An account by “the finest travel writer of the last century” of his journey through 1930s Spain in search of an ancestral tomb (The New Yorker).
In the 1930s, Norman Lewis and his brother-in-law, Eugene Corvaja, journeyed to Spain to visit the family’s ancestral tomb in Seville. Seventy years later, with evocative and engrossing prose, Lewis recounts the trip, taken on the brink of the Spanish Civil War.
Witnesses to the changing political climate and culture, Lewis and Corvaja travel through the countryside from Madrid to Seville by bus, car, train, and on foot, encountering many surprises along the way. Dodging the skirmishes that will later erupt into war, they immerse themselves in the local culture and landscape, marveling at the many enchantments of Spain during this pivotal time in its history.
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The Tomb in Seville
Crossing Spain on the Brink of Civil War
By Norman Lewis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Estate of Norman Lewis
All rights reserved.
My father-in-law, Ernesto Corvaja, although Sicilian by birth, was obsessively concerned with all matters pertaining to Spain. His family originally came from there, which was evident from their name, and there was said to be evidence to prove that an ancestor had been included in the suite of the viceroy Caracciolo, sent from Spain to Sicily following its conquest.
In his London house Ernesto still nourished the ghost of a Spanish environment with a housekeeper recruited from some sad Andalusian village who glided silently from room to room wearing a skirt reaching to her ankles, and kept the house saturated with the odour of frying saffron. Despite Ernesto's agnosticism, a Spanish priest in exile was called in to bless the table on the days of religious feasts, and although Ernesto's son Eugene resisted his father's efforts to send him to Spain to complete his studies, his daughter, Ernestina, briefly to be my wife, had agreed to spend a year in a college in Seville.
Visits to Spain had taken on the nature of quasi-religious pilgrimages in this household, and Eugene's resistance was finally overcome by his father's offer to pay the expenses both of my brother-in-law and myself for a visit of two months to Seville. Here we could inspect the remains of the old so-called Corvaja Palace, pay our respects at the family tomb in the cathedral, and discover if any memory, however faint, had survived of the Corvajas in the ancient capital of Andalusia.
Our Spanish travels, it was decided, would begin at San Sebastián, just across the country's north-western frontier with France, thereafter following a slightly more circuitous approach to Seville, through the less developed and, to us, more interesting areas, including in the west, for example, the towns of Salamanca and Valladolid.
On Sunday 23 September 1934 we attempted to book seats on the train for San Sebastián, only to be told at the London ticket office that bookings could be made only as far as Irun on the French frontier with Spain. Here a temporary interruption of the traffic was expected to be rectified next day.
At Irun some twenty hours later, we found the frontier closed and the air buzzing with rumours; several Spanish passengers showed signs of alarm. Nevertheless those with tickets for Salamanca were given accommodation in a small but excellent local hotel, and a guide was provided to show us round a somewhat unexciting town. In the morning, entry into Spain had been restored and we boarded a train which carried us through to San Sebastián in just over a half-hour.
In a way the hold-up at the frontier had been interesting for us, providing an instant and striking demonstration of the contrasts in style and character of the two peoples involved. Irun was full of alert and energetic Frenchmen and women who made no concession to the southern climate, rose early to plunge into their daily tasks, ate and drank sparingly at midday and in the early evening, foregathered socially thereafter for an hour or two before retiring to a splendid coffee-scented bar. This, we were to discover, was the diametric opposite of the Spanish way of life. The French lived in a kind of nervous activity. They hastened from one engagement to another with an eye kept on their enormous clocks.
To arrive in San Sebastián, a few miles across the frontier, was to be plunged into a different world. This was a town of white walls guarding the privacy of its citizens, all such surfaces being covered with huge political graffiti. No one was in a hurry, or carried a parcel, and here there were no clocks. Irun's restaurants filled for the midday meal at 12.30 p.m. and emptied one hour later, when their patrons returned to their offices or shops. Those of San Sebastián admitted their first customers at 2 p.m., and these would have spent an absolute minimum of an hour and a half over the meal before vacating their tables. The majority then returned home for a siesta of an hour or so before tackling their afternoon's work.
'How long do you suppose we'll be staying?' Eugene asked.
'Well, two or three days, I'd say. What do you think? It's more interesting than I expected. I was talking to the chap who does the rooms. San Sebastián is famous for its paseos apparently. You know what a paseo is?'
'Well, more or less.'
'Most old-fashioned towns have one. Here they have two—a popular version for the working class in the early evening and a select one, as they call it, for the better people later on. I read somewhere they haven't scrapped the piropo here.'
'The piropo. The habit of shouting sexually offensive remarks at good-looking women in the paseo— or even in the street. The dictator Primo de Rivera put a stop to it, but it's crept back into favour again in places like this.'
'Right then,' said Eugene, 'let's make it three days.'
The Royalty Hotel seemed to reflect the old style of life, and was full of what Eugene described as bowing and scraping.
'What comes after this?' he wanted to know.
'Well, Burgos I suppose. Nice comfortable distance. About seventy or eighty miles. With a good car we could do it in the morning, or carry on to Valladolid which sounds more interesting. Pity nothing's said about the state of the roads.'
'They'll be able to tell us at the hotel, I'm sure.'
The four-course dinner took us by surprise, but we did our best with the huge portions. Eugene went off to give Ernesto a surprise phone call, but came back shaking his head. 'No lines through to England at the moment,' he said. The people in the hotel all seemed surprised.
Later that day Eugene received a surprise request from the woman who had waited on us at table, and had received our compliments in the matters of service and food with obvious pleasure. Her request was that one or the other of us would escort her in the first paseo that evening. Such was the prestige in San Sebastián, she explained, of foreign visitors from the north, that to appear in public with one infallibly enhanced a local girl's status. Dorotea was both pretty and exceedingly charming, so her request was immediately granted. Eugene provided a splendid bouquet and we then spent the hour and a half of the paseo strolling girl in arm in the company of several hundred local citizens in the formal gardens by the sea.
The paseo was accepted as health-giving, rejuvenating exercise. More importantly, for the traveller out of his depth in foreign surroundings and reduced to constant apology and confusion imposed by the loss of language, it was a godsend. Whether merchant, soldier or minister of religion, the paseo smoothed out all the problems. The mere act of walking in the company of beaming strangers provoked a change of mood. Within minutes of joining a paseo's ranks the beginner had shaken hands with everyone in sight—a cordial gripping of fists sometimes strong enough to produce a moistening of the eyes. The leaflet we collected as new members of the 'friendly walk' advised us that one should 'always smile, but laugh with caution'. A number of actions came under its ban: 'At all times refrain from shouting or whistling. Gestures with the fingers are to be avoided. Do not wink, do not turn your back on a bore in an ostentatious manner, and, above all, never spit.'
From Eugene's viewpoint the experience turned out to be so attractive that he was a little sad when it was at an end. We were to learn next day that even the hotel approved of this adventure on the part of a member of the staff. 'The manager complimented me,' Dorotea said. 'They hope to be able to give me an increase in salary next spring.'
Eugene tried to ring home again, but all international lines were still engaged. The manager seemed to find this as baffling as we did. Purely for a change of scene we hired a car and set off to drive a mile or two along the coast road to France. We didn't get very far before we were stopped by two Civil Guards who had left their car to stretch white tape across the road. They were typical of their kind, grey of jowl and verging on middle age. These must have been the last survivors in San Sebastián of the old-fashioned military police. Otherwise the municipality had already been able to import several of the smart new Assault Guards. It was made clear to us that the road back to France was closed.
'Why so many coppers?' I wondered aloud to Eugene. 'Surely not another revolution on the way?'
'You never know,' he said. 'After all this is Spain. Anyway, what'll we do tonight?'
I told him I'd spotted a cabaret at the end of the main street. 'Probably be a bit of a fake, but it'll use up some time,' I said.
We had dinner at the hotel, where Dorotea was full of smiles, and after that we made for the cabaret which, said a notice scrawled in chalk on the door, was shut for that evening, 'owing to circumstances'. What on earth, we wondered, did they mean by that? You can't get through on the telephone to a foreign country, the road to France is closed, and now the cabaret's decided to pack up for the night. Just what is happening? I wondered. 'Do you think perhaps we shouldn't have come here after all?'
When we returned to the hotel we found one of the grey, old Civil Guards at the reception desk. He asked us to note down our occupations, our religion, our reason for coming to Spain and how long we proposed to stay. We were finally instructed to present ourselves at nine the next morning at the barracks of the Civil Guard in order for photographs to be taken.
'I must admit,' said the hotel manager, 'that this has been an experience a foreign guest is bound to find alarming. However an explanation from the police is bound to be forthcoming, and I am sure that the rest of your stay with us will be trouble-free in every way.'
We agreed, not least because San Sebastián appeared to us as a town well adjusted to the calmer routine of urban life. That evening Dorotea and a friend joined us on the fashionable paseo. Parting company with them at about ten, we were delighted to discover that the cabaret had opened after all, and so spent an hour there listening to cante flamenco before going to bed.
Next morning, Friday 28 September, an official State of Alarm was declared throughout Spain. The announcement, broadcast on the radio at 6 a.m., and subsequently repeated at half-hour intervals, warned the population of the curtailment of certain civil liberties, the imposition of a curfew at 9 p.m., and of restrictions upon travel. Further local information would be made available at all municipios. After a brief discussion, Eugene and I agreed that our best hope would be to pay our bills and get down to the station as soon as we could in the hope of seats on the morning train to the south. But when we got there we found that the Civil Guards we had seen on the previous day had used their car to close off the entrance to the station. They told us that not only would there be no train to Seville, but that no train at all would be leaving for any destination in the country on this day.
Turning back to make for the centre, we were suddenly both to experience a sensation that the personality of this town had undergone a remarkable change. The people of San Sebastián, as we had agreed, seemed to set great store by matters of personal deportment. They held themselves erect, walked in a dignified manner and with no evidence of haste. This we attributed to some extent to a climate with summer temperatures that could be high. But it was also probably based upon remnants of a cultural inheritance from the Moors. At this moment San Sebastián seemed full of running figures and queues had formed at the doors of food shops with desperate would-be customers struggling to get in. Such was the confusion that even the paseos were abandoned.
As the day wore on the excitement and despair of the early hours were replaced by a growing lethargy as the public became acclimatised to a crisis that had never been explained. But what exactly was a State of Alarm, and why had one been declared? These were the questions the citizens of San Sebastián now demanded more insistently be answered, as indeed did I. Choosing a quiet spot in the gardens along the sea-front Eugene was ready with an explanation.
'Spain is on the verge of a civil war,' he said. 'I had a quiet chat with the manager while you were having your camera fixed, and he told me that the miners in Asturias have started a revolt.'
'And that's the State of Alarm?'
'No, that's only part of the thing. Listen, I should have told you before but I've been putting it off. I've joined the Communist Party, and apart from Ernesto's ridiculous pilgrimage idea, that's the reason I'm here.'
'You could have told me,' I said.
'Of course I should have. I kept putting it off.'
'I didn't know how you'd take it.'
'It's a pity you didn't. We've known each other long enough for me not to give a damn what party you join. Anyway communism is only one of the modern religions. Trouble is, I'm not a believer.'
There was a moment of silence. 'But listen,' I said. 'Do you really believe this country's going to go Red?'
'I'm certain of it.'
'They won't,' I said. 'The Spanish are individualists to a man. You'll not catch them turning into a bunch of fanatics,' I assured him. 'I know them too well, and you should too.'
'Anyway we'll soon see,' Eugene said.
Where did he pick up this bout of fanaticism, I asked myself, particularly with a father like Ernesto who had assured him in my presence that no Sicilian believed in anything?
'So when's it going to start?' I asked. 'The real thing. When is the man on the street—who's the one who really counts—going to throw out his chest and tell you he's a member of the party of Lenin?'
'Very soon,' Eugene assured me. 'A month—two months at most. You and I are going to be present at one of the great moments in history. I can't tell you how lucky we are to find ourselves here, waiting for the curtain to go up.'
'And where and when will that happen?'
'In Madrid, and probably today. By the way, the manager let it slip that the Asturian miners in Oviedo are already out fighting in the streets.'
'That's a couple of hundred miles away up in the north. Our problem now is how do we get to Madrid?'
'Well, naturally from here, or anywhere else, as soon as the trains start running again. The hotel people have been through all this before, and they say a week or two at most.'
'Just imagine another couple of weeks stuck in this place,' I said.
The fact was that neither Eugene nor I had any idea of what manipulations the Spanish politicians and the military were conducting behind the scenes. The present situation, in which an official State of Alarm could impose near-paralysis upon the public, had largely arisen through brusque and unexpected changes of direction in the corridors of power. From 1923 to 1930 Spain had suffered under the almost medieval dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. When he fell there had been a political swing to the opposite extreme and the Second Republic was established, practising liberalism in an extreme form. For the first time women were given the vote. Little could the legislators of the day have imagined that far from pressing for more liberal reforms, women would instead come to the aid of the powers of reaction. This, however, they did, and a new feminine alliance was formed to clear Spain of politicians with liberal ideas. It was from this climate, with women close to political control, that such measures as the State of Alarm were frequently in use, and battles, as we were to discover, could be fought even on the streets of Madrid.
Excerpted from The Tomb in Seville by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 2003 Estate of Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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