José María Gironella

by JoséMaría Gironella

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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...

(This entire section contains 2252 words.)

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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 of idealism and hope in conflict with doubt and skepticism. He represents a struggle between reason and emotion and is a symbol of two Spains, the struggle between the progressive and the traditional. Inasmuch as Gironella utilizes the protagonist to effect a composite view of the Spain of that period, the character has been assessed as a transparent window, without depth of character or personal convictions, through which one might view the opinions and intrigues that precipitated the war. Indeed, one of the principal shortcomings of the novel is the protagonist’s failure to generate a strong personal commitment to anything. Yet the character is artfully drawn and does represent an active force in the novel.

Ignacio and his creator believe that the individual, through his or her own moral capabilities, will survive over the collective. Each Spaniard will develop a personal interpretation of the war based on his or her own experiences. It is this personal concept, directed toward the future in the hope of creating a more sensitive and searching national conscience, that distinguishes Gironella. In spite of the tragedy of the war, Gironella teaches that each side may retain its personal dignity and yet recognize the courage and honor of the other.

The epic nature of the novel is enhanced by the artistic integration of historical data with fiction. Thus, the sweeping proportions of The Cypresses Believe in God do not diminish the reality that the novel is about a family. For Gironella, the family is the basic unit of a successful society, and throughout this novel an accounting is made of each of the Alvears. The novel succeeds on both levels, yet the breadth of the work is extensive at the expense of depth. Historical, economic, and political intricacies, as well as family episodes of minor importance, could have been omitted.

One Million Dead

One Million Dead narrates the period from July 30, 1936, to April 1, 1939, and purports to provide a panoramic view of the war years. The author portrays the two factions simultaneously and attempts to be as impartial as possible. Gironella evinces a skill for meticulous documentation and verisimilitude, and, as for the preceding volume, he spent years collecting data, interviewing Spanish and foreign participants and witnesses, and searching archives for pertinent newspapers, photographs, and editorials. His personal participation in the conflict contributes to his insight. The title of this novel is intended to stand for the actual number of those who died in the conflict—slightly less than half a million—as well as those who, possessed by hate, destroyed their own souls.

In this novel, the Alvear family continues to occupy center stage, but the setting broadens to include all parts of Spain. The action begins in the cemetery where César has been killed. Ignacio discovers his brother’s body and is haunted by the speculation that he might have been able to save him. The incident ignites a criticism of the war by the protagonist, who, with his family, is neutral as the struggle escalates. Ignacio’s present sweetheart, Marta de Soria, a Falange activist, escapes to France. She has a short-lived relationship with an Italian soldier who, like many other characters in this volume, introduces an international thread to the fabric of the conflict. As the war proceeds, Ignacio finally enlists in the Nationalist armies as a medical aide. His travels take him to Barcelona and Madrid, where he works in a hospital for the wounded. He also experiences a journey into the Pyrenees, where he meets a group of Nationalist soldiers in a ski patrol. He is awed by the peace that he finds in these mountains. This and many other incidents in the novel reveal the author’s autobiographical stamp on the action of thenarrative.

Ignacio’s mother adopts a homeless orphan whose parents had been killed at Guernica. As the war draws to a close, the various members of the family are drawn again to Gerona. Mateo de Soria also returns, as does his sister, Marta. Together, the family attends the first public mass to be held in Gerona’s cathedral in three years. The novel concludes with a quiet scene in which General Francisco Franco, at work in his office in Nationalist headquarters, is informed by an aide that the war is officially over. Franco simply responds that it is good and, thanking the aide, returns to his work.

This novel is broader in scope than its predecessor. It narrates the war from the point of view of both factions, not simply from a military perspective; it includes sociological, religious, and political intrigues as well. The author remains apart and detached as he analyzes each occurrence without judging. This preference for the external and for objective distance does not serve Gironella well in his portrayal of the inner world of his characters. As a result, the vitality of some of the characters in The Cypresses Believe in God is fettered in the sequel. The author isolates himself from individuality, though he makes an effort to portray the distinctive souls of the provinces of Spain and to bless his characters with a unique and personal psychological depth. In each case, the author fails, a victim of his need to discover objectively and explain the significance of the Civil War.

Although One Million Dead does not accommodate the empathy that might unlock the interior world of its characters, it is a systematic, organized analysis of the war. The Cypresses Believe in God has been termed a novel with historical pretensions, whereas One Million Dead has been judged a historical work interlaced with fiction.

The fictional aspect of the novel is further weakened by the author’s tendency to stereotype minor characters and to level certain judgments based on their political affiliations. Communists, for example, are generally portrayed as villains in contrast to the noble efforts of the Falangists. Although Gironella insists on impartiality in his portrayal of the historical and political aspect of his novels, there is a tendency to favor the Nationalist platform. His continual reminder of the strength of the family unit as the key to Spain’s hope for the future is a constant reiteration of the Nationalist theme. The victorious Falange is spared severe criticism, although it has been argued that Gironella was required to tread with care to avoid possible censorship. As the novel concludes, General Franco is portrayed, without excessive praise or propaganda, as the hope of Spain’s future.

Peace After War

Peace After War—a slow-paced and all-too-predictable sequel to One Million Dead—treats the period between 1939 and 1941. Its emphasis is on the reconstruction of Spain under Franco, and the author praises the reforms of the Nationalists while portraying an atmosphere of unity and pride. Reform and greater national liberty through changes instituted by the government are emphasized, while resentment against the regime is kept to a minimum. Gironella demonstrates complete acceptance of Franco’s policy and places emphasis once again on the fictional aspects of the work. The Alvears are reunited. Ignacio graduates from the University of Barcelona and assumes a life given more to reflection than to action. His sweetheart, Marta de Soria, devotes her attention to politics, while Ignacio renews his affection for his first love, Ana María.

The marriage of Pilar to Mateo Santos assumes a more important position in this novel. Mateo displays a fanatical zeal to sacrifice his life, if necessary, in the fight against Communism. Pilar makes an unsuccessful attempt to dissuade him, but, unable to draw from herself the strength she requires, she withdraws to her family for moral support. Pilar’s foil is her cousin, Paz, sensual, alienated from the family because of her leftist politics, but, unlike most of Gironella’s protagonists, strong and motivated.

In addition to his Spanish Civil War cycle, Gironella published several other novels, but his reputation ultimately will rest on a single work, The Cypresses Believe in God. Although in many respects this novel has dated badly, it retains its historical value as a sweeping portrait of Spain during a crucial period in its history.


Gironella, José María