmonious enough when the story begins, in 1931, shortly after the declaration of the republic. At the Café Neutral in the city centre, Matías plays dominoes every afternoon with a wide range of friends including Julío Garcia, a childhood friend from Madrid who works as a suicide specialist for the police. Julío is unusually cultured and perceptive; Carmen Elgazu suspects him of communist sympathies, but in truth he is too shrewd to reveal his position. He takes a friendly interest in Ignacio, and treats him as a disciple. This enables the reader to see the political situation in Gerona through his eyes, and to understand how all the factions started to take shape long before the conflict began in earnest.

Gironella does nothing to flatter the elements of Spanish society that would end up on the nationalist side. Taken as a whole, Gerona’s conservative, traditionalist and right-wing citizens seem short-sighted, narrow-minded, and almost comically ineffectual. The clergy are, for the most part, unimpressive. Army officers, such as the monarchist Major Martínez de Soria, are simply uptight and eccentric. The landowning classes do not seem useful to anybody, and they cannot intelligently defend their own interests. Such reactionary intellectuals as there are in the city do little more than talk and are not very good at that either.

By contrast the left-wing, republican, and radical factions are lively, and confident about their future. Gironella lovingly develops characters such as the thoughtful communist bank clerk Cosmé Vila, one of Ignacio’s more enigmatic colleagues, and refuses to present them as villains or monsters. Also sympathetic are the socialist teachers David and Olga, who win the reader’s affection with their passionate dedication to their work, and sincere concern for Ignacio’s personal and intellectual development. Even José, Ignacio’s live-wire anarchist cousin from Madrid, is presented as a thoroughly decent (if excitable) human being. People never turn ugly; only their actions do.

One of Gironella’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his readiness to allow characters to develop their positions at leisure, and to present them in the strongest possible light. Even the assistant manager at Ignacio’s bank, who is ridiculed by colleagues for his paranoid conspiracy theories about Freemasons, is allowed his turn to speak. Gironella does not condemn him with snide authorial intrusions; instead, Ignacio is allowed to realize for himself that the assistant manager’s conception of the world might be a little too watertight to be realistic, though of course he still has to work alongside the man every day. Almost nobody in this story can afford the luxury of exile. Gironella embodies the political realities of the Spanish Republic in flesh-and-blood characters and lets them play out in relationships between individuals. There is no impersonal mechanism that guides people’s behaviour or helps them avoid conflict. 

Gironella manages to sustain real tension and surprise throughout The Cypresses Believe in God: you never know whether events in Ignacio’s life are going to follow a classic “novelistic” pattern or reflect the randomness of real life. The narrative is remarkably sophisticated in this sense: Gironella weaves his own experience and reflections into a structure that is closely based on verifiable historical events, yet he never forgets about the formal patterns and archetypes of storytelling that sustain the reader’s interest.  

The final section of The Cypresses Believe in God is shocking. Characters whom you have come to know over eight hundred pages suddenly become fanatics, willing to take life or to lose their own without a second thought. Before you know it, the killing has started, and there are no neutral parties left to stand on the sidelines and watch other people fight. Everybody has taken a side. The ending is sheer horror. There is no heroic resolution. You put down The Cypresses Believe in God with the frightening thought that when the novel ends it is only the middle of July 1936, and the real savagery has scarcely begun.

Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic.

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Jaspreet Singh Boparai is a former academic. 

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