Monday, July 20, 2009

The Cypresses in Spain

"Spain is a peculiar country... In every instance what is characteristis is a tendency toward the instinctive, toward the individualistic, and toward the anarchic. Spaniards follow men better than they follow ideas, which are judgued not by their content, but by the men who embody them. This accounts for the incelmency of personal relationships, the small respect for laws; this, too, is what causes our periodic civil wars." ~Jose Maria Gironella, 1954, Note for the American Edition

The Cypresses Believe in God surely ranks with the greatest historical epics--Doctor Zhivago is the most common comparison--as well as with the deepest explorations of the human heart--nearing (but not equalling) Brothers Karamazov. Its ambitious blueprint is a maze of politics, coming-of-age stories, ideologies, explorations of faith and morlas, and anthropology: it attempts to chronicle, through the eyes of a single family in eastern Spain, the onset of the Spanish Civil War. Coming in at about 800 pages, it seems at the last too short.

Starting in 1931, Gironella follows the Alvear family from 1931--a time of relative peace and prosperity--to 1936, immediately after the first violent outbreaks of the war. In that time, the three children grow up influenced by the various ideals clashing around them, but most of all by the deep love and faith of their parents. From the very first, Gironella makes clear that the experience of family is the implacable factor in every human person's life story. As the world beings to fragment around them, their family in the little apartment on the Rambla becomes the heart of the story: "The inner life of the flat was festive, and all the doors had to be closed to create an atmosphere of intimacy. If one of them was carelessly left open, all the clocks in the city could be heard; nevertheless, the Alvears knew that in a fistful of space they could create an intimate and impregnable world of their own."

Ignacio, the eldest son, is the protagonist of the story, however, and in his heart plays out the mighty struggles of the opposing sides of the revolution. As Gironella leads us through Ignacio's youth, we can begin to tease out the why's, not only of the civil war, but also of the disintegration of any society into violence. How can human beings living so close and happily together in a few short years devolve into hatred? How can "the Church" end up on the side of fascism in any situation? As Ignacio's confusion and convictions grow, so does our understanding of the human condition.

The very last scenes of the novel describe the nights of terror inflicted on the Church and fascists by communist/anarchist leaders. Men, women, and children are gunned down in the darkness by their neighbors; sisters who haven't left their convents in decades are led out to be stripped and slaughtered. In all this chaos, however, Gironella is at pains to insist on this truth: The contentions of this world are passing away. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

That he does so in the most natural, unforced manner possible places this book on the top of my shelf. There is no pretention or preaching--his characters are real, he sympathizes clearly with every side he protrays. In the end, he allows the True, the Good, and the Beautiful to speak for itself.

Carmen Elgazu, the Alvears' mother, speaks poignantly its message. The city's head policeman, Julio, has visited them in the wake of a bombing that left a nun dead, much to the joy of the "Left." He feigns indifference to the edict forbidding any religious symbol or prayer at her funeral. Carmen Elgazu replies:

"You know better than we do what is going on. They are doing everything they can to banish the name of God. That's all they concern themselves about, and to accomplish it they seek the support of anybody, even the anarchists.... To them a cassok or a crucifix is deadly as poison. Mother of God! They could not be more mistaken. Without religion, there is only hatred. Religion is the only brake, even though you don't think so... A family gathered together, as we are here, is old-fashioned, out-of-date. One should do like ... they do abroad. It's all so distressing. Because it is so useless, you know. They won't accomplish a thing. Do they think they've hurt the nun? She's where she wanted to be. Listen carefully to what I'm saying to you, Julio. They can fight God, but they'll lose... They have their work cut out for them. Nor should they think they've won because they see us weeping. They can burn down as many churches as they like. They can forbid crosses at funerals, and altar boys; but they'll never be able to stop us from praying here"--she pointed to her breast--"and that's what counts."

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