Friday, January 6, 2012

The Cypresses Believe in God by José María Gironella

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I have read a few spooky books in my time; thrillers, horror, and suspense. I think that this book, a work of historical fiction, has creeped me out more than any other. What is Cypresses, and why did I find it to be so discomfiting?

Written in 1953 in Spanish, and translated a couple of years later, it is set in Spanish city of Gerona in Catalonia in the five years leading up to the Spanish Civil War.

The book assumes a certain knowledge of the historical events, political parties, and major figures. Fortunately, there is an appendix with the characters, figures, and parties for reference. This last one is particularly key as Spanish politics were anything but simple in the 1930s. I also spent a bit of time learning about the history of the conflict.

The book opens in 1931 during the time of the so-called “Second Republic”. The last vestiges of the monarchy had been banished, and a new constitution approved. However, while Spain was on the brink of unimaginable chaos and destruction, few if any recognized the seeds. Many sound all too familiar for our day and time. Widespread and growing unemployment, the rise of socialist parties with revolutionary rhetoric, resentment against the wealthy. Also present and contributing to the disaster were the rise of the anarchist and fascist parties, control of the land by longstanding families with titles dating to feudal days, widespread resentment of the Catholic Church as a controlling political and economical power, and failure to modernize agriculture. The final piece, which plays a huge part in this book, is the discontent of the Basque and Catalonian regions, which contained much of Spanish industry, and felt that they were not represented by the current government.

Gironella focuses on one particular middle class family in Gerona, the Alvears. The father, Matías, works at the telegraph office, making him solidly white collar middle class, but a non-professional. He is the sort that most readers will identify with. He wishes to be good-hearted toward all, in conflict with as few as possible, to raise his family in peace, see them established in good careers, and so forth. His wife is deeply religious and fiercely loyal to her family. The oldest child, Ignacio, is truly the protagonist of the story, although the narrator takes a fairly omniscient view, telling certain parts of the story while observing the actions and even the thoughts of other characters.

Ignacio is also sympathetic to the reader, as he is a young man struggling to decide what he believes. He admirably attempts to think through the various philosophies he is exposed to, but finds himself drawn more to the people he knows than the philosophies themselves. The course of Ignacio’s struggles give the author space to describe in detail the various currents of political thought, without making the book feel like a textbook. Ignacio is not alone, of course, in this dilemma: the book itself is driven by the characters. They act the way they do and adopt the beliefs they do because of who they are, and because of their backgrounds. Thus, when the catastrophe comes, each is hedged in by his or her character and the political commitments they have made.

For those who, like me, had only a vague idea of what happened during the Spanish Civil War, here are the basic facts. After the parties of the right wing won the election of 1933, the left wing parties became more radical and demonstrative. The anarchists led an uprising, which was put down fairly quickly, but left a mark. In 1935, the leftist parties finally managed to unite long enough to win the elections that year. Acts of violence and reprisals against the parties of the right escalated, and the military began to plot to overthrow the government. At this time, the Falange (the Spanish fascist party, related more to the Italian than the German variety) grew rapidly in numbers from the disaffected members of the right. The communists, not content to have a place in the new government, combined with the anarchists to throw a general strike in an attempt to shut down all commerce until a dictatorship of the proletariat was granted – including confiscation of all private property. At this point, the middle class was ready to panic, the upper classes having already predicted ruin.

The event that sparked the war was the assassination of José Calvo Sotelo, a conservative member of parliament. The police were involved in the assassination, which was viewed as a follow-through on a threat made by a leftist politician. The military then attempted a coup, which was only partially successful. The south and west of Spain fell into military and fascist hands, while the north and east (where Gerona is located) remained in the hands of the republic, and therefore the leftists. On each side, tens of thousands of civilians were slaughtered for their political and religious views. In the leftist dominated areas, roughly 50,000 priests and nuns are believed to have been murdered. In the fascist dominated areas, any threats to General Franco and his allies were exterminated. The conflict continued through the beginning of World War II, essentially removing Spain from the conflict. In excess of a half million lives were lost, and at least that number fled to France and elsewhere for asylum.

As in all memorable books, the characters are what bring the narrative to life. Ignacio with his big heart, but youthful lack of self control and mental discipline. Matías as the pillar of the community watching his world crumble about him. Julio, the chief of police, cynical and inscrutable, doing his best to hedge his bets and keep the city from getting out of control: he is the one who foresees the death squads, but they are far beyond anyone’s control. David and Olga, the hippie communist teachers, who unwittingly assist in the rise of violence by giving the leftists respectable cover, but later risk everything to protect an enemy from death. Jose and Mateo, the young fanatics for opposite sides, Jose for the anarchists, and Mateo for the Falange. Cosme Villa, the middle class intellectual who eventually rises to power and becomes a killer. El Responsible, the anarchist with a horrific past, and a heart full of hatred and revenge. All these and more are impartially portrayed in thoughts and actions.

A few minor details, only loosely connected to the narrative, stood out to me. The first was the description of the prostitutes. “Most of them had tweezed out their eyebrows and replaced them with a black or brown penciled line. Sometimes the line slanted up, giving them a diabolical air. At times it drooped wearily. Exceptionally there was one who had stumbled on the natural curve, and she suddenly seemed a handsome, normal woman.” If Gironella had only seen Bakersfield in 2011.

The second is the proof that Vince McMahon was not so original after all. During the time of high unemployment, one of the methods used to entertain the masses was a wresting competition series, in which all of the components of WWE are present. The wrestlers wore flashy cloaks with catchy names like Panther or The Ogre. All kinds of foul play was allowed, and even encouraged. The Good and the Bad seemed to always face off, with the contestants playing to their roles. The matches had a reputation for being fixed, but this never stopped their popularity.

Finally, there is an exchange between the young priest, Mosén Francisco and Ignacio regarding Ignacio’s saint-like younger brother César. Francisco remarks that living with a saint is no easy matter. Ignacio replies, “Dear Mosén, living with anyone, even a normal person, is no easy matter.”

Despite these lighter moments, and many more that are hopeful and human, the threat of bloodshed continues to grow. As Olga says of the fascists, “When Mussolini or one of the others shouts ‘Long live our historic mission!” you ask yourself how many coffins are going to be needed.” Indeed, this is the problem with both sides. Totalitarianism and fanaticism lead invariably to purges, to massacres, and to hatred in the name of progress. The sad thing is that this book shows that the defenders of Hitler had one valid point: the Communists were equally prone to mass murder. We forget that there was a fairly legitimate point of view in the run up to World War II that Hitler was needed as a counterbalance to Stalin. Then, of course, once it became clear that Hitler was an evil menace to civilization as well, it became necessary to enlist Stalin to counteract Hitler. And both, of course, slaughtered millions. In Spain, this tragedy took place in a similar matter as the basic humanity we take for granted in our neighbors disintegrated into hatred, revenge, and pointless murder. As much as I hate to admit it, the triumph of Franco seems to have been the least of the possible evils.

All of this is made even more chilling by the conversation between the priest Mosén Alberto and the mayor Noguer over the morality of killing. How is one to know what is self defense when everyone is killing? The priest has no answer, as there can be no definitive answer. When the world is gone mad, what is to be done?

The book started to terrify me when the city, and by extension, Spain, started to turn on itself. True, unemployment and hardship is a problem, but somehow hardship gave rise to neighbors forgetting their natural bonds, their common humanity, and turned to radical ideas for action. The setting off of a bomb in a church came to be regarded as a good, despite the fact that it fed no one, helped no one. When the legitimate law enforcement and other government institutions lost credibility and power, everyone turned on everyone, as if blood was the only answer.

There are too many parallels with today around the world for comfort. Just today, I ran across an article about the budgetary problems in Spain. Again, unemployment is dangerously high. Will Spain remember the lessons of the past, or will there be mob rule and terror once again? Will the rest of the world be susceptible to the promises of food for all, of a better life for the poor, if only we could kill the wealthy? Or the educated. Or those who wear the wrong color of shirt.

This is the power this book holds: to make us ask those questions; to look deep within ourselves and ask if we too would kill; to ask if we could continue to sow love and not hate when the world goes mad.

The last several scenes in the book are of unbelievable tragedy, but also of grace and hope. On both sides of the conflict, individuals choose to do the right thing, even if they are powerless to stop the insanity. These individual acts of grace remind us of all those who have stood against tyranny and evil in ways large and small. For every Churchill, there are thousands of those who hid potential victims from those who sought their lives.

This was a worthwhile, but difficult read. At nearly 1000 pages, it is long, and requires the reader to keep track of a large number of characters, along with their political connections. Fortunately, the names are fairly easy. Gironella uses a single name for most characters, and keeps the names consistent from the time the character is introduced. The Spanish use different last names for the married women, so it helps to note family connections wherever possible. The appendix is very helpful. Family relationships are noted, as are political connections. Thus, it is easy to determine that a character would be, for example, an anarchist with a sweetheart who is a communist. Likewise, the appendix of political parties is indispensible for determining the ever-shifting alliances and oppositions.

Note on the Translation: This book was translated by Harriet de Onís. I am curious if some of the recurring phrases have a particular place in Spanish literature, much like our “once upon a time”. In particular, the phrases “life continued to move at a dizzying pace” and its variations and “[insert month] had [insert effect] on the people”. These connecting phrases tend to open chapters and take the narrative from the personal to the public. As is natural with any translated work, the idiom seems different, even if the language itself flows naturally.

Note on Gerona: In our times, the name of the city is often spelled Girona. Located somewhat near Barcelona, it is one of Catalonia’s colorful and distinctive cities. The Alvears live in a second floor flat on the bank of the river Ter, much as seen in this picture. Matías would fish off of the balcony. Gerona was a convenient setting as it was involved in the military uprising, but not so famously as to prevent the use of fictional characters. 


  1. Wonderful review of a beautiful book which I first read when it was published in the U.S. My mother bought it (it must have been a "Book of the Month" club selection. I never forgot it. The characters are very well-drawn (especially Pilar to this thirteen-year-old)and the moral ambiguities are enough to intrigue someone brought up to equate the Church with goodness, and Masons, freethinkers, and Communists with the devil.

    1. I'm impressed that you read this book at the age of 13! While it is beautiful and thought provoking, it isn't easy reading for the average junior high student. Thanks for your encouraging comments.

  2. I enjoyed your essay very much, and agree with so much, but you've written it better than I ever could have. I just finished the book yesterday.

    One thing that struck me was the scenes at the end with the townspeople burning and destroying churches. So many people! It made me realise that there must have always been large numbers of people who did not believe, even in "Catholic countries" like Spain. It goes some way towards explaining what happened in Mexico, which I always wondered about.

    "There are too many parallels with today around the world for comfort." Yes. When I read some of the hateful anti-Christian comments online, it is scary to think how easily it can turn to physical violence.

    However, the end, the end of Cesar's life really upset me. It made me wonder if Gironella was not a believer. It's so horrible how Cesar's holiness and spiritual development and devotion to God does not help him to realise that the two guys sent to the barracks/jail were sent to rescue him so he keeps quiet and is soon after shot. What did you you think of that part?
    It seemed very cynical to me.

    1. I think the key to understanding the ending is that Cesar intends to die. He is seeking martyrdom. That's why he goes out in the first place. "I am needed."

      That this is misguided is probably true, but it is what is in Cesar's heart. That is why he steals the wafers, and distributes them to those about to die. If he can save one soul (and he arguably does), his death will be worthwhile.

      What is cynical is the utter waste of human life on both sides. (Read up on the events of the war. What a bloody, hopeless mess. And it was all for what? Franco?) Cynical or not, it actually happened.

      Cesar's death shows the hopelessness of even the greatest good in such a situation. Cesar is willing to sacrifice his own life for the eternal good of others, and yet it is wasted along with thousands of others.

  3. Thank you for your response. I've read the ending again, with your response in mind, and it makes more sense. It's still sad, and I don't like it, but that's a different issue. It seemed like it didn't fit the first time, but maybe it was just me... reading too fast. I missed that Professor Civil completely prevents Cesar from speaking up when the two guys come searching for him. And, yes, there is the foreshadowing about his desiring martyrdom.

    Have you read the two sequels?

    1. I haven't read the sequels yet. My local library does have both books in English translation, so I should be able to get them.

      I also looked up the answer to your previous question. Gironella was Catholic, but tried to write from a neutral viewpoint in this book. He was also Catalan, which helps explain his focus on the political part of the feud - and why he set the book in the Catalan portion of Spain.

  4. I looked on Amazon, and I'm guessing the sequels were not as good or at least not as popular as The Cypresses, because they are out of print.