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In torrid August, 1954, I was under the blue skies of the Midi, just a few hours from the Spanish frontier. To my right stretched the flat, green fields of southern France; to my left lay a sweep of sand beyond which the Mediterranean heaved and sparkled. I was alone. I had no commitments. Seated in my car, I held the steering wheel in my hands. I wanted to go to Spain, but something was holding me back. The only thing that stood between me and a Spain that beckoned as much as it repelled was a state of mind. God knows, totalitarian governments and ways of life were no mysteries to me. I had been born under an absolutistic racist regime in Mississippi; I had lived and worked for twelve years under the political dictatorship of the Communist party of the United States; and I had spent a year of my life under the police terror of Per¢n in Buenos Aires. So why avoid the reality of life under Franco? What was I scared of?
For almost a decade I had ignored the admonitions of my friends to visit Spain--the one country of the Western world about which, as though shunning the memory of a bad love affair, I did not want to exercise my mind. I had even resisted the solemn preachments of Gertrude Stein who, racked with pain and with only a few days to live, had counseled me (while nervously tugging with the fingers of her right hand at a tuft of hair on her forehead):
"Dick, you ought to go to Spain."
"Why?" I had asked her.
"You'll see the past there. You'll see what the Western world is made of. Spain is primitive, but lovely. And the people! There are no people such as the Spanish anywhere. I've spent days in Spain that I'll neverforget. See those bullfights, see that wonderful landscape. . . ."
And still I had not gone. During the Spanish Civil War I had published, in no less than the New York Daily Worker, some harsh judgments concerning Franco; and the dive bombers and tanks of Hitler and Mussolini had brutally justified those judgments. The fate of Spain had hurt me, had haunted me; I had never been able to stifle a hunger to understand what had happened there and why. Yet I had no wish to resuscitate mocking recollections while roaming a land whose free men had been shut in concentration camps, or exiled, or slain. An uneasy question kept floating in my mind: How did one live after the death of the hope for freedom?
Suddenly resolved, I swung my car southward, toward those humped and ragged peaks of the Pyrenees which, some authorities claim, mark the termination of Europe and the beginning of Africa. The look of the world darkened; a certain starkness of mood hovered over the landscape. Gray-green masses of bald rock reared toward a distant and indifferent sky. I edged my car along in the wake of the car ahead, circling around the snaky curves of the tilting mountain slopes, glancing now and then from the narrow road to plunging precipices that yawned but a yard from my elbow.
Toward evening, under a remote and paling sky, I crossed the frontier and entered my first Spanish town--a too quiet, dreary conglomeration of squat, pastel-tinted houses: Le Perthus. Ringed by a horizon of blue-green, naked mountains whose somber hues altered with the passing hours, this border town, after the tension and rush of life in Nice, Cannes, and Paris, seemed alien of aspect, torpid, forgotten, marooned in the past. Being a national whose country had air bases on Spanish soil, the customs and immigration requirements were but a formality, yet I had to wait, and wait. Fatigued, I garaged my car and decided to spend the night in Le Perthus and take the coastal road for Barcelona the next morning.
My hotel room, with bath, cost one dollar and a quarter, as against twelve dollars that a dingier room, without bath, would have fetched on the C“te d'Azur. My seven-course dinner, with wine, penalized me one dollar and a half, but when I learned that the waiter serving me had a salary of only one hundred pesetas (plus tips) a month, I began to understand. (A peseta has roughly the value of a large Irish potato and it would take about forty-five of such potatoes to buy the equivalent of a dollar's worth of anything.) My shower had no curtain; when I used it, water flooded the floor. There were no ashtrays; one dropped ashes upon the beautiful Moorish tiles and smothered burning butts with one's heel. The furnishings were shiny, rickety; the table sagged threateningly when I placed my typewriter upon it. My elbow collided accidentally with the thin headboard of my bed and I was startled by a deep, vibrating boom, as though a huge drum had been struck. Several times an hour the electric bulb dimmed momentarily.
Awakened by the melancholy tolling of churchbells and the strident, reedy crowing of cocks, I rose and found the morning air bracingly cool, the sky lowering and gray. The wall of mountains enclosing the town was dim and shadowy, half drowned in an ocean of mist. I pulled into a gas station and tanked up, for I'd been warned that gas was scarce. As I released my car brake and clutched to leave, a Civil Guard officer wearing a dark green uniform, a gleaming black patent-leather hat and nonchalantly dangling a machine gun at his side, confronted me, clapped his hand upon my right shoulder, and sadly blabbered something in Spanish. I blinked, understanding nothing; I was in a police state and I thought: This is it. . . . I extended my passport, but he waved that aside, shaking his head. The gas station attendant spoke French and told me that I was not being arrested, that the man merely wished a lift. The officer was clad most imposingly and I could not believe that one of his rank did not have a car at his disposal. I consented and he climbed in, machine gun and all.
Having no language in common, we both were prey to a curious and uneasy compulsion to talk, not to communicate but to try to let each other know that we were civilized and of good will. We chatted at random, keeping fixed smiles on our faces, furtively glancing at each other out of the corners of our eyes, and then laughing unnaturally loud and long at our inability to understand what the other was saying. I divined that he was asking me if I were an American Negro, if I liked Spain, and I also guessed that he was trying to tell me something about his family. . . . Then suddenly he touched my arm and made motions with his right foot, pumping jerkily and vigorously downward. Thinking that he was signaling for speed, I pressed the accelerator and the car shot forward. He hugged his machine gun, looked at his wrist watch, doubled his fists and again motioned with his foot for me to press down. I jammed the accelerator to the floor, feeling that if I were hailed for speeding I had an officer of the law at my side as my alibi. Finally, he grew desperate and, walling his eyes, he shook his head. I got the point: he had been urging me to step on the brake. I drew to a side of the road and offered to drive him back over the distance that I had overshot his destination, but, thanking me profusely, he would have none of it. We parted, shaking hands, waving frantically and nervously at each other, laughing uproariously, trying to fill the void that gaped between us. Head down, he lumbered off, his machine gun cradled in his arm.
Over reddish, undulating country the road advanced tortuously up into dark and jagged mountains whose scarred peaks soared till they blended with gray-blue mist. The day grew gradually brighter, revealing a bleak, seemingly diseased and inhospitable landscape that grudged the few patches of scrubby vegetation showing against vast humped mounds of leprous-looking rubble. Later, dainty groves of stunted, dark green olive trees clung precariously to the slanting mountainsides, their filigreed leaves glowing like silver in the deepening morning's light. The mountain road was rough and steeply inclined and the hairpin curves came sharp and unexpected and my body could feel the heavy tug of gravity as I twisted the steering wheel. Against a background of stacks of cone-shaped, yellow-brown hay, I saw a stout peasant woman dressed in bright red; she was trudging laboriously, her face downcast, her head balancing a huge earthen jug of water. Farther, I passed another peasant; he was perched atop his creaking, manure-filled cart; in his right fist he clutched a gaudy, rolled-up, frayed comic book, his dull eyes staring vacantly out across the splayed ears of his fuzzy-dirty donkey that ambled along with the slow movements of an equine sleepwalker.
Ahead, spanning the road, was a beautifully arched white stone bridge at each end of which stood a Civil Guard in gleaming black patent-leather hats and dark green uniforms, each with a machine gun nestling in the crook of his right arm. Respect for the show of power made me brake my car, anticipating my being stopped and challenged. They stared at me and I at them, but they made no sign. I drove over the bridge and rolled on, uncertain, feeling a naked vulnerability creeping down the skin of my back. I was not accustomed to armed strangers of unknown motives standing in my rear and I waited to hear raatatatatatat and feel hot slugs of steel crashing into my car and into my flesh. But nothing happened. I increased my speed, thankful for the distance between me and the black muzzles of those machine guns. Why were the bridges under guard? Under this calm, dreary landscape there seemed to lurk coiled tensions, fears. Pagan Spain. Copyright © by Richard A. Wright. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted February 12, 2011
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