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Chapter One of The Cypresses Believe In God: Spain On the Eve of the Civil War (A Novel) | Jose Maria Gironella | Ignatius Insight
by many critics to be the greatest novel about the Spanish Civil War, this
classic work by Spaniard José Maria Gironella is an unbiased account
of the complicated events, movements and personalities that led up to the
war. Beginning in 1931, The
Cypresses Believe in God covers the next five years of political
unrest, culminating in the explosion of the brutal war that wreaked such
great havoc on Spain and its citizens. In his epic novel, both gripping
and suspenseful, Gironella deftly portrays the human conflict, both internal
and external. The most influential philosophical movements of the 20th century
are embodied in various characters. Through them, the reader is introduced
to every faction involved - ancharist, communist, Catholic, royalist, existentialist,
"A vastly ambitious novel... a must for those who want to know how
the Spanish Civil War came about" Time Magazine
"A powerful rendering of a brutal, baffling rehearsal of World War
II. It recalls Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, that other 20th century
masterwork that renders that pathos of tradition besieged"
Author's Note for the American
Spain is an unknown country. Experience proves that it is hard to view
my country impartially. Even writers of high order succumb to the temptation
to adulterate the truth, to treat our customs and our psychology as though
everything about them were of a piece, of a single color. Legends and
labels pile up: black Spain, inquisitorial Spain, beautiful Spain, tragic
Spain, folkloric Spain, unhappy Spain, a projection of Africa into the
map of Europe.
I defend the complexity of Spain. If this book attempts to demonstrate
anything it is this: that there are in this land thousands of possible
ways of life. Through a Spanish family of the middle classthe Alvearsand
the day-by-day living of a provincial capitalGeronaI have
tried to capture the everyday traits, the mentality, the inner ambiance
of my compatriots in all their pettiness and all their grandeur. In Spain
the reaction to this novel has been that it is "implacable". Nothing could
satisfy me more.
This book spans a period of five years, five years in the private and
public life of the nation: those which preceded the last civil war, which
speeded its inevitable coming. The explosion of that war, its scope, and
its significance are described in minute detail.
A single warning to the American reader: Spain is a peculiar country and
its institutions therefore take on unique coloration. Certain constants
of the Spanish temperament operate under any circumstance. A Spanish Freemason
is not an international Freemason. A Spanish Communist is not even an
orthodox Communist. In every instance what is characteristic is a tendency
toward the instinctive, toward the individualistic, and toward the anarchic.
Spaniards follow men better than they follow ideas, which are judged not
by their content, but by the men who embody them. This accounts for the
inclemency of personal relationships, the small respect for laws; this,
too, is what causes our periodic civil wars.
To bear all this in mind is important in understanding this book. When
the narrative deals with a priest, a policeman, a Socialist, a bootblack,
it is essential to remember that it is dealing with a Spanish priest,
a Spanish policeman, a Spanish Socialist, a Spanish bootblack, not with
generic types. This warning is doubly necessary with reference to Freemasonry,
Communism, and Catholicism, the interpretation of which will undoubtedly
clash with the American reader's concept of these doctrines.
The book's protagonistIgnacio Alvearis a type of young man
who abounds in present-day Spain.
Palma de Mallorca, Spain
José Maria Gironella
The Cypresses Believe In God | Chapter
On the second floor of one of the oldest houses on the right bank of the
river lived the Alvears. The front balconies looked out on the Rambla,
opposite the Cafe' Neutral, located in the middle of the pleasantest arcade
of the city; the rear window and balcony overhung the river, the Oñar.
The house, therefore, led a double life, like all the others along the
Rambla. As a result, 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.
This was possible in those flats because the houses were old. Besides,
most of the doors not only closed, but often closed of their own accord,
which was a splendid thing because of the proximity of the river and the
fact that at times it gave off a bad smell.
In fact the neighborhood was looked upon as unhealthy. Possibly the part
where the Alvears lived was the least affected, for at that point the
waters of the Oñar covered the river-bed from bank to bank most
of the time. But five hundred yards farther down, near its confluence
with the Ter, the current moved sluggishly, forming little marshy backwaters.
Another drawback was the seasonal floods. But these did not trouble the
Alvears, either, because of the height of the window and balcony; the
people on the first floor, however, were out of luck when the Oñar
rose. The Ter could not absorb its volume of water, and then the little
river rose and seeped through all the cracks and openings in the house,
rushing furiously through kitchen, dining-room, and hall and cascading
out the front door, pouring a thousand household secrets into the Rambla,
right in front of the Cafe' Neutral.
The Alvears' flat was not too big-hall, three bedrooms, dining-room, kitchenbut
much better than the flats they had had in Madrid, Jaén, and Málaga
when they lived in those cities. The head of the household, Matías
Alvear, was delighted with it, particularly because it got the sun all
day, because of the quality and pleasing colors of the tiles, and because
of the strategic position of the two balconies. He made use of the one
facing the Rambla to cover the arrival in the café after lunch
of the group of domino-players of which he formed a part; from the one
overhanging the river he fished in the late afternoon. Fished from his
own house, occasionally recalling the discouraging barrenness of the Manzanares
He was an ace at dominoes, a double six; as a fisherman he rated zero.
So rarely did he get a bite that when this happened, on an occasional
hot summer day, he would straddle his chair, pull up the rod with infinite
precautions, and come into the dining-room to dangle proudly before his
children the little fish jumping at the end of the line. Once he caught
such a big one that it almost frightened him, and he came straight into
the kitchen, holding his rod high, to deposit his catch right in the frying-pan
under the amazed eyes of his wife, Carmen Elgazu, a strong, sturdy woman,
who when she called him crazy said it in Basque.
Matías Alvear was forty-six years old, worked for the Postal and
Telegraph Department, and was one of the "outlanders" of Gerona, being
from Madrid. He had been living in Gerona for five years, and seemed acclimated.
He had a brother, Santiago, in Madrid, a militant anarchist, who was happy
only when surrounded by women and underground pamphlets. In Burgos lived
another married brother, who also worked in the Telegraph Department,
and also had advanced ideas, though more theoretical than Santiago's.
Matías communicated with him only at Christmas, when they sent
each other the season's greetings over their respective telegraph keys.
Matías Alvear's whole family had always been radical and, above
all, anticlerical. His father, who had died young, had proposed that all
the chalices in the country should be melted down and the money distributed
among the poor of Almeria and Alicante. Now Santiago in Madrid, inspired
by the Republic, repeated this proposal in the streetcars, but Carmen
Elgazu, who claimed to know him well, always said that she believed him
capable of melting down all the chalices, but not of using the money as
his father had suggested.
Matías was always the most moderate member of the family, republican
all his life and so anticlerical that when he married Carmen Elgazu he
hardly knew how to genuflect before the altar. But Carmen had brought
with her from the north the type of faith which moves mountains, and the
mountain in this case was Matías Alvear. The employee of the Telegraph
Department loved his wife so deeply that suddenly the idea that death
ended everything horrified him. It seemed to him impossible that Carmen
Elgazu should not be eternal, and for his part he longed for an eternity
in which to go on living with her. By the time they had been married ten
years, his desire had become a conviction. He believed in everything his
brothers denied, and it amazed him to find himself making the sign of
the cross with respect. This new order of thoughts gave him great comfort,
and he wound up listening to the story of St. Peter and the crowing of
the cock with a naturalness that, in the light of his early years, he
could not account for.
Carmen Elgazu's family were exactly the opposite: Basque, conservative,
Catholic to the marrow of their bones. Her father had died clasping a
crucifix, and his last words to his children were: "Don't marry anyone
who doesn't believe in God." The mother was still living in a village
in the Basque Provinces, unbowed for all her eighty-odd years, bombarding
her eight children with letters written in violet ink and an incredibly
firm handwriting that belied her age. They were apostolic letters that
only Carmen Elgazu read all the way through, but that none of the children
ventured to throw away or burn.
Carmen Elgazu bore the physical stamp of this vigor. She was of medium
height, with intensely black hair drawn back in a knot, and a head firmly
set on her shoulders. When, with her sleeves rolled up, she was washing
clothes, one could see what beautifully turned arms she had. Her waist
revealed the fact that she had borne children. Her legs were the two pillars
of the household.
Her most distinctive feature was her eyebrows, thick and, like her hair,
very black. Matías Alvear jokingly compared them to the arches
of the Rambla. Carmen Elgazu took this as a compliment, for in her opinion
a woman without eyebrows was nothing.
And her eyesit would be impossible to imagine eyes more unlike those
of a blind person. Brilliant, expressive, not rolling like those of a
madman, nor fixed like those of God. Human, changing eyes, real windows
of the soul. With her eyes, her brows, and her soul she had only to put
on a black dress and high heels to look a queen. A queen with great tenderness
in her bearing, especially when mention was made of someone in trouble,
or when, her work in the kitchen or the bedrooms finished, she took of
her apron and sat down in the dining-room with her mending, under a beautiful
cork calendar showing a tempest scene.
Lean Matías Alvear had greater distinction,
but made less of an impression. His gray office smock and, above all,
the pencil behind his ear somewhat undermined his air of authority Notwithstanding,
he was a man. His sense of humor revealed itself in his mustache, always
agreeable, in a variety of ironic expressions, in the way he wore his
hat. His eyes were smaller than Carmen Elgazu's, but black, too. His energy
was concentrated in his nose, attached to his face as though slapped there.
His hands were those of a white-collar worker, but when he was listening
to nonsense, he moved them in subtle but very expressive workings of doubt.
He was neat, and preferred gray clothes and sober ties except on his children's
birthdays. He liked dominoes because he said it was a clean game, and
the pieces were clean and pleasant to the touch. Without a group of friends
with whom to exchange ideas he would have died.
His disagreements with Carmen Elgazu were limited to religious matters
having to do with the upbringing of the children, and to comparing Madrid
with Bilbao. Matías Alvear preferred Madrid; Carmen Elgazu, Bilbao.
When they were in a joking mood, Carmen Elgazu contrasted the Oñar
and the Cantabrian Sea, and Matías Alvear, the Telegraph Building
of Gerona and the International Telephone Building of Madrid, but then
they both repented and agreed that Gerona, especially the old section
and the Dehesa, was very beautiful.
Carmen Elgazu occasionally remarked that Matías Alvear was not
at all learned, but had a lot of common sense. His café associates
corroborated the second statement and rejected the first. They were of
the opinion that Matías knew many more things than Carmen Elgazu
suspected, because he understood how to read the newspapers and because
the telegrams had taught him to grasp the bearing of events on one another
and to sift them out. In any case, what Carmen Elgazu loved most in him
were his sentiments. She loved him so much that it was clear that she
would consent only to seem a queen provided the king was Matías
After passing his civil-service examinations in Madrid, Matías
Alvear had been successively stationed in Jaén, Málaga,
and Gerona. All the childrenIgnacio, César, and Pilarhad
been born in Málaga, a fact that occasioned many a joke. "That
southern climate," Matías would say, "that southern climate."
At the time of Matías' transfer from Málaga to Catalonia,
Ignacio, the oldest child, was ten. He had been born on December 31, 1916,
on the stroke of midnightthat is to say, at a solemn and significant
moment. Carmen Elgazu, who had always promised God that her first-born
should be dedicated to Him, saw that circumstance as an augury. Several
of her neighbors in Milaga, among them a gypsy, said that according to
the stars her son would be a man of great gifts, probably a bishop, and
certainly a great preacher. Matías Alvear frowned; but the fact
is that Ignacio began to talk very early. "There you are", Carmen Elgazu
crowed in great excitement. "He's an angel, and he'll be converting people
before you can say scat."
César was eight when they came to Gerona, and he was much shyer
than Ignacio. His ears were too big for his head, and he looked at everything
around him and at the world as though it was all a miracle. Matías
always told how when they got out of the train and César saw the
Cathedral and the belfry of San Félix beside it, he had said he
liked that better than the sea at Málaga. Later on, the neighbors
said to him: "Well, boy, if it's belfries you like, you won't have anything
to complain about here."
Pilar was seven, one year younger than César. Travel of any kind
delighted her. When she saw the suitcases being lifted down, she said,
looking all around the station: "Oh! Is it over already?"
* * * * * * *
The settling of the family in Geronain the flat overhanging the
rivercoincided with an overwhelming triumph for Carmen Elgazu and
the Málaga gypsy: Ignacio agreed to enter the Seminary.
Not for one second had Carmen Elgazu abated her efforts to inculcate a
religious vocation in her son. The slightest detail afforded her a springboard.
If Ignacio stood still, watching a funeral procession, she would say to
him: "You'd like to be sprinkling the holy water, wouldn't you?" If he
drew a picture of a man with a tonsure, she would say to Matías
Alvear: "See now: everything connected with the Church attracts him!"
Ignacio was adjusting his eyes to her vision. With difficulty he restrained
his impetuous nature. The hand of several priests had caressed his head
as they asked him: "So, son, you want to enter the Seminary?" At night,
as he knelt down by his bed to pray, Carmen Elgazu pointed him out as
an example to César, little Pilar, and even Matías Alvear.
When the ecclesiastical atmosphere of Gerona proved so conducive to her
plans that Ignacio said: "Yes, Mother, I want to be a priest", Carmen
Elgazu's joy was like a river overflowing its banks. Even the neighbors
were enveloped in it. "My boy's going to the Seminary! My boy's going
to the Seminary!" She kissed him twenty times; she would have liked to
seat him in the lap of the Sacred Heart that presided majestically over
the diningroom, across from the wall clock.
The preparations lasted one week, the week that still remained before
the course began. Mosén Alberto, an important ecclesiastical authority,
advised them that, in view of the boy's restless temperament, they should
enter him as a boarding pupil. Matías was sad over being separated
from his son, but Carmen Elgazu tweaked his nose: "You ought to be proud,
you silly man." The boy's underwear broke out in a rash of red initials:
The day Ignacio disappeared behind the imposing walls of the Seminary,
which stood on the heights of the city, crowning the stairs to Santo Domingo,
there was great festivity in the flat on the Rambla. Carmen Elgazu baked
a Basque cake, with her son's Christian name in white frosting, and a
wavy line underneath. Pilar laughed at the sight of Ignacio's empty chair
and wanted to sit in it. Matías said: "No, the Holy Spirit is sitting
there!" Even Carmen Elgazu laughed, and turned to Matías: "Do you
know what we could do? I'll meet you at the Neutral and you take me to
the Dehesa for a walk."
This was what happened. Pilar went to the nuns of the Heart of Mary, César
to the Christian Brothers. School was starting for him, too. As for Matías,
at three on the dot he had to leave the café chair for the stone
benches of the Dehesa.
"Don't you like these sycamores better than dominoes. " Carmen Elgazu
Matías Alvear tilted his hat over his ear, but he was really enjoying
himself because his wife was happy and because the sycamores of the Dehesa,
stretching aloft uncounted row upon row, were very beautiful in the autumn
On the way home Ignacio's mother felt that the day should be marked in
some enduring way. She stopped her husband and asked him: "Didn't you
promise me a present?"
"Well, now's the time."
Matías smiled, even though this was going to upset the family budget.
They looked in the store windows and finally decided on something practical
that they really needed: a hatrack. They put it up in the vestibule the
minute they got home, and opened the door two or three times to confirm
the fact that the effect was impressive.
Maria Gironella (1917-2003) was born in Gerona, Spain, and fought
in the Spanish Civil War. He is best known for his historical novel Los
cipreses creen en Dios (The Cypresses Believe in God), in which
the family conflicts in the novel represent the dissension found throughout
Spain in the years preceding the Spanish Civil War (1936Ð39). The book won
the National Prize for Literature. He wrote four other books about the war,
including One Million Dead and Peace After War.
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