The Cypresses Believe in God
by José María Gironella.
Ignatius, [1953] 2005.
Paper, 900 pages.

When Eric Hobsbawm suggested that the period 1914–1991 could be called “the short twentieth century,” he not only defined an era but separated it from our own. Few conflicts are as emblematic of that final modern century than the Spanish Civil War; the familiar English-language writings on the war can seem remote from us, Orwell and Hemingway. If you want to see what’s only too contemporary in the Spanish clash of ideologies, turn to a novel by a man of the Spanish Right: José María Gironella’s 1953 epic The Cypresses Believe in God.

Cypresses is as poignant and telling in its failures as in its successes. This thousand-page tale is really two books. The central character in the first half is Ignacio, the eldest child of a middle-class Catholic family in a small Catalonian city. The central character in the second half is the impending civil war.

The first half of the novel is warm, human-scale, gently satirical. We meet the Alvear family: Matías, the practical and skeptical father, bourgeois to the core; Carmen Elgazu, the delightfully ferocious Basque matriarch; Ignacio, blown every which way by the winds of impulse and political fervor; Pilar, the romantic and frivolous daughter; and César, the younger son, whom everybody agrees is a saint.

César is an especially fine creation. He’s a sweet and sheltered kid, and his devotion erases any border between the sublime and the ridiculous. He imitates St. Francis by being “polite to everyone, beginning with inanimate objects.” His religious superior, having forbidden him from doing severe physical penance, trains him in humility by making him drink chocolate brought to him by maidservants. His grand mission from God is to shave the poor. From his very first appearance he is marked for death.

It’s through César that Gironella plays out his sharpest critique of both Left and Right: that they are both replacements for Catholic faith, replacements which turn violence outward against others rather than taking suffering on themselves. The fascists’ recruiting cry is, “It depends on your capacity for sacrifice.” But what the fascists mean by sacrifice is invading Ethiopia. César’s mortifications of his flesh mirror the anarchist violence of his cousin José: Both seek justice, but one sacrifices other people to his ideals. Gironella himself fought in the Civil War, in a Carlist (Bourbon monarchist) unit, and he shows deep sympathy for the risks and sacrifices undertaken by men of violence. But he subtly and consistently offers César as the alternative: the thwarted, beloved, absurd possibility that we must sacrifice only ourselves.

One of Cypresses‘ achievements is that it shows the great, fragile beauty of bourgeois life. Gironella identifies political extremism as “the rebellion of the lonely,” those without family ties. The terrible injustice of prewar Spain, depicted here with conviction and pity, is that so few children grew up in a household like the Alvears’: where the father has work and the mother has faith, where every night the family gathers around the embroidered tablecloth.

The Alvears live in a city where jazz is replacing bullfights, choral societies replacing solo singing, modernity replacing premodernity—and political displays replacing Catholic processions. Religious persecution appears whenever republicans or Leftists gain power: The Good Friday procession is outlawed, the nuns are kicked out of their schools and hospitals. One of the distressingly familiar features of Cypresses‘ world is that church is for the rich and middle-class, and the poor are mostly estranged from it, even hostile to faith. (The Good Friday procession, restored by the right-wing government, offers the only exception—prostitutes come to the brothel windows to pray as the masked penitents go by.) One of the other, unexpected resonances is the pervasive presence of suicide. Gironella never hammers on this theme, but suicide shadows the lives of many of the novel’s politicized characters—the characters outside the cozy Alvear home.

The novel’s great flaw might be described as “form follows function.” Cypresses is a novel about how political extremism destroys human individuality, and in the second half of the novel, the characters are sidelined by their politics. The first half of Cypresses is a rich social novel; the second half is a clash of acronyms. The solo singers—one subtle theme of the book is that Catholic faith makes the characters more individual, unlike political faiths—become choruses, and then armies.

At the opening of the novel all the characters are moderates, neither Communist nor fascist. Their options close slowly, relentlessly, and Gironella makes you feel the pressure to join one of the two united fronts. His treatment of the Falange is intensely sympathetic though not propagandistic. His individual Communists are often sympathetic as well, but their movement is defined by its attacks on the Church, and the novel climaxes in an orgy of anti-Catholic violence.

Throughout the novel the Church’s official representatives associate it with the rich and the Army, for its own protection. These alliances only alienate the poor and make the Church a target of working-class rage. All the book’s bad alliances are understandable, and therefore tragic; Gironella has no interest in condemning his characters for their failures, whether political or spiritual. If the novel’s gentle humanity is slowly replaced by speechmaking, its satire turned into newsreel—well, that too might feel familiar.  

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C. She is author, most recently of Amends, a novel.