Thursday, June 4, 2009

Yesterday was five centuries ago, by José Miguel Pallarés

How a boy in found a dusty copy of Amadis de Gaula in his family home in a medieval mountain town in Spain, and how it changed his life.

[Nublos Tower, originally part of the Knights Templar castle, now part of the town hall of Iglesuela del Cid.]


Today's commentary is by José Miguel Pallarés (Zaragoza, 1966), author of the novel El Tejido de la espada (The Weaving of the Sword), a tale of war and sorcery set in the early Middle Ages in Aragón, Spain. He is also a translator and author of other novels, short stories, and comics. You can read an interview of him discussing the novel here, in Spanish.


Several stories circulate about why the great-great-grandfather of the great-great-grandfather of the great-great-grandfather of the great-great-grandfather of my great-great-grandfather left Catalonia "at horse-hoof," as they say in the ancient chronicles: at top speed. In some versions, he was working as a tax collector for a count and fled, taking all the money, of course. In others, there was some sort of offense to the honor of the daughter of his feudal lord. (An illicit affair, what else?)

Honestly, we'll probably never know for sure after five centuries, and probably both stories are more false than Judas, but what is true is that this ancestor settled in Iglesuela del Cid, a town that had been founded by the Knights Templar many years earlier in the mountains on the border between the ancient kingdoms of Aragón and Valencia. Little remains of the Templar buildings, but medieval streets are still there, along with the Neapolitan-style palaces of the ambassadors and the mansions of the great families.

I was born in a big city and I'm a child of the asphalt, but I didn't live cut off from my family's past for long, because about 37 or 38 years ago, my father announced that we were going to spend the summer in the mountains.

As a result of that summer, I made a promise, and I discovered the past and a certain book of chivalry. But one thing at a time.

The trip turned into holy hell when we left the wide, well-paved road and entered the mountains. My father drove along calmly, but I was scared stiff. The road resembled a goat path, and when you looked beyond the shoulder, the view was hardly relaxing: a cliff with sharp rocks at the bottom of sheer drop of two thousand meters. I kept saying: "Go slower, go slower."

Occasionally — only occasionally — we passed through flat zones studded with rocks that had fallen from the crags on the mountains. What rocks! Back then, they seemed enormous, and now I know that they weighed tons. My dad tried to calm the family by saying that those rocks only fell during the springtime. I answered, "Go faster, go faster," and looked up, afraid that one of those "little stones" was about to crash down on us, even though we were in the middle of July.

I forgot about all my troubles when I saw Iglesuela del Cid for the first time, a town that had just left the 14th century, and the family home on Main Street, a building from the age of catapults. If they had told me it had already existed when Noah's ark reached land, I would have believed it. I remember it as if it were yesterday, that house with sturdy walls, sagging stairways, and dozens of rooms located in four floors. (It was perfect for playing hide and seek.) It had been closed up for years, almost since the Civil War, and so that day we ate dust until we were sick of it, but I was in seventh heaven. There were toys from the 19th century, although they weren't really toys, but I used them as if they were (I broke a few, oops), and the adults were too busy to keep me on a short leash.

I could do whatever I wanted for five days while my uncles and parents straightened out the house, from sunup to sundown.

Now for what I promised.

The first night a huge thunderstorm blew up, and lightning set fire to a stable. I heard shouting in the street, the rumble of people with buckets of water, and the hunger of a growing fire.

It was all getting better and better.

Within a week, I was enthralled by the Puig workshops, where they wove wool the old-fashioned way, and by that place, that town, without running water or modern improvements, but with palaces, streets fresh from the Middle Ages, and the Nublos Tower, which had been built by the Knights Templar.

Besides that, there were some crazy German scientists looking for a cure for the escurzones (local rattlesnakes with venom for which modern medicine has no antidote), and the big attraction: the priest's garden, the finest in town with the biggest variety of the best fruits, and the hardest-to-climb garden wall. Although it's a fact that the priest fired a shotgun loaded with rock salt, you wouldn't believe his aim.

I made friends there and discovered a new life, where men were men and the land made the rules. Each summer I lived among magnificent people. Tough. Demanding. Honorable. All the joys of modern life seemed tawdry to me starting then, and I didn't grow up to be a snob or a jerk because, thanks to them, I had the luck to learn what things were really worth.

The contact with nature in its pure state seduced me, and that was one constant during the next ten years. There was nothing like summer. It was a breath of life in the boredom that filled provincial living in the 1970s.

I learned to feel in harmony with this world and its code of ethics, but this rural world was fading away. Every summer its way of life and its morals born from the earth itself grew a little more diluted. I promised to write a book that would do justice to a centuries-old world that was disappearing, but at that moment I lacked the emotional and technical skills to begin the work.

I have to admit that I forgot that promise, but years later — many years later, unfortunately — I remembered Hemingway's advice: "Write what you know," and I got to work to tell an epic of a man in search of his freedom set in the late Middle Ages. And I wrote a book called El tejido de la espada.

I've written other works and I'm buried under new books, but none of them hold a place of honor in my house besides that one. Those who know me understand why, but they usually ask why it shares its privileged location with Amadís de Gaula.

Now we return to that magic summer when I was six years old and my uncles met with my dad to execute a will and decide what to do about things. We return to that stormy night, to those hundreds of steps lit by a candle, since the electric lights went out whenever there was a storm, to that 80-meter-square bedroom of mine where Dracula would have felt young, to the door at the end, the one to the falsa, a regionalism (many languages are spoken in Spain besides Castilian, Catalan, Basque, and Galician) that means "large attic," and to the words of my father:

"Don't go into this room."

Obviously, I focused all my attention in finding out where that damn key was to get into the falsa. What else is a kid going to do with that kind of provocation? I was going to get in there even if I had to open the door with an ax. It didn't come to that, but the house had all the tools of rural life, and it would take more than a door to stop me.

It took me two days to get the key and enter the kingdom of spiders.

There was dust, spider webs, old furniture, fine china, rusty cookware, ledger books, half a set of tools for cabinetmaking, yellowed yearbooks from long-gone centuries, even more yellowed family photographs, valuable antiques from antediluvian times (this explains the cloud of antique dealers who appeared days later and the speed at which my father and two uncles divided things up) and books: good, bad, and ordinary. This falsa could have been a room in Gormenghast Castle.

I've left the best for the end: a big book with relatively new leather covers. I took off the paper it was wrapped in and got covered in dust from head to foot, and my knees trembled when I opened it. There were loose illustrations of knights charging at a gallop and a tome with very strange typeface. I could make out the writing, but not well, although eventually I read the title: Los cuatro libros del virtuoso caballero Amadís de Gaula. I went crazy when I saw the blurred date: 1817. Napoleon Bonaparte must have been alive when that pile of dusty pages was printed! Later, reality came and ruined the fun: an expert cleaned the numbers before assessing it and its date was 1837.

Things are only perfect in movies, and the book was missing a lot of pages at the beginning, and it began in the middle of what eventually (that is, ten years later) I would identify as Chapter 8. More or less it said, and this may not be exact, but I'd rather quote it just as I remember it: "He turned his head and saw the knight whom he had just jousted, and another knight with him. Taking up his arms, he charged at them. They had their lances lowered and their horses were going at full speed. And the people at the tents saw him going so well seated in his saddle that they were amazed."

I was a professional nitpicker in those days and I began to see spelling errors and strange things: they had to explain to me that Castilian was very different when that book was written, including the use of the "b" and the "v" and what it took me a little longer to realize was a cedilla (ç).

My parents discovered right away that I'd entered the falsa, and oh, no matter how much I denied it, I was covered in dirt. The rest of the house sparkled, and the falsa was the only room that they still had to clean. No, not at all.

I would have let it go and I would have forgotten the book, I swear, but my father said:

"Don't go in that room and don't you dare touch that book, because it's very old and you'll damage it."

It's the adults who ask for trouble.

I did whatever it took to get myself a candle and a box of matches, and I sneaked in at night, when everyone else was in bed, to read those old, cracked pages that smelled like death. I sat down to devour the stories about Amadis in the chair of my great-grandfather Miguel, a big hulking man who they said could single-handedly stop a heifer, and to judge from the photographs and because they had to build a chair and a bed to measure, it might have been true. I might be thinking of my great-great-grandfather, but with our foolish custom of calling all the first-born sons Miguel, naturally there is a platoon of men called Miguel Pallarés, and I get them confused. "What century was he from?" I would ask when they mentioned yet another Miguel Pallarés.

Up in that chair the size of a burro, I read about the deeds of knights and princesses by the light of my candle. The story was new. The character was great. The tale was more addictive than a sinful woman who out-curved a Coca-Cola bottle, as Montero Glez would say.

And best of all, it had been banned.

Was it perfect?

Yes, it was, but perfection isn't made to last, and that didn't last either. The coming weeks brought new members of the family, and they brought the bad guys, the antique dealers who paid for stuff that was useless but valuable because it was old. The book disappeared.

I was left so shattered that my mother noticed and spoke to my father. When we got back to our apartment in Zaragoza, so clean, so modern, so boring, he searched through every bookstore until he got (by special order) a copy that I could read at my pleasure, complete from the beginning. It wasn't the same by electric light and without that air of danger, but Amadís de Gaula was still a terrific read, and it ranks among the best memories of my childhood.

According to the experts, the book must have been written in 1492, although it wasn't published until 1508 in my home town, Zaragoza¹, the same year as my ancestor went running out to find someplace new to live. A busy year. Those who say life runs in cycles are probably right: "Not many years after the passion of our Redeemer and Savior Jesus Christ, there was a Christian king in Little Brittany by the name of Garinter, who was of the true faith...."
¹An earlier edition probably existed, since an edition published in 1511 in Seville was not based on the Zaragoza version.
Translation by Sue Burke.

No comments:

Post a Comment