Friday, 14 May 2010

Josep Maria Gironella 1917-2003

One of Spain’s most celebrated, but controversial, postwar novelists has died suddenly just a couple of days after his 85th birthday. Josep Maria Gironella was best known for one blockbuster volume, Los cipreses creen en Dios (The Cypresses Believe in God, 1953), after the then virtually unknown Catalan writer managed to persuade a cash-strapped publisher in Madrid to take a risk on it. The title has clocked up some 12 million sales since then, going through almost weekly reprints at its peak and making Gironella Spain’s top-selling author for the ensuing quarter-century. It has been widely translated, even into Finnish, Hebrew and Japanese, and became popular with Spanish language teachers worldwide because of its accessible style.
Gironella’s earlier efforts, a book of poetry and two novels, had earned him the prestigious Nadal Prize in 1946 but precious little else, since they barely sold in the hundreds. But Los cipreses and its equally bulky companions, Un millón de muertos (A Million Dead, 1961) and Ha estallado la paz (Peace Has Broken Out, 1963) hit the Spanish market with fine timing. This was the first-ever family saga tackling the traumatic decade of 1931-41, through the Republic, the Civil War and its aftermath. It was a period the author knew well.
Born in the village of Darnius in Girona province, Gironella enrolled in the local seminary at the age of 11 but lasted only a few years. As a teenager he held various menial jobs in retail and in a distillery. When Franco launched his assault on the Republic in 1936, Gironella signed up with the rebels and served for three years, demobilised into poverty which called for desperate measures: he was once imprisoned when a smuggling venture went awry.
He made his literary debut in 1946, with both a poetry collection and a novel, Un hombre (A Man), the latter winning the Nadal Prize which he had promised to secure as a present for his new bride, Magdalena Castañer (Magda; they had no children). In 1949, the couple left for Paris, where Gironella threw himself into drafting and redrafting the series that began with Los cipreses.
It is the tale of the Alvear family, who move to Girona during the Republican period just in time to observe – and internalise – the emerging social crisis. There is a wide variety of characters in the story, mostly portrayed in a curiously non-judgemental light: a position defended by the author, who was clearly of the Catholic right but perhaps sought not to offend the other half of his potential audience. Gironella later said he felt it was a matter of answering back to previous literary accounts of the war: "All that had been written up to then, especially by foreign authors, like Hemingway, Malraux, Bernanos, was just concerned with the war as such. I wanted to explain why the Spanish War took place, why the country split into two irreconcilable sides prepared to kill each other."
He kept up this kind of ambivalence in his prologue to the second book of the series: "The title of the book, A Million Dead, could be misleading. Because in truth, the victims, the actually deceased, the dead bodies, added up to about 500,000. I put ‘a million’ because I include among ‘the dead’ the killers, all those who, seized by hatred, killed their own sense of compassion, killed their own spirits."
Franco’s censors, normally prepared to stamp on even such innocuous statements, did not intervene; but there were some rhetorical attacks on Gironella from the most extreme and least sophisticated quarters of Francoism. In the later democratic Spain, Gironella gave himself the credit: he said he simply told the censor the foreign rights were already sold, and overseas publishers would love to slap a “Banned in Spain” label on the cover.
A nice yarn, but bearing in mind that the regime’s censor-in-chief, Manuel Fraga, presented Gironella with the National Literary Prize in 1955, it is doubtful he was seen as much of a threat to the dictatorship. Indeed, much of his success, including further high-profile literary awards, may have been due partly to repression stifling the voices of talented writers of a more troublesome political disposition. Mediocrity does tend to flourish under tyrants, and Gironella could be mediocre when he really tried.
Apart from the Civil War series, the rest of his output was at least quantitatively quite impressive, including books of essays and interviews, religiously-inspired texts, further novels and frequent journalistic sallies in the right-wing press.
His first name, by the way, is usually given as José; but his first language was Catalan and Josep is the form invariably used in that region’s media, including Gironella’s regular outlet, the Diari de Girona. He once claimed that the reason his Castilian prose style was uncomplicated was that he did his thinking first in Catalan and then translated it onto the page. He died in Arenys de Mar, Barcelona.
  • Josep Maria Gironella i Pous, novelist, essayist and poet: born 31 December 1917; died 3 January 2003

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