03 September 2007

Little Bears & the Memory of War

Notes from Madrid

Madrid is built along the same triumphal lines as all capitals by fiat - St. Petersburg; Washington, D.C. There are palaces, Bourbon and Habsburg, royal gardens, wide boulevards suited for processions and troop movements.

The melancholy and fanatic Philip II came to it in the middle of the sixteenth century and found a small provincial town alone amidst the endless arid plain and the wind. He declared his reign from there, in that place, whose only virtue was its location - at the center of a stubborn and fractured peninsula. For years the only business of Madrid was the Court.

In January, when I was there, the Jardines Botánicas - a walled garden next to the Prado - lie shrouded in a ghostly white haze pierced by sunlight and made luminous. The trees are leafless and mournful. The hedges and the cyprus still bloom green, amidst the dry branches and the old stone and the careful rows where little grows. Its beauty is still evident but it is subdued, autumnal, as something in long decline. Dry leaves cluster the hardbeaten dirt paths. Benches sit empty.

Nearby is the Reína Sofia, the contemporary art museum whose fame rests in the huge tormented howl that is Picasso's Guérnica. In a long hall devoted to the deconstruction of the immortal painting is Dora Maar's series of photographs of the painting's creation in stages - the thing that strikes you is its revision. At the very center, leaping up from the middle of the canvas, an arm thrusts a torch aloft. A bull in the corner gazes placidly. But Picasso continues, filling in - details are changed, places painted over. Slowly the bull's face contorts, twists. The arm is broken and then - suddenly - it is removed entirely. The torch - that organic, classical sign of hope and knowledge - is erased and replaced by a bare electric lightbulb. The bull has dropped its mouth down: it is screaming.

Guérnica commemorates the first time flights of mechanized bombers began in a systemic way to target civilian populations. Late in the April afternoon, on market day, in 1937, the Basque town was razed to the ground by German and Italian planes under Nationalist command. Incendiaries and explosive shrapnel were used; escort planes strafed the fleeing survivors. The men and boys were at the front; of the ten thousand old men, women, and children in the town, a third were killed and more mutilated.

Down the hall, past the compositions, there is a room with pictures from the Civil War. Whole streets are rubble. I recognize the corner my hotel is on; it is cratered. A child stumbles into the frame.

I read, recently, Martha Gellhorn's moving wartime dispatch from Barcelona in 1938 - "The Third Winter." By this time the bombings have become matter-of-fact:

"In Barcelona, it was perfect bombing weather. The cafes along the Ramblas were crowded. There was nothing much to drink; a sweet fizzy poison called orangeade and a horrible liquid supposed to be sherry. There was, of course, nothing to eat. Everyone was out enjoying the afternoon sunlight. No bombers had come over for at least two hours."

All is perverted by war; nothing is left untouched. Fine evenings are transformed into something ominous.

I bring up Barcelona, in Catalónia, where even the language is different - Spanish, like Italian, is not the language of a nation, just its most powerful province - only because Gellhorn, in the essay, visits a children's hospital. All of the children in the wards are injured, not sick - they are war-wounded, have shrapnel worked through their skin, lead wrapped around their bones, head injuries. Waiting in line for rations, they can distinguish between the sounds of the explosions; they know when the bombs are falling close by. They scatter and take cover in doorways like veterans. There is a ward, a separate wing - she is asked if she wants to go, she wants to say 'no' but can't quite - where the tubercular cases are kept.

The family she visits with that frames these observations has a dying child, a baby. Near the end they promise her that when the war is over, when the Republic has come out of it, they will all meet again.

Of course, they don't meet again, and the Fascists win, and even after the end of the War on Fascism, it is thirty years before Franco concedes Spain. I write all this because my friend, who lived in Salamanca for some time and who made me promise to see the Guérnica, said to look too for the old women in Madrid in winter. The locals call them ositos - little bears. They have one heavy fur coat that they treasure in their closets and take out when the season commences to wear about every day.

And they are dwarfed by their coats, towered over by their grandchildren. They are toylike. Anybody in Madrid over a certain age, who was a child during the War - the children in Gellhorn's essay - grew up starving, sick, rationed, injured. It affected their growth, stunted it, the men and the women both, so that when you walk down a street in the museum district of Madrid, that capital by fiat, when you walk outside of the Prado and its Goyas, you can see the imprint of civil war on the streets themselves, see it in the people - a living reminder, like the places in trees where the width of a ring speaks fire.

No comments: