Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822

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The Cypresses Believe in God was José María Gironella’s third novel and the first to attain widespread success, being translated into several other languages. It is the first part of a trilogy about the Spanish Civil War, the other volumes being Un millón de muertos (1961; One Million Dead, 1963) and Ha estallado la paz (1966; Peace After War, 1969). A subsequent volume, Los hombres lloran solas (1986; men cry alone), was not as successful. Critics agree that The Cypresses Believe in God is the best book in the four-volume chronicle of the Alvear family.

The author wanted to accomplish a threefold task in his study, set in the years preceding the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and ending with the first incidents of the military insurrection that was eventually victorious under General Francisco Franco. His first concern was a chronicle of the Alvear family, with the coming to maturity of the three children the central feature. His next concern was the portrayal of the small city of Gerona with its population of twenty-five thousand as represented by the characters with whom members of the Alvear family interact: Ignacio’s fellow workers at the bank, César’s career as a seminarian, Pilar’s maturing and falling in love with Mateo Santos, fellow law student with Ignacio, son of the tobacconist with whom Matías plays dominoes, and organizer of the Falange in Gerona. Finally, as a backdrop there are the incidents of the coming of the civil war, at first distant and then increasingly closer.

Several influences are apparent in Gironella’s novel: The family chronicles of Benito Galdós and John Galsworthy are most frequently mentioned, as are the historical novels of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens. Gironella read Leo Tolstoy’s monumental Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) shortly before beginning work on The Cypresses Believe in God. Negative influences were the general developments in the early twentieth century novel, which many Spanish critics thought were overly intellectualized. Gironella returned to the techniques of realism and couched his work in a narrative prose style that some critics have considered crude and others factual and direct. His narration contrasts with the linguistic virtuosity, psychologizing, and stream-of-consciousness writing of Gironella’s immediate predecessors. The novel is rather slow moving, since the author is seeking to depict the rhythms of a small Spanish city, organized around the seasons and the main religious holidays. However, it is also a novel of action that increases in tempo as the civil war approaches.

There is such a multiplicity of characters in the novel that in the English translation the author placed, at the end, a list of the fictional characters, a list of the historical figures whose names appear in the novel, and an identification of the main political movements in Spain at that time. The reader needs this guidance. The portrayal of the characters is for the most part sympathetic; though the novel is written from the point of view of the insurgents, its protagonists are not saints, and, except at the end, the opponents are not demons. Gironella has various characters state in everyday language the political philosophies that they espouse, thus providing the reader an idea of the complexity of Spanish politics at that time. The destructive aspect of the civil war is revealed in the development of the characters: Mateo Santos, though a good friend of Ignacio and Pilar’s sweetheart, organizes and leads the beating of Dr. Relken. Cosme Vila, Ignacio’s colleague at the bank, first appears as a character that Dickens might have created and ends as the organizer of executions, including César’s. One criticism lodged against the novel is that the coup by the insurgents is portrayed as bloodless, with Dr. Relken’s beating their only atrocity, whereas the counter-coup by the anarchists and Communists is characterized by the machine-gunning of praying nuns.

The title of the book comes from the cypress trees that adorn most Spanish cemeteries. As a young seminarian, César is forbidden by his spiritual advisers to spend too much time visiting cemeteries, and at the end of the novel it is in a cemetery that he is executed. Ignacio’s character development parallels that of the author. Both were born at approximately the same time, had initial aspirations toward the priesthood, then worked in a bank. Gironella went on to serve in the insurgent army and, at the time of writing The Cypresses Believe in God, was working in a bookstore in Gerona. His novel was enthusiastically received in the United States at the time of its appearance, was a selection of the Catholic Digest Book Club, and was extensively reviewed. It should be read as a counterbalance to novels of the Spanish Civil War that take the Loyalist side, such as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and André Malraux’s L’Espoir (1937; Days of Hope, 1938).