There was a time in Spain when Protestantism was considered evil, and was forbidden. Emperor Charles Vth of Germany (and Ist of Spain) fought against Luther in his kingdoms. The Inquisition was severe on religious outcasts during the reigns of the Austrias and the Bourbons in Spain and, when it disappeared, King Ferdinand VII had already had to accept a “liberal” Constitution in which it was stated that the “Only True Religion” was that of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church.
By then, at the time of Ferdinand VII, the repressor of liberties, George Borrow had begun to travel in Spain (around 1836). He would become “don Jorgito el inglés”, famous for his tenacity selling the Evangelical version of the Bible. His adventures all over the country, a difficult territory for non-Catholics, are many; he even wrote a Bible in Kaló, the language of the Gypsies.
Borrow is known in the literary world for his travel book The Bible in Spain. It was translated to Spanish by Professor Manuel Azaña, who would eventually become the President of the II Spanish Republic. Borrow shows an extraordinary ability to describe the landscape of Galicia, a strange land of exuberant vegetation where the bagpipe is played, and great insight observing psychological traits of its people. The old Gallaecia is the Finis Terrae of the Roman Empire, the Northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, right above Portugal.
“Don Jorgito” was the first known Evangelical preacher in Galicia, and was followed by many others when the laws against religious dissidents were softened in the 1870’s. The list of names is long. Evangelical communities flourished in Galicia until a brutal repression was instigated by the Catholic clergy and executed by the fascist Falangists. Evangelicals were executed, tortured, fired from their jobs and forced to emigrate since the beginning of the Spanish Civil War (July 1936). Religious freedom in Spain was short-lived: it lasted as long as the II Republic (1931-1936).
The Spanish Civil War ended and World War II began. The English Evangelical missionaries were expelled from “neutral” Spain, accused of collaborating with their nation, at war with Germany. Some of them even died with their families en route to England: German submarines, temporarily based in the fjord of Vigo, near the Portuguese border, were accurately informed about the British vessels’ movements off the coast of Portugal.
Galician Evangelical believers lost their English leaders and were persecuted both by the Falangists (who thought that only a Roman Catholic could be a true Spaniard) and by the Communist guerrillas that swarmed the vast Galician woodlands after the Civil War was lost by the Left (they accused the Evangelicals of selling opium to the people).
After the World War ended, the British embassy in Madrid and the consulate in Corunna did their best to protect the Galician Evangelicals, and helped the English pastors to return. These brave men and their families brought some relief, even though the National-Catholicism of the Franco era only allowed them to preach behind closed doors, and hymns could not be heard in the streets where the Evangelical chapels were located when they were reopened (all chapels except one in Vigo had been violently closed, and sacred books and community records destroyed by pro-Franco mobs).
Evangelicalism survived in Spain despite the opposition of National-Catholicism, which grew stronger day by day. During the 1960’s the regime was forced, mainly by Britain and the United States, to accept the existence of followers of different Christian denominations. It was the period of the so-called “apertura”: opening up; by the end of the decade a Religious Freedom Law was passed that brought some hope to Protestants in Spain. It had actually been passed in Franco’s Cortes (“Organic” Parliament) in order to avoid disturbing Northern European tourists who then flocked to Spain on vacation.
The venerable English pastors either passed away in Galicia or returned to England to die at home; new Spanish pastors, some of whom were children of the English, took their places and continued to defend their faith until Franco’s death.
The making of
The origin of the Evanxélica memoria trilogy (Evangelical Memoirs, www.xavieralcala.org) can be traced back to the moment when a group of Evangelical elders from the vicinity of Ares, near the shipbuilding town of Ferrol, said they wished to relate to the author what seemed unbelievable even to them, who had been through it all. At that moment, summer of 1998, Xavier Alcalá was completing what was to be an award-winning novel on the adventures of British religious dissidents who went to Ferrol in the XVIII century to work at the shipyards.
One year later, he started the process of gathering Evangelicals’ testimonies and documentation. In 2007 it had taken Alcalá to several places in Spain, the South of England, Buenos Aires and the Argentine Pampas. Fortunately there still existed witnesses of what happened in the 1930’s who could recount their experiences and provide new information. Nobody, for instance, had yet said anything about how the Jews, fleeing the Nazi terror, had been helped by Evangelicals from Vigo to reach the Portuguese border (or even board a Royal Navy ship); or how the German Evangelicals, with the aid of the underground Orthodox Church of Russia, had distributed food and clothes to Wermacht prisoners in Siberia: thanks to that, letters written in German arrived in Galicia with news of the men in the Spanish “División Azul” who had surrendered to the Red Army…
At first, the book was conceived as a journalist report. But when so much cruelty, brutality and immorality surfaced in the conversations with the elders -and in testimonies of younger women and men- it was clear that the intentions of forgiveness in the Spanish Transition (to Democracy) were only theoretical. The solution was a novel, as it would avoid reopening wounds, in many cases by revealing to the children and grandchildren of the assassins and torturers their shameful behaviour during the civil war, the post-war years and the “opening up” process at the end of Franco’s regime.
Names should be changed, and characters created from the records of real people who were officially known to have committed the same crimes or abuse. The only names that could appear were those that belonged to History. The length of the text estimated by Galaxia, the first publishing company, was of around 1.500 pages. This meant that the story would have to be divided into three books, avoiding any “sailing along meanders” and selecting the highlights very carefully. The mixture of ideology, politics, beliefs, peace and war was explosive. It could lead to fall short of the objective, which was none other than to tell the story of the faithful trying to survive until the Caudillo’s death.
It was decided that the style should be autobiographical, based on the life of one particular elder. Three novels were designed. They were originally written in Galician (northern branch of Galician-Portuguese), but, considering the Spanish and Latin American sceneries in the main story, publishers from Madrid and Barcelona were interested in a translation to Castilian.
Book I: Between Borders
The first novel, Entre fronteiras, was published in Galician in 2004 (Galaxia, Vigo) and in Castilian in 2007 (Ézaro, Madrid).
It tells the story of a convert, Manuel. He was the son of a railway employee, a socialist trade union leader in a village on the Southern border of Galicia. Mostly out of pity, this atheist union leader buys a Bible from a poor, sweating evangelist he encounters at a rural fair. The Book will change his son’s life. The story begins in 1916, when Manuel is born. The reader will follow him on his travels through most of Spain, “entre fronteiras” (“between borders”), from the close view of Portugal in Northwestern Spain to the Pyrenees in Catalonia, where the flag of France and its army’s weapons persuade Franco’s army (and both Hitler’s and Mussolini’s planes) to cease trying to destroy the fleeing Republican army.
It speaks of the decadent monarchy of Alfonso XII and his English Queen Victoria Eugenia, of the Dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera (father of José Antonio, founder of Falange), of the Republic and its hopes of freedom and reform. A new Evangelical church is opened in the village on the border. Manuel becomes a railway telegraph operator. He falls in love with a girl who goes to the evangelical church in Vigo. Everything goes well until the war breaks out.
The novel gives a precise description of the battle of Brunete, among others, and of the never ending confrontation on the Ebro river front. Its point of view is that of the informants who survived what was in fact a technical rehearsal for the following great European war. This part of the story ends in 1939, when Manuel, a soldier who fights on Franco’s side against his will, returns home thinking that the worst had been left behind in the trenches, only to find that dissidents were safer under a rain of bullets and bombs…
Xavier Alcalá’s story-telling skills vividly recreate the experience of being in front of a firing squad, resisting a nightly assault at the trenches, feeling the bloody contact of bodies of the International Brigadiers that fall on top of the “National” soldiers. But it is the sheer weight of History that makes for the pathos in his pages. As Xavier Queipo put it at the novel’s presentation in Brussels’ Livrerie Orfeu, “it is an eccentric vision of the History of the Europe that led to Fascism, the vision of this Spanish evangelical” (who avoided at all costs having to shoot the enemy while he was a member of an assault battalion). Considered by several critics as a bildungsroman, what makes Between Borders a page-turner is the story of a boy who learns too much bitter truth in too short a time.
Book II: In the Catacombs
The Galician original of Nas catacumbas (In the Catacombs), the second novel, was published at the end of 2005, and the Castilian version in 2009. Its title is eloquent: it gives an account of the time when Spaniards and foreigners who were contrary to Francoism survived by living underground. The main character’s life, the auto-biographer, is one of resistance from 1939 through 1950. Condemned to internal exile in Extremadura, extremely far from home, he later returns to Galicia, where he is to be fired from his job at the railways for no justified reason.
The village where he now lives with his wife and children is surrounded by the guerrilla, and located close to summer palace of the dictator (himself a Galician from Ferrol), who challenges the “men in the woods”. Preventive repression is unbearable; men are killed by the Falangist assassins simply for denouncing in a low voice that executions take place without a trial; the only decent food is bought on the black market, managed by “addicts” to the regime; arbitrary fines are imposed on whatever business they do not control, and they almost succeed in making Manuel close down his shop.
Again, in these chapters, Xavier Alcalá’s mastery is evident: the rhythm of the story is now as slow as life was for those who hoped Churchill and Truman would help overthrow Franco, and kept hoping the United Nations would do likewise. He portrays what he has heard from the witnesses (and what Alcalá himself, the son of a Republican army doctor, heard at home) acting as a notary of a time when leftist losers meant almost nothing to Fascist winners. Surviving was a trade, and religious dissidents were masters at it, with the help of the returning expelled “spies”, the English Evangelical pastors.
Nas catacumbas won the Galician Critics Award “for its technical perfection in conveying one of the most brutal periods of Contemporary History in Spain”. “My commitment to those who suffered so much”, says Alcalá in an interview for the literary magazine Qué Leer (Barcelona, October 2008), “was to narrate their ordeal without offending anyone”. But it was a great blow to the conscience of many to learn about their hazardous survival at a time of official peace, of silence under a crushing censorship…
Book III: A False Light
The third novel of this trilogy was perhaps the most challenging for the author, as it is not easy to relate how Franco and his political entourage made the regime acceptable to Western democratic powers. The title refers to the light that entered the catacombs’ tunnels: Unha falsa luz, A false Light.
Many Spaniards assumed that under Franco the country was improving in virtuousness as it prospered economically. But it was an illusion. Manuel, in his auto-biographical explanation of reality, talks of masks: those of the “great” men around the Generalissimo. He even states that, to be socially respected, a Protestant in Spain must be rich, as the Jews had been before their expulsion back in 1492. Nothing is granted to the Evangelicals, who continue to leave for Argentina, where they are free to grow and open new churches. The communities in Galicia dwindled while the “apertura” seemed to allow Protestants to do whatever they wished, except join the military or become teachers or journalists.
In A false Light Xavier Alcalá leads the reader through a time of masks and lies that cover up the corruption of Franco’s regime between 1950 and 1975, twenty five years of international pressure on a system that encouraged the wish for freedom blinding the believers. For these pages Alcalá speeds up the narrative pace again, as in the first novel; but there is a difference: the autobiographer has become an experienced writer after so many chapters; he is now writing his memoirs, marked by historical references.
Although close now to the real author’s lifetime (he was born in 1947), he writes from his own point of view as a Protestant who manages to earn the respect of a hostile environment by becoming a successful businessman. As Professor Ramón Pena puts it, “This novel by Xavier Alcalá is far from any exercise in ventriloquy”…
So what is the Trilogy really about?
“Is Evangelical Memoirs about religion? Yes. About politics? Indeed. Is it apolitical? Of course. Atheistic? No doubt. It is all that and much more. There is an effect in it that only great writers can accomplish: a profound reflection on human nature in a work where rigorous historic research is blended into a seamless fiction.”