Saturday, 15 April 2017

Book Review - The death of Lorca by Ian Gibson

The death of Lorca by Ian Gibson

London: W.H. Allen, 1973          ISBN: 0491010400

In days when even the spokesman for the US President forgets the history of World War II in claiming that Hitler didn't kill his own countrymen with chemical weapons, what chance that anyone walking the street will cast a thought back to the Spanish Civil War, that terrible precursor to the worldwide conflagration that began six months after the final Republican surrender?

And yet the history of that war keeps coming back to haunt us. Recently Spain has been grappling with the horrors that occurred during the war, and the cover-ups and mendacities that happened after it, under the long tight grip of the Franco regime.

This book, by English academic Ian Gibson, was written in the final years of Franco, and was the first disinterested attempt to find out what happened in the final days of Federico Garcia Lorca, certainly the most famous Spanish poet of the Twentieth Century. His murder was one of the early outrages to occur in the Civil War, and became a stain that the Nationalists were desperate to eradicate from their history for many years.

Gibson was in the fortunate position to be in Granada in the late 1960s, and could speak to people who were in the town at the time when the initial uprising occurred, and who were eye-witnesses to many of the horrible events of that time. He begins the book with some short chapters on Lorca, and his relationship with the Republic, and on the twists and turns of Spanish electoral history in the 20s and 30s that led up to the attempted coup.

He describes in some detail the fall of Granada, and the brutal repression that followed, in which thousands of people were summarily executed (Gibson puts the figure somewhere between 5,000 and 25,000 people). Many old enmities were expunged in the name of the country, and countless innocents were caught in the horrible terror that ran from July 1936 well into the next year.

Lorca's heart was with the Republic and the peasants, and he was widely seen as left-wing, but was hardly a great presence on the political stage. At the outbreak of the rebellion he felt he had to leave Madrid for his hometown of Granada, not from a feeling that he would necessarily be safer there, but because he wanted to be near his family.

It was not long after the Nationalists took Granada that Lorca realised that he was going to become a target for the new regime, and so he turned to one of his good friends, Luis Rosales, who was in fact a member of the Nationalist hierarchy in Granada - a member of the Falange. Rosales sheltered him in his house for several days.

However, as Gibson's detective work shows, there were other forces at work. One of those forces took shape in the figure of Ramon Ruiz Alonso, a failed right-wing politico with a grudge against Rosales. He organised a raid on the house while Rosales was at the front, and took Lorca to the Civil Government Building and handed the poet over to Valdes, the governor. It seems clear that Lorca was kept in this building for several days: Valdes was unsure what to do with his famous "prisoner", until his superior, the infamous Quiepo de Llano, instructed that Lorca was to be shot. Gibson was probably the first to find out the exact chronology and location surrounding his murder - he was taken a short distance out of Granada, shot in the back of the neck and buried.

The Nationalist forces soon realised that the murder was a great mistake, and if the truth got out it would be a propaganda coup for the Republicans. And so a campaign of obscufation began, which surrounded the facts with a farrago of half-truths, outright lies and conspiracy theories. Gibson devotes some time to each of theses, shooting them down when he can, and pointing out holes in others. It doesn't help when people with an intimate role in Lorca's final days swear to conflicting stories about what happened.

As can be the case, this book about a single life throws the appalling massacre that occurred in Spain in sharp relief - as Gibson writes in the final paragraph of this book "Had Federico not died that morning in Viznar, the thousands of other innocent, but less well known, granadinos liquidated by the rebels might have been forgotten. As it is they will be remembered long after those responsible for the repression have passed into oblivion."

An interesting and educative read.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Book Review - Silence a Christian history by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Silence : a Christian history by Diarmaid MacCulloch

New York : Viking, 2013                     ISBN 9780670025565

This book was not what I expected it to be... it was much more. Picked up on a bargains table at my favourite bookstore, in its handsome dustjacket with an Angel (or is it Mary?) gazing beatifically out from under a golden halo, I was expecting this book to focus on the Christian ascetics and monks of the Middle Ages, and their continuation on into today. Of course that subject is discussed, but this book paints a much larger canvas, exploring the concept of silence itself in all its facets through Church history.

MacCulloch starts before the birth of Christ, investigating silence as it was seen in the Jewish books of the Bible, and finds that initially silence was seen as a bad thing, invoking the devastation of post-war, and of death. Under the influence of Greek thought and philosophy, silence as a sacred state began to enter Jewish thought, via Job and others, and the Temple in Jerusalem would have used silence as part of its ritual.

It was hundreds of years after the death of Christ before the idea of the pursuit of God through silent prayer took hold. The Desert Fathers were, by their very nature, not part of the mainstream Church, and it took some time for their views to break into the mainstream. The institutional Church - especially in the West - was fearful of individuals praying for themselves by themselves as the priests wanted control over people, and so monasticism grew as a way that the hierarchy could control silent prayer. In the East the iconoclastic battles occurred for similar reasons, the difference being that the institution lost and the individuals won, which is why the individual ascetic experience is much more common in the Orthodox world.

As it was the Protestants that opened the Bible up to more people via vernacular translations, it is ironic that MacCulloch shows us that for Protestants silence was usually seen as wrong, or at least suspicious. And yet silence became very important for some for mere survival. Nicodemism in many of its forms is well represented in this book, as the silences involved often were a matter of life and death, when the Inquisition or Elizabeth's Secret Service were asking questions. Gay clergy falls into this section of MacCulloch's book and in some ways is a slightly separate issue, as there was not only often silence on the side of gay clergy, but silence from the Church as well - a kind of "don't ask, don't tell" policy, with those that did tell made to be silent.

The last section of the book deals with more disturbing uses of silence within the Church, if not within Christianity in general. MacCulloch delves into Church silences that surround the Holocaust, sexual abuse, and slavery. For those, like me, who thought that the Church was one of the institutions that helped rid the (Western) World of slavery, MacCulloch provides a corrective, when he describes how various Churches provided those who engaged in the practice religious cover for their activities. While the abolitionist story is well known, this murkier relationship of Church and slavery has been subsumed into silence.

This brief description does not do justice to this book: extensively researched (excellent apparatus and bibliography), lucidly argued and packed with information, it is truly a mind-expanding work. This is surely the masterpiece on this subject and will be the foundation of any future work in this area.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell