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A House in Spain—A Reverie
by Samuel Hux (August 2017)
Give it a chance to remember, and the mind does wander. Occasionally it’s a discipline to allow it to do just that.
Old John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Did he not die in the second act of Richard II—“His tongue is now a stringless instrument”—he might walk away with the play. Before the instrument is unstrung, the old soldier, wise counsellor, man of deeds, has his famous aria on England the “other Eden, demi-paradise . . . Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege / Of wat’ry Neptune.” Strange to think of Gaunt (in his Shakespearean apotheosis somehow the Englishman—although in history evidently a man of overweening pride and preening arrogance) declaring himself King of Castile, his second wife being Constance the bastard daughter of Pedro I (“Peter the Cruel”), and invading Spain in 1386 in the doomed pursuit of his claim. He did marry one daughter, however, to the Castilian heir and another to the King of Portugal.
With the Portuguese, the English have had a very special relationship down the years, a treaty of mutual defense signed in 1386 and renewed in one form or another ever since. I’ve heard it said (without believing it) that the bulls are not killed in Portugal so as not to offend English sensibilities. I prefer the Spanish form, brutal as it is: some recognition that the final act is, after all, death.
I think of John of Gaunt as a hard drinking man, perhaps because his men were so reputed to be, perhaps because so many English I know in Spain are, and a couple or three look more or less as I imagine Gaunt to have looked—erect, bearded, weather-beaten. Some people will tell you that Lord Nelson brought gin to his headquarters at Mahón on Menorca, others that he found it there and brought it to England; it hardly matters. But “sherry” is definitely really Jérez, and one of the larger bottlers of brandy in Spain, with its logo a bull, bears the clearly English name of Osborne.
I first read the story of Gaunt’s Spanish venture, as told by the Renaissance chronicler Froissart, in the house in Spain of an Englishman who died, according to his Spanish common-law wife, of much too much brandy. He was a painter and, she said, sometimes dipped his brush onto the pallet and sometimes into the constant brandy snifter. I never met him, but I adored her very much, at least as much as is proper toward a person who was twenty years my senior and was my landlady. I would push more rent money on her than she requested; it was absurdly low because I was, by her insistence, English, as her marido had been. No, I would tell her, I’m not really English, I am a norteamericano or estadounidense (“United States-er”), but she’d introduce me to friends as el inglés.
We are closer in age now. Indeed, I am the elder, as I assume the dead do not age. I would have wished her death, and the surrounding circumstances, to have been more serene, noble, dignified. The death was . . . merely what a death can be . . . and the surrounding circumstances a grim comedy. I hope her Englishman, Harry, loved her presence as much as she did his memory. The house was full of English books she could not read, the sala dominated by a family crest and an enormous portrait of a Gaunt-like Englishman. “No, it’s not Harry, but his grandfather. Regal, isn’t he?” she said to me. I like to think her love returned, and I dismissed the rumor that it was but rarely.
Spanish affection is rarely returned by the English. Or by those other English, los estadounidenses. The American style of non-reciprocation I find at last milder—a slight condescension as when the Spaniard is confused with some Hollywood version of a lazy Mexican. The English style, at least that of a certain class, upper or in that direction, is akin to the French—barely disguised contempt for an inferior: “Spanish is not a proper language,” says one unilingual English acquaintance who lives in Spain, chosen land of the Tory pensioner.
“Why do they not learn our language if they live here?” a Spanish friend asks me, being overly generous and courteous to Americans it seems to me. “Well, that’s not quite fair,” I answer; “That one speaks it quite well—better than I do, admit it—and this other one is absolutely fluent.” But my friend is right in a way; perhaps he responds to an annoying tendency to flatten the most common and easy Spanish words as if they should be pronounced some other-than-Spanish way. Pan, for instance, ceases to sound like the bread it is, sounds like something you boil water in. An American painter who lives in Spain asked me why the English, so practiced after all in the use of the broad “a,” lose the capacity to say it when they want butter (mantequilla) for their bread.
My own Spanish is nothing to boast of, so I do not wish to be unfair. But if one meets, say, a Dutch, Swedish, or German resident of Spain, it’s an impertinence to assume he or she does not have a working grasp of the language; if one meets an English or American resident one’s skepticism is at least an educated assumption. Of course German no longer travels as well as it once did, and of course Dutch or Swedish travel hardly at all, and their speakers have traditionally learned another language or two. On the other hand, Spanish is not a popular language of instruction in northern Europe: they learn it in Spain. And while it’s true that practice in language acquisition facilitates the acquisition of yet another, and that we English and Americans are poorly practiced, that’s no answer. We are poorly practiced by our own choice, and, besides, I’m not speaking of expertise but rather of a simple willed acquisition of a tentative grasp that works outside a restaurant. I suspect instead a kind of imperial mentality.
The principal jewel in the English crown was given to Gaunt’s older brother Edward the Black Prince by Pedro the Cruel (who’d killed a Moorish king for it) in partial payment for Edward’s aid against Pedro’s rebellious half-brother. In 1369, the half-brother became Enrique II when he murdered Pedro (who was trying at that precise moment to murder him). That’s when Gaunt, married to Pedro’s daughter, first proclaimed himself the putative King of Castile. A Lancaster dynasty in Spain would seem odd, but really no odder than the Hapsburg one that was to come or the Bourbon one that replaced it. (The English acceptance of which cost Spain Gibraltar and, briefly, the Balearic island of Menorca.)
But we can exaggerate English dabbling on the Iberian peninsula and in Spanish affairs. Gaunt’s invasion was really the rarity, and was hardly as consequential as American stick-wielding and soft speech (Cuba, Philippines); nor does the history of English intentions compete in consistency with a history of Franco-Spanish relations and mis-relations which encompasses the Spanish March or Marca Hispanica of Charlemagne, the installing of the Bourbon dynasty, the Napoleonic invasion lasting from 1808 to 1814, and (Spaniards suspected with some good reason) the French government’s cynical manipulation of Spain’s desire to enter the Common Market back in the 1980s (one cost of the promise of which was, tipplers assured me, the raising of prices of those Spanish products which had been “unfairly” competitive with those French products, like cognac, which French people could barely afford in their own country. My unilingual English acquaintance complained about the price of his Osborne—about 45 cents at the time—and put it down to Spanish greed and bloody cheek). Turnabout: during the Second World War the English were afraid that Spain might invade them—Gibraltar, that is—or allow an invasion.
Spain was not neutral throughout the war, after all: she was for most of the first four years technically “non-belligerent,” which is quite a different thing and can imply a preference among the belligerents (it’s what Mussolini’s Italy was at the beginning), and the Allies feared that Franco might give the Axis powers the aid Hitler kept requesting and felt he deserved.
It’s not likely that Franco’s 1936-39 rebellion against the Republic, or crusade as he saw it, would have ended in out-and-out unconditional victory without German and Italian help. Franco’s response to Hitler was more or less the following: I greet you, my brother, in the totalitarian ideology and I thank you for any aid you gave in establishing me as caudillo of Spain (which God willed in any case), and when times are ripe and the ravages of civil war allow, I will give you what aid I will give you.
Which wasn’t nothing, but much less than requested—the “Blue Division” of fascists to fight against the Russians (but against no one else), some harbor privileges for German submarines for a while, favorable propaganda for a while, some trade opportunities (but hardly more than Germany got from neutrals like Sweden), and the sensation of a toothache. (That is, Hitler is supposed to have told Mussolini, after talks with Franco at Hendaye in 1940, that he’d rather have some teeth pulled than spend another hour trying to firm up promises from his supposed Spanish friend.) What Hitler wanted most was a passageway through Spain to attack Gibraltar and seal off the Mediterranean from the British. What Franco seemed to be saying was “Yes, but not quite yet.” But, whenever the "yet" approached, he backed off with protestations of national honor and the patently absurd observation that "this was a job for the Spanish army" (ill-equipped and, like the rest of the nation, staggering from three years of civil war). Hitler finally turned his attentions to the Russian campaign and relaxed somewhat on a possible German invasion of Gibraltar.
Franco’s resistance cannot be explained by any assumed pro-British attitude. Rather, he wanted Commonwealth wheat more than Gibraltar at the time (you cannot eat a rock), and he was smart enough to know that, with German troops on Spanish soil, he stood a good chance of becoming caudillo of a Vichy-like Spain. Nonetheless, it’s doubtful Field Marshall Montgomery would have been the hero of El Alamein with the Strait of Gibraltar slammed at his back. The English writer Brian Crozier wondered in public, in his biography Franco, what the outcome of the Second World War would have been with a surely different kind of North African campaign. German control of Gibraltar?—nothing to sneeze at.
We know that one reason Franco stalled with the Fuehrer and the Duce and offered his pittances is that he was not sure enough that they could win; but it’s arguable that by denying Hitler what he wanted most (while promising just enough to insure that he did not just take it), he may have helped insure that the Axis did not win—or, if that’s too strong, that they would lose long before they actually did. With no benign intentions: to the British, and eventually of course to the Americans, a gift. His proclaimed servant, Franco, may have been a humorless man, but God himself is an Ironist.
And, like any ironist, he likes to twist the irony yet one revolution more. If anyone had said in 1939 or 1940, that the Allies had any reason to expect anything (beyond pleas for food) from Nationalist Spain, he’d have been one of those rare optimists who had his optimism borne out. There was no reason to expect that Franco would appreciate the western democracies’ passive Non-Intervention Policy during 1936-39 which denied arms and aid to the Republic, because he had the example of active intervention by Germany and Italy on his side, and he knew that there were a great many more volunteers from the democracies on the Republican side (e.g., the famous International Brigade) than on his and that that said something about public opinion as opposed to Public Policy. I wonder how sensible it was to expect any “friendliness” from Franco’s Spain; but as Herbert Freis’s The Spanish Story: Franco and the Nations at War sufficiently documents, there were many acts of friendliness—so long as "friendliness" is defined, as I think it has to be in international affairs and especially during war-time, as a respectful countenance toward others dictated by a lively respect for one’s own self-interest. There was every reason to expect that Spain would line-up with the Axis at least to something commensurate to the varying degrees that Finland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania did.
She didn’t. If she didn’t bend over backwards not to, she at least bent her knees and pulled her shoulders considerably to the rear. If she had her reason for selling us wolfram and what-not (and thereby denying the Germans their requested amounts), and if she had her reasons for the Gibraltar affair . . . what do you do, in time of war, to the mouth of a gift-horse? And how do you explain the Spanish passivity amounting to passive co-operation when the Allies’ North African invasion forces—Operation Torch—massed in the Bay of Gibraltar across from the Spanish town of Algeciras? (Tad Szulc—see his Portrait of Spain—was told by a Spanish friend that just prior to the invasion an English plane carrying plans for Operation Torch crashed on Spanish territory, that the plans were taken by the Guardia Civil to Franco and that Franco refused to pass the documents on to the Germans and Italians, and destroyed them.) Or rather: does one ask for explanations?
Nonetheless, when the European war ended, Germany fell into two parts, and the western was deemed by the American, English, and French to be a natural candidate for rehabilitation into respectability. Italy was lucky enough to have lost early enough and was again simply Italy. Finland was forgiven by us for the exigencies of her geography which had compelled alliances she probably had not liked and was put on a loose, but visible leash by Russia. East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Rumania were to be seen as Russia said they were to be seen, and Sweden had been neutral and that’s no crime, and, etc. And Spain was the pariah nation, not fit for membership in the United Nations—that august body which did, admittedly, contain a dozen or so democracies—until 1955, the year of admission of the ex-Axis Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, and Finland.
She (Spain) might have wished she had entered the war. Formal declaration of neutrality in 1943 gained her little—much less than Sweden, which had shipped as much iron-ore to Germany as Spain had wolfram and which, after the German conquest of Norway in 1940, had allowed German troops rail passage across her expanses to Norway (the Germans thereby avoiding the British navy), and later rail passage from Norway to Finland for the invasion of Russia—all of which contrasts ironically with Franco’s rebuffing of Hitler on the Gibraltar matter. And if one has to say that Sweden was under great pressure, what does that say of several German divisions sitting on the Pyrenees? Of course the answer in 1945 was that Franco was the sole the remaining totalitarian. I’m sure I would have agreed at the time; and I don’t think my acid objectivity now would have convinced me then. So I blame no one for keeping Spain for years the pariah "too proud to beg"; and certainly, given the realities of Cold War power-bloc politics, I do not blame those nations that were ready enough to end the pariah status but couldn’t. And I do not blame England—and certainly not Harry. Still . . .
Whatever Francisco Franco thought Spain was (c’est moi?), she was not Franco. We can punish people by focusing only on regimes. She was at least in part my innocent land-lady with her expansive yearning.
Francisca Moreno Braza—“Paca.” That’s an odd name in the combination of the ordinary and the somewhat rare as if someone had conjured up Frances Brown Fathom—“Fran.” I do not care to specify the village; let it go as a pueblo in the south. I’d like to avoid gratuitous offense if there is—there may be—some to be taken.
I rented Paca’s house off and on over a three year period some years ago, about twenty months total, while she retired to a casita on the property; and I had known her for three years prior to that. I lived in her house but a month and a half after her death, while Harry’s relatives disposed of a life.
In a nation which has so often (in both the obvious and the ritual sense) observed death, the drama and mystery of it, in theatrical, political, and sports arenas, hers was quite ordinary—an insistent aneurysm which got her on the third try.
When she was stricken—it was the second attack of her life—she was visiting a friend in the center of the village; and it’s a good thing, too, for I’d sometimes not see her for three or four days on end as she was given to unannounced excursions (God knows where) and she might have lain in the casita moaning and unattended. She was taken to a hospital in the nearest city and died there three weeks later.
I don’t know where Paca came from. She would say Madrid. But she also kept old New Yorkers for the ads, and I think she simply liked the idea of being a city girl. She’d spent a few weeks in Philadelphia with Harry once, and she’d tell me, “They speak very good English there.” She’d say it in Spanish, for she spoke no English beyond a few phrases; odd her relationship to the language of Harry. I don’t know where she and Harry met and neither did anyone else that I knew. That may be why some said they’d met in a brothel; that, and the fact that some villagers years before had referred to her as la puta, the whore. But what that really meant was that she was a forastera (Spanish, but not from the region) who lived with an extranjero who was not her marido. But she was a bawdy lady when relaxed and not glooming about dead Harry; and once over un poco de Osborne she wondered what it would have been like to sleep with Franco. “Nada” she suspected. She was a beauty in her youth (I know from photographs) and lovely now in her sixties; and with someone like her around Franco might have been a more relaxed man. But I wouldn’t will the sacrifice of her.
She remained in some peculiar way an outsider in the village after twenty years there (ten, post-Harry); no . . . an almost-insider with certain recognized permissions as if she had her fueros (local privileges). She could socialize with the several foreigners who lived in the area, “even” attend parties at their homes, while some more prominently placed villagers—for all their affection for this-foreigner-or-that and for all the villagers’ courteous treatment of the foreigners— “couldn’t” (a code imposed not by the extranjeros but by the locals themselves). She had the same privilege some professional or intellectual forastero who summered in the area had but she had it as a local institution, without diminished respect. A matter of being Paca, a certain command. And she was to some of the villagers—three or four I knew—a “great lady,” which is meant here to evoke no image of the grand dame or any social observance at all. One told me several years after her death, spontaneously, as I mentioned her name, that she was quite simply “the best person” he’d ever known—the kind of endorsement that doesn’t have to be taken seriously to be taken . . . well . . . with some seriousness. “And, hombre, have you seen the house now?"
The house was a two-storeyed, seven-room hunk of stone, with one enormous living room claiming a third of the space, with books. There were Harry’s paintings, a leather couch like one from a London club, an immense and ill-functioning fireplace, portrait of Gaunt’s surrogate, and some crazy design of iron strips screwed into the wall creating a dashing stroke of metal like an askew punctuation beneath a churchly window beyond the stretch of a tip-toed mortal, to which was attached a coat of arms. The casa sat just beyond the edge of the village, which sat at the eastern edge of a valley, and the garden did not really seem to end but to be just a part of the fields, or campo, which rolled to the slopes of the mountains. It still sits there, but it’s a different house now, with a garage attached and near as big as the house itself, and with a six-foot wall defining the garden and locking out the view of the campo.
I’d have done things differently from the present owner. I would have left things structurally as they were. And now it’s time for a confession I’m neither proud of nor see any reason to disown. I wish Paca had left the house to me.
There was never any question of it, not by the remotest, and it’s only my poor human nature that makes me wish there had been. And not only could it never have approached a probability, it had never been a possibility. The house, I discovered, did not belong to her. Either it never had—or it had but didn’t. I was told two stories: one, that Harry had left the house not to Paca but to his sisters; the other, that he’d left it to Paca and she’d given it away. Either is sad to contemplate. I didn’t know Harry so I didn’t know what he was capable of. But I know what Paca was capable of, so for that reason, and perhaps because of a little cynicism, I incline to the latter story.
The latter story is this: a few years before I met her, and soon after Harry’s death, Paca suffered her first aneurysm. The sisters came from England and, after a respectful number of visits I suppose to the hospital, ventured to inquire about a will. There was no will, and Paca, whose condition was still critical, preferred not to make one but to assign the property outright, without exchange of money, to the sisters, blood of Harry. They accepted. Paca’s only stipulation was that should she recover she be allowed to live on the property as long as she wished and treat it as her own in the matter of rents of casa or casita (her only income). The sisters honored their bargain and it was a bargain.
There is a third possibility, of course: that the house had never belonged to Harry, but to the sisters all along, that first Harry and then Paca had been allowed the use of it. But this version—how shall I put it?—doesn’t suit my mood.
So. Paca recovered, time passed, she rented house or casita to ingleses (including me), talked of Harry, joked of Franco, flipped through old New Yorkers, visited friends, was stricken again, taken to hospital. Sister II came to Spain, honored Paca’s contract with me, and waited with I think sincere sorrow for what the doctors whispered was inevitable. I drove to the city to the hospital every second or third day to visit Paca.
At first she was obviously relieved to be alive, and apologetic for the nuisance she thought she caused. Her condition seemed to stabilize, but only remained there; and she began to grow morose and frightened, ate little and escaped more and more into five-minute sweaty sleeps. She’d awaken with a start, become talkative a couple of minutes, usually about the house (You have enough, butane, sufficient water?), smile and touch my hand, drift off.
My last visit to Paca, she spoke practically not at all. Her head and shoulders were turned to the wall as I entered. A tray of food on the stand beside the bed had barely been touched. She started a bit when I whispered, inquired, hello. No, she wanted no more food and gestured it away with her left hand. She relaxed back from facing the wall. But it seemed to me her right arm was twisted unnaturally beneath the pillow. I leaned over to adjust the pillow and help her ease the arm free. She resisted. Qué pasa, Paca? She smiled as if shrugging, turned her head away, relaxed her arm, and allowed me to bring it to her side . . . and then to ease her fingers open, and to remove a knife from her palm. I placed it on the tray. She smiled again, briefly, and though she did not cry her face seemed to lose shape for a minute or so. Some things are not to be mentioned, we silently agreed, and I said to her the things you say to a person. You look stronger today—in a week or so . . . and then gave it up.
I excused myself—I needed a smoke—removed the tray and took it to the hall. There I handed the knife to the nurse, and explained. She drew it across her wrist; it was very dull. “Besides, she’s not strong enough,” she said, “but I’ll take care.” When I returned to Paca’s room she was asleep; still it was thirty minutes later, and I left. The next morning her head exploded.
The funeral mass was celebrated in a chapel adjacent the hospital. I had seen a mass in Franco’s basilica at El Escorial in Castile, curious to see the historical spectacle—but I had been too far from the altar and the priests’ voices were a monotone wordless chant. Paca’s was the first Spanish mass, then, that I had heard. The priest’s speech was too fast and hurried for me to follow completely. Death is death, nothing rare—the pace seemed to say. But I was thinking about myself as much as Paca in any case. I had seen her body, propped and primped and veiled, in an anteroom just prior to the service, and contrary to common funereal experience it did indeed look just like herself—and I didn’t want to think about her.
After the mass some dozen of us followed the hearse to the cemetery in the city. The hearse remained parked at the gate while we looked first for an attendant and failing to find him looked for the burial vault of Harry, a drawer pushed like a file-case into a wall along with hundreds of others. Someone thought he knew where it was. Sister II could not remember, but after a half-hour we found it, with Paca’s long-reserved empty vault beside it. We returned to the gate and found the attendant arguing with the hearse driver. The first had no orders and the second no papers and could not enter with the casket. We insisted—but in fact no one had the necessary papers, proof that Paca had paid for the empty vault years before. And there was no corroborating record in the attendant’s office, nothing in the name of Francisca Moreno Braza, nor in Harry’s surname, which we thought Paca might possibly have used. We argued; some yelled; we reached a compromise.
The casket could be placed inside the gate in a kind of storage building, a purgatory of sorts, but not in the burial vault until the papers were found. Before I left, alone, I walked into the purgatory shed to nod goodbye. The casket was in a stall behind a swinging door like on a water-closet, and chalked on the door was, almost, her name. None of us, extranjero or Spaniard, pronounced a classical Castilian; that is, our s’s and z’s were interchangeable, we did not lisp the z as a th. Which evidently the attendant did, for he had written, having heard the name given him, Brasa. I started to mention . . . but I let it go.
It would be two hot and sad summer days before the receipts were found in the casita and Paca was, without ceremony, filed away.
Harry’s blood, it turned out, did not want the property. They put it on the market at an astronomical figure and settled for an offer slightly less skyward from an Englishman from a villa near a yachting basin a few miles away. He made his improvements, most of them, before work stopped.
The house now sits empty, owner enjoined for now-long time-being not to place another stone. He had hired out-of-work extranjero knock-abouts from the yachts to do the labor—without work- or building-permits—and the Guardia Civil had happened by. Some friends have wondered why the Englishman didn’t hire proper Spanish labor, since money was no obstacle; but I suspect he simply cared not to deal directly with the natives, since he speaks no Spanish.
I would trust the feelings, great deal more, of this American who makes these observations, if I did not know that I covet Paca’s house myself.
Samuel Hux is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.
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