BUT HOW HAD SPAIN GOTTEN TO THAT POINT? Here’s where my favorite novel, The Cypresses Believe in God, comes in. José Gironella, a Spanish Christian conservative who died in 2003, shows how Spain from 1931 to 1936 polarized to the point where people could “tell from the trademark in a man’s socks where he stands on the mystery of the Incarnation.”
The first half of the novel is warm and humorous. The main character is Ignacio Alvear, who wants to help the poor and had been educated to think socialism is the way to do it. Ignacio’s father, Matías, leans that way also, but his mother is a devout Catholic. A younger brother, César, is saintly.
Bright family scenes contrast with political shadows, giving flesh to C.S. Lewis’ wise statement in Mere Christianity: “The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden—that is what the State is there for.”
But others think the State is theirs to control, as both hard left and hard right become replacements for Christian faith. Anarchist José says, “You have to wipe out whatever stands in the way of the good of mankind.” Professors blacklist a Christian-oriented academy “because the director has refused to remove the crucifix from the classrooms.”
Early in the novel, saintly César gives free classes to poor children, and sees happiness, but by the midway point “even in the children’s eyes there was evidence of a certain disturbance. Now, as César looked at them carefully, those children frightened him. They were growing and they would absorb all the poison the neighborhood exuded.”
More: “There were moments when he felt like leaving the class, going up into a balcony as though it were a pulpit, and gathering together all the people below—the children, the sick, the barflies, the railroad workers, the gypsies—and talking to them of the Gospel, of the words it contains: ‘Blessed are the …’ But he did not dare. Because life there was like a liquid under pressure which might suddenly explode. The children grew in insolence, the grown-ups demanded justice and new clothes. … If he did manage to talk, they would think him crazy.”
In 1934, after the left tries a takeover and fails, “the gulf between victors and vanquished was ten times deeper. … The vanquished withdrew to their spiritual island, and defeat had united them in a common cause. Triumph had gone to the others’ heads.” The conservatives decided to “do nothing. Everything would go on the same.”
Ignacio has “a foreboding that all of them, together, were approaching a great catastrophe, and for that reason he loved his neighbor more than ever. … And the Bible! Great heavens! ‘Those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell.’” But the head of the local Communist party makes a dirty fighter, Murillo, one of the leaders: “Cosme Vila was well aware that a man without scruples would come in handy some day. Naturally, they would have to keep an eye on him. But if he ever washed that raincoat, he’d lose half of his value.”
What has Barcelona learned? Capitalism in practice has clearly won, but socialist ideology is still strong.
Vila instructs the comrades: “‘You already know the ultimate goal: the total destruction of the bourgeois setup in the city and the province. The means we will use are those which best fit each case, so nobody is to get upset if we shout viva for something one day and muera the next. We believe that what counts is the future.’ … Cosme Vila felt equal hatred for the landowners, the military, and the clergy. He felt the same way about the dissident elements” among the revolutionaries. (One of whom became George Orwell.)
Given the differences in technology, Spaniards in 1936 seem like some of our internet lynch mobs: “Feeling rose like a rip-tide … the air would suddenly be filled with handbills that floated slowly groundward from roofs and housetops. They were anonymous and colored red and yellow with the four bars of blood. … A group of men filled to overflowing with anger … spent their time filling the city with signs. ‘Down with this one, Down with that one’ … with a skull underneath.”
Some of the flashpoints seem similar to our own. A Christian schoolteacher sexually abuses children. The government decrees no public prayers, and when a priest begins the Lord’s Prayer at a cemetery, “In a flash the policemen had leaped across the three steps … instantly a concert of shrill whistles broke out on the other side of the wall.” On the rear entrance of a church “someone had written: ‘Long live Me!’”
By 1936 Ignacio sees how “the prevailing atmosphere had addled people’s brains. A great transformation was taking place.” That’s when the anti-fascist revolutionary committees take control, lining up and murdering thousands—first conservatives, then revolutionaries who did not bow to Moscow—as the three-year Spanish Civil War begins.
The English translation of The Cypresses Believe in God, published in 1955, is 997 pages long yet beautifully composed and accelerating in intensity, like the orchestral piece Boléro by Maurice Ravel, who died in 1937. Some of the names of 1930s political movements are different now, yet Spain then is a warning to the United States today: One genteel socialist learns that when a leader “shouts ‘Long live our historic mission!’ you ask yourself how many coffins are going to be needed.”
But this great novel has, along with its relentless theme, a redemptive title: The Cypresses Believe in God. The tall Mediterranean cypress in the ancient world was a symbol of both mourning and God’s sovereignty. Ancient Israelites used cypresses to construct Solomon’s Temple. Their long, thin shape made cypresses, growing and gaining nurture through God’s power, an example of uprightness. Evergreens that grow in Barcelona still suggest the immortality of the soul.
This page is part of this issue’s 2019 Books of the Year section.