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José María Gironella: Los cipreses creen en Dios (The Cypresses Believe in God)

[Note that this book and the other three in the tetralogy are in the period before, during and after the Spanish Civil War. For English speakers ignorant of this period, in addition to the websites here, Hugh Thomas’ book The Spanish Civil War is highly recommended. Make sure you get the revised and enlarged edition (1977). You can enjoy these books without knowing about the Spanish Civil War but it certainly helps to have an idea of the often complicated politics of the period.]

This novel is set in the period leading up to the Civil War. All the action takes place in Gerona (Girona) and is set around the Alvear family. Carmen Elgazu, the mother, a Basque by origin, is very religious (and therefore right-wing in her politics). Matias, the father, who works in the telegraph office, tends to be left-wing and anti-clerical but has toned down his views to please his wife. There are two sons – Ignacio, who is the hero of the novel, and César, and one daughter, Pilar. Ignacio is initially sent to the seminary to study but soon realises he is not suitable, particularly when he starts having guilty feelings about masturbating. When he tells his parents that he does not have a vocation for it, his father is happy enough, though his mother is heart-broken. However, she soon realises her younger son, César, will more than make up for her loss and, indeed, he goes to the seminary and is generally considered to be a saintly person. Pilar, like most of the women in this book, is definitely a minor character and mainly considered only in relationship to her brothers and Mateo, the man she comes to love.

After his change of heart, Ignacio goes to work for a bank and then studies law. His legal studies are carried out with Mateo, a cousin but also a major influence on Ignacio, for Mateo is a Falangist (the Falangists were the Spanish fascists). Till that time, Ignacio’s politics had been substantially left-wing, particularly under the influence of his teachers, David and Olga. However, under Mateo’s influence, he becomes a Falangist but then has second thoughts and, though he does not totally reject them, he is clearly undecided about his political leanings by the end of the book (the outbreak of the Civil War). As well as his career and politics, we also follow his love life – from masturbation, he passes to Ana María, a girl he meets on holiday, who continues to write to him, though he does not reply, probably, at least in part, because he is feeling guilty at getting a dose of the clap from his girlfriend, Canela. Finally, Marta, strong Falangist supporter, becomes his girlfriend.

While following the life of the Alvears is fascinating, what makes this book is the slowly developing political situation which will lead to the Spanish Civil War, as seen through the eyes of Gerona. At first, political events are subordinated to the story of the Alvears but, gradually, they take over and we get to meet representatives of all persuasions – Mateo, the Falangist and Cosme Vila, the Communist and all shades in between. They fight, they explode bombs, they attack one another, they kill, they organise, they strike, they demonstrate – the whole outbreak of the War, as it happens in Gerona, is clearly and superbly portrayed. The rest of the country is mentioned but only in passing – Franco’s rebellion in the Canaries, for example, which, with the benefit of hindsight, we know will be the key event is mentioned only in passing. This is a long book (over 900 pages in the Spanish version though the English version is only 806 pages) – in the introduction, Gironella apologises, saying that every effort he has made to shorten the book has been in vain – and Gironella uses this length to give us a clear and detailed picture of all aspects of the events leading up to the war. His sympathies are to the right but his portrayals of the protagonists are generally fair and he does not use satire or similar literary methods to condemn, giving them all a chance to speak for themselves. If your literary view of the Spanish Civil War comes only from Hemingway and Orwell, this book will be well worth your while.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1953 by Editorial Planeta
First published in English 1955 by Knopf
Translated by Harriet de Onís