José María Gironella Essay - Critical Essays

JoséMaría Gironella


According to José María Gironella, the seed for his mammoth enterprise, to create in novel form an explanation of historical events in contemporary Spain, was planted December 30, 1937. Spain was in its second winter of civil war. Gironella was serving as a ski soldier in the Pyrenees along Spain’s border with France when he was approached by a French girl from among the many skiers who frequented the area. Tearing a button from Gironella’s uniform as a souvenir, the girl quickly darted away on her skis, but not before inquiring as to the ridiculousness of shooting one’s brothers. This incident provoked in the young Spaniard a desire to explain to this girl and the entire world what was occurring in his country. Sixteen years later, with the publication of The Cypresses Believe in God, Gironella’s effort became a reality. This first work of the series covers the pre-Civil War period, from April, 1931, to July, 1936, and won for its author Spain’s national prize for literature in 1953. It is considered to be the author’s masterpiece.

The Cypresses Believe in God

The Cypresses Believe in God is an ambitious epic written in the realistic tradition; it neither defends nor condemns but rather observes and records, with the attitude that the reader may reach his or her own conclusions relative to the events that are narrated. To afford continuity to the epic, the author has selected one family, the Alvears, and one location, the city of Gerona, in Catalonia, as representative of all Spanish families and places who contribute to the amalgam of the period that incubates the war. The Alvears are thus elevated to a symbolic stature, and Gerona as well becomes a microcosm of the entire country, one in which the reader can view the evolution of those forces that divided Spain into two uncompromising extremes.

Though it is a panoramic work, sociopolitical in intent, The Cypresses Believe in God is also the chronicle of a family. Matías Alvear, a Castilian and clerk at the local telegraph office, is married to Carmen Elgazu, a Basque. In the home, there is an atmosphere of mutual respect in spite of the native differences, which are reflected also in the contrasts among the three children. César, given to meditation and spiritual matters, enters the priesthood aided by the urging of his mother. Pilar is sheltered and obedient. Ignacio, a mirror of the author, is both an idealist and a skeptic. He is the protagonist who, like Spain itself, bears the burden of an inner struggle as he searches but continues to doubt during the course of the national conflict. The novel is primarily Ignacio’s story, narrating his journey into adulthood and documenting the challenges and growth that are associated with the individual, the family, and the national scene as well.

Upon leaving the seminary, Ignacio determines to experience life as abundantly as possible. He acquires a position at a bank while continuing to work toward a degree in law. Through Ignacio and his association with various individuals, the reader is provided a tour of the culture and institutions of Gerona, the intellectual arguments and positions of all political parties, platforms, and events, in a variety of social environments. Ignacio’s cousin, José, representing the voice of the Falange, schools the protagonist in anticlericalism and introduces him into politics. Together, they attend political meetings and discussions. David and Olga Pol allow Ignacio the perspective from the political Left, and they, in turn, instruct Ignacio in their ideology. They escort the protagonist to an overcrowded mental institution and discuss with him the need for social reform. These and other characters serve as representatives of the various social and political points of view.

The fictional episodes of the Alvear family and Ignacio’s experiences are interwoven with the historical events surrounding the deterioration of the political crisis. The protagonist becomes romantically involved with the aristocrat Ana María, and while on vacation with his family, he quits school and later returns to the study of law. A schoolmate, Mateo Santos, a leader of the Falange, becomes a major character through his romantic involvement with Pilar. As the threat of war escalates, the Communists, reacting to the execution of a member of the party, set fire to the cypress forests around Gerona. This action is for Ignacio’s brother, César, a signal of the potential for a godless Spain, as these stately trees symbolize a belief in the deity (hence the title of the novel). This act of violence brings the Falange into political prominence, and the atrocities escalate on both sides. Ignacio’s political commitment remains nebulous, although he has developed feelings for Marta de Soria, a Falangist leader.

The protagonist passes part of his law examinations, but the political situation forces him to postpone the completion of his studies. His friend, Mateo Santos, who has been detained, is freed and goes into hiding. César is detained also and, despite Ignacio’s belated attempt to save his brother, is executed for no good reason. This death, although fulfilling César’s desire to achieve martyrdom, demonstrates the chaos that accompanies the violence of the period. The novel closes with César’s execution, and the reader, who is not subjected to his moralizing, is nevertheless impressed that a senseless action has occurred.

The character of Ignacio is a combination...

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