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Writer and novelist Francisco Umbral(b. 1935) is a creative prose stylist and winner of the prestigious Cervantes Award, The Prínicpe de Asturias Prize for Literature and The National Literary Prize. He began his career in the 1950s as a newspaperman under Miguel Delibes and won recognition as an outstanding columninst with various dailies. He is also renowned for being crusty, acerbic and provocative: when awarded the Cervantes in 2001, he wondered that it had taken so long, with novelist and academician Luis Goytisolo later declaring: ‘every Spaniard deserves a prize, at least once in his life. I would rather not express an opinion on the work of the winner, Francisco Umbral’.
Although he has published various novels, Umbral still writes what he terms journalistic ‘sonnets’ on his favourite subject: the life and times of Madrid; he defends journalistic essays as true literature and feels he has helped make them an art form. This piece comes from a collection published in 1973 under the title Diario de un esnob. Apart from their literary value, these essays have great social interest because they were written towards the end of the Franco regime whose censorship, though reduced, was very much to be reckoned with; indeed, in Francoist Spain, artists and intellectuals worthy of the name were almost expected to go into exile. To stay on as a columnist with leftist tendencies writing about social issues in major dailies implied the possibility of antagonising both sides of the political fence.
Umbral’s exuberant and tangential style ensures he makes a small and agile target. His approach is to take a subject and use it to fuel a range of digressions, diversions and meditations on life, returning with new insights on the central theme at the end of the piece. His use of meditative departure and return has its parallels in poetry and music, and is one reason why he is so admired as a stylist and innovator.
Here the fortunes of an early Iberian female figure, akin to its more famous cousin of Elche and so dubbed la Dama de Baza, provide an opening for Umbral to weigh in against the capital’s implacable centralism, with swipes at reactionary nostalgia, a vacuous and rapacious entertainment industry, the fickle and ephemeral nature of success, and popular indifference to fallen idols.
Because Umbral uses his topic to inject references and asides that enclose much more significance than might appear at first glance, translating him poses a problem. Any attempt to remove obscurities by explanation or omission within the translated text, certainly makes for less demanding reading, but removes all the resonances and clips the piece’s stylistic wings. Accordingly, I have appended notes to allow the reader to share in the fun, and get a peek down some fascinating little historical byways.
V. Stevenson, June 2002.
Francisco Umbral, Diario de un esnob [Diary of a Snob], Destino 1973: pp. 16 - 19.
The Lady of Baza
The Lady of Baza, or: Spanish Artistic Centralism. As readers may already be aware, the ancient female statue in question was found on Granadan ground and has been brought to Madrid for her careful restoration and subsequent exhibition before the cognoscenti and the general public. In a sense this constitutes an archaeological parallel of the young lady who wins a radio competition in her home province, and must immediately come to Madrid to validate her success; once here, and with a little luck, she becomes Mr. Goyanes’ or Mr. Perojo’s protégée and ends up lingering just as happy as a lark, making movies about highwaymen with hearts of gold and really macho brandy advertisements.
Now as it happens, the citizens of Granada were somewhat peeved about the Lady's trip to the capital, and were voicing concerns as to when they might expect to get their archaeological sweetheart back. To us natives of Madrid it seemed, at least in the beginning, that the Granadans were being overly suspicious and chauvinistic, because after all we already have our very own statue - of Cibeles no less, goddess of things agrarian and cereal, queen of Madrid’s dairies and dairy cows. But I’m blessed if the Granadans hadn’t got it right all along, because it seems that the Lady of Baza's makeup and facial will be a very lengthy process indeed, and the newspapers are now running interviews and opinion polls on an issue that should never have arisen in the first place: the return of the illustrious Lady to her native province. Thus, the Lady of Baza has become no less than a symbol of Spanish Centralism.
If Madrid does indeed steal Granada's beautiful and ancient Lady, we shall have before us an artistic outrage the equal of the economic one committed when certain areas were de-industrialised so Madrid might enjoy their factories instead. Or an absurdity of the kind which proposes an Industrial Publishing Complex for the City, when Barcelona has been Spain's printing capital since time out of mind. Now, as this column has observed on other occasions, the fact that Madrid itself is not doing the centralising is a detail that always ends up being overlooked; because if Emma Cohen or Monica Randall, Carmen Sevilla or Lola Flores happen to leave their peripheral origins to come to Madrid and make it big in the world of films and showbiz, that is entirely their own affair. But no, the movers and shakers behind Centralising Madridism must insist on pushing their luck, clapping spurs to a willing horse and riding it into the ground, thus killing the goose that laid the golden egg. We have brought the Lady of Baza to our city on a scientific and courtesy visit, and it’s most unfair of us to keep her here - amongst other things because if she stays in Madrid she runs a very real risk of appearing in one of those cringeworthy films of Pedro Masó’s.
One can already imagine the titles: How to Stuff a Baza Bikini, Baza-Blanket Bingo or somesuch other stroke of cinemadridographic genius. As usual, when a young lady from the provinces comes to Madrid amidst a certain expectation, one can rest assured she will wind up warbling in some Retiro ballroom, starring in B-movies opposite Alfredo Landa, or hosting political soirées. Indeed, some people are already hinting at the existence of certain ‘suppercentralists’, who hope to organise an upcoming dinner around the Lady’s visit to Madrid, just so they can invite her as their very own Stone Guest.
Given the overt affinity such gentlemen usually have for the times of yore, the Lady of Baza, with a few thousand years already up her sleeve, could well be the touchstone they need to harken happily back to those good old days they yearn for - although it must be said that not all of them go quite that far back in their historical and political nostalgia. In fact the majority never get past King Pelayo.
Perhaps by the time this column goes to print, the misunderstanding surrounding the Lady of Baza will have been cleared up and Granadans will have once more amongst them their archaeological missy. But one fears the plot is thickening: the Lady has already had her own page-three article in ABC, and page three in ABC is tantamount to consecration as one of our own.
We have already lumbered Madrid with factories and smokestacks in a coup which would appear irreversible; please, let us not do the same with ancient artefacts. For example, the city’s Archaeological Museum has a neat replica of the Altamira Caves and their prehistoric art - a measure of the itch that at one time certain gentlemen had to carve up said icons with a steamshovel and bring them piecemeal to Madrid. But since that would have been a trifle over the top, they made do with a neat and convenient replica which allows the visitor to see the prehistoric womb of our race right there amongst the boutiques and rug shops on the Calle Serrano. Ergo, all we need do is make a careful copy of the Lady of Baza so that all Madrid's citizens and visitors can give her the once over, and we can restore to the Granadans their Dame from the Dawn of Time; after all, they did find her on home turf and finders keepers is only fair. Moreover, as there are now moves afoot to open a Wax Museum in Madrid packed with effigies of footballers and thespians who aren't even dead yet, they could surely include the Lady of Baza in the collection - perhaps between Gento and Paquita Rico.
Wherever did Madrid get this recent compulsion to grab everything for itself? Because centralists we must be indeed, if we can raise an Egyptian temple - that of Debod - on the site of the old Montaña barracks. Doubtless it was done to give we Isidrans the impression that Egypt was once a Spanish colony, and therefore owes us this type of historical ruin. Yet centralism, it must be said, never figures amongst the aspirations of the common people, who are typically more inward-looking than imperialistic; no, it is a true geopolitical phenomenon crying out for further study.
According to the popular saying, a matador never makes it until he has made it in Madrid, which means that Las Ventas is the geographical centre of the tauromachial world. Now this is neither here nor there to this columnist's way of thinking, since bullfighting will in any case soon become a thing of the past; but in the meantime the fiesta remains quintessentially Spanish, and the idea of Las Ventas as the geographical, political, historical and artistic centre of the nation does strike one as excessive.
Lately there have been two provincial sportsmen, Angel Nieto and Urtain, who have savoured success in Madrid; but Madrid makes its myths and it breaks them too, having just buried Urtain in the very Sports Palais where previously it came to praise him. And so if the Lady of Baza happens to be in fashion today in the big city, the destiny awaiting her should she tarry is that of the forgotten museum exhibit: of archaeological routine and time's dusty dilation, barely relieved by the weekly visits of convent schoolchildren and wizened nuns.
Radio announcers, journalists, songstresses, home-town heroes seduced by the capital's false glitter: all have made their way to Madrid. Today they sell lottery tickets in bars, flog insurance door-to-door, or pump gasoline in a service station somewhere. Should the Lady of Baza opt to stay, we shall in due course see her sharing the fate of Mariblanca: made a public fountain wherein pigeons evacuate their bowels, and derelicts soothe their feet.
Roll Call (lest we forget):
ABC: conservative daily founded 1905; its sympathy towards the Franco regime allowed it to continue publishing during the dictatorship. Still in print.
Altamira: cave system near Santillana de Mar (Asturias), one of whose vaults is covered in prehistoric depictions of animals and has been dubbed ‘The Sistine Chapel’ of primitive art.
Baza, Dama de: Early Iberian (4th Century B.C.) stone statue of a seated female figure, found near the city of Baza in the province of Granada (Andalusia) in 1971. At time of writing, still in the National Archeological Museum in Madrid (see Serrano).
Cibeles, la: 18th Century fountain based around image of Earth goddess Cybele (Gk. name Rhea), daughter of Uranus and Gaia, sister and wife of Cronos, mother of Demeter, Hades, Hera, Hestia Poseidon and Zeus. After democracy became a rallying point for noisy and drunken celebrations, e.g. victories of Real Madrid football team.
Cohen, Emma: b. 1947 Emmanuela Beltrán Rahola. Star of horror movies such as La semana del asesino (aka Cannibal Man) (1971). Married to Spanish cinema legend Fernando Fernán Gómez. Now combines acting with travel journalism for the El Mundo newspaper.
Debod, Templo de (Temple of Debod): Ancient Egyptian shrine dedicated to Amon, originally located at Debod in the Aswan valley. Removed and presented to the Spanish people by the Egyptian government in supposed recognition of the country’s assistance in the construction of the Aswan dam and relocation of the Abu Simbel site. Installed 1970.
Flores, Lola: b. 1921 María Dolores Flores Ruiz d. 1995. Spain’s most important female folkloric artist known as La madre de España (The Mother of Spain). Mother of Rosario (singer, actress); Antonio (d.1995 musican, composer) and Lolita (singer, television personality).
Gento, Francisco: b. 1933 Only soccer player with six European Cup winner’s medals, a star of the great Real Madrid sides of the 1950s that included Di Stefano. Real was perceived by many as being ‘the team of the regime’, and its contests with Barcelona were seen as nationalist vs. republican contests.
Goyanes, Manuel: Spanish film producer, best known for taking in the young Josefa (Pepa) Flores and turning her into 1960s child star Marisol. It was rumoured – by Umbral among others - that Marisol and other young girls were conveyed to exclusive parties to pose nude for important figures of the Franco regime.
Isidro Labrador, San (Saint Isidro Agricultor): b. 1082 d. 1172. Pious farmer, canonized by Gregory XV in 1622. Patron of Madrid since 1212; fiesta celebrated 15 May.
Landa, Alfredo: b. 1933. Short, balding comic actor who embodied the amorous and frustrated Spanish male of the 1960s. Later moved on to dramatic roles including the acclaimed Los santos inocentes (The Holy Innocents, 1984) . Cemented reputation as Sancho Panza beside cinema legend Fernando Rey in 1991 television production of Don Quixote.
Mariblanca, Fuente de la: familiar name given to a replica statue of Venus forming the basis of a 17th century fountain in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid.
Masó Paulet, Pedro: prolific screen writer, actor, producer, director; much of his output was made as inoffensive entertainment for the home market with titles such as No desearás la mujer del prójimo (‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’), Sor Citroen (Sister Citroen), and a film version of Spain’s own Zorro-style masked avenger El Coyote. His production company Pedro Maso P.C. now makes and distributes films, television series and sitcoms throughout the Spanish-speaking world.
Montaña, Cuartel de (the La Montaña Barracks): army barracks in Madrid, site of one of the first actions of the Spanish Civil War. The site, occupied by nationalist forces on the uprising, was taken by loyalist republican forces in July 1936.
Nieto, Angel: b. 1947. Spanish motorcycling ace of 60s and 70s, obtained 13 world titles in 50cc and 125 cc categories.
Pelayo, Don (King Pelayo): d. 737 Asturian nobleman of Gothic origin, first king of Asturias and León (718-737) and early leader of the Reconquest of Moorish Spain; won decisive battle of Covadonga (722). Symbol of a strong Christian Spain overcoming the forces of subversion.
Perojo, Benito: b. 1894 d. 1974. Actor, writer, director and producer and pioneer of Spanish cinema. Conservative politics allowed his career to prosper during Franco regime.
Randall, Monica: b. 1942 Aurelia Juliá Sarasa. Films include Soleil Rouge (Red sun). Popularity increased by a readiness to do nude scenes.
Retiro, el: Largest park in Madrid, originally royal gardens donated to the people by Isabel II in 1868. Centre of family entertainment, includes exhibition/function sites (Palacio de Vásquez and Palacio de Cristal).
Rico, Paquita: 1950s singer, actress featured in sanitised film entertainments for the times.
Serrano, Calle de: street where Spain’s National Museum of Archaeology is located.
Sevilla Carmen: b. 1929 María del Carmen García Galisteo. Singer, dancer, actress; movie star in musical roles during 1950s. Became TV personality in 1980s presenting a phone-in game show; still features in celebrity gossip magazines.
Sports Palais (Palacio de Deportes): important centre for sporting events and, since democracy, rock concerts.
Stone Guest, the (el invitado de piedra): reference to the full title of Tirso de Molina’s 17th century morality play El burlador de Sevilla o el invitado de piedra (The Seducer of Seville or the Stone Guest), popularly known as Don Juan. The libertine Don Juan Tenorio seduces Ana de Ulloa before her wedding and is caught by her father Gonzalo, whom he murders. He escapes and leaves another to take the blame. Later he mocks Gonzalo’s statue in the cemetery and invites it to dine with him; the invitation is accepted on the condition that Don Juan return as a guest the following evening. (He does, and is dragged into the underworld as punishment for his transgressions).
Urtain: b. 1943 José Manuel Ibar Azpiazu d. 1992. Basque boxer famed for enormous physical strength. Career 53(41 KO)-11-4. Debut 1968, def. Peter Weiland at Madrid Sports Palais to become European heavyweight champion (1970) and for a while a national hero. Lost and regained title, then lost definitively in Madrid to Jurgen Blin (1972). Penniless and unable to pay the rent, he suicided by jumping from this 10th floor Madrid apartment.
Ventas, las: Madrid bullring and world centre of the bullfighting art. To be carried out of the arena through the main gate (la puerta grande) by an ectstatic crowd is the greatest tribute for a matador.
Translation and notes ã V.J. Stevenson 2000, 2002