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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

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Considered 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, and others.

"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" — Crisis Magazine

Author's Note for the American Edition

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 class–the Alvears–and the day-by-day living of a provincial capital–Gerona–I 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 protagonist–Ignacio Alvear–is a type of young man who abounds in present-day Spain.

Palma de Mallorca, Spain
August 1954

José Maria Gironella

The Cypresses Believe In God | Chapter One

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, kitchen–but 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 in Madrid.

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 eyes–it 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 Alvear.

After passing his civil-service examinations in Madrid, Matías Alvear had been successively stationed in Jaén, Málaga, and Gerona. All the children–Ignacio, César, and Pilar–had 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 midnight–that 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 Gerona–in the flat overhanging the river–coincided 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: "I. A."

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 asked jokingly.

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 light.

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.

Jose 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 (193639). 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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