Floating back down to Granada, down to the Darro River, the sky hardens, then turns brittle in the waning light, and falls whitely on the city. I seek sanctuary from the cold. Bar La Riviera is hidden down an alley east of the Gran Via, not far from the Cathedral of the Incarnation. It is crowded at the bar and I feel I am in a normal pub. The man serving, according to house custom, asks which complementary tapas I want. Distracted, I say no gracias. A terrible hush falls over the bar, easing into some scornful laughter and pointing. The mystified barman evaporates, while I try to make myself invisible at the corner of the counter.
I get into a conversation with an English woman, well travelled and canny enough to have lost her husband in a nearby hotel. She wonders if I, as a Catholic – me being Irish and all – can explain the local cult of the Virgin. I wonder don’t they have virgins in England, but address the question all the same. I was at a Holy Week parade in Malaga, part of the crowd sucked in by its hypnotic magnetism. The solemn thump of the music leads us on step by step as the Brotherhood carry their towering floats, or tronos, from the port through the city centre to the Plaza before Teatro Cervantes. One tronos is of the Christ and the other, typically more exuberant, is of the Virgin. In part it brought me back to distant days as a child participating in the May Day procession, one of a multitude of child brides and grooms carrying the colours of the Virgin, the blue and white matching the brisk sky and streaming blossoms of Spring. The plain streets of Walkinstown sang and all roads led to the red brick monolith of Our Lady of the Assumption, all in the glass bubble of a perfect day.
Oh Mary we crown you with blossoms so gay
Queen of the Angels and Queen of the May
But this Andalusian devotion is a stronger manifestation of the spiritual flame; adult and profoundly solemn, yet infusing everyone with a communal joy. If we didn’t have this, we would need to invent it. Caught in the austerity of a Free State, we might have sacrificed something in the public manifestation of shared spirituality. Passion is also a tender flame.
The Teatro Cervantes recalls another ancient, or early modern devotion. Cervantes is well commemorated throughout Andalusia. In Granada a barrio to the south of the city centre is named for him. His writing pervades the entire Spanish consciousness. As with Shakespeare and English, he is central to Spanish.
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born in 1547 near Madrid, where he died in 1616. But he had a peripatetic life, his boyhood spent wandering Spain with his family, the father Rodrigo being a barber surgeon.Exiled from Castile, in his early twenties he travelled to Italy where he absorbed the art of the Italian Renaissance.
In 1570 he enlisted as a soldier in the Spanish Navy and served at the Battle of Lepanto, where the Holy League inflicted defeat on the Ottoman empire. Returning to Spain, he was captured by pirates when bound for Barcelona and spent five years as a slave in Algiers from 1875. Back in Spain, he worked as an accountant and tax collector to support his writing. A bankruptcy in Andalusia saw him wind up in jail in Seville for a few months. He put the imprisonment to good use. It was there that he conceived of Don Quixote-which was published in 1605.
Don Quixote is regarded as the first novel in the modern sense, and has become, after the Bible, the most translated book in the world. Its influence is immense and global. The human character is carved from the words, Don Quixote, hopeless and heroic against the backdrop of hostile reality. Meanwhile his long suffering squire, Sancho Panza, can speckle the red soil with spitfulls of caustic wit. It seems so modern because humanity is so permanent. Cervantes embodied his own maxim, that the pen is the language of the soul
Meanwhile, our musicians and writers have not been so remembered in Irish street names. Though in Walkinstown, where I grew up, some fame is secured for the creative heart. In the Melodies estate, with nineteen streets named for musicians and composers, one street there is named for Michael Balfe, whose fame owes something to Cervantes. Michael William Balfe (1808-1870) was born in Dublin, son of a violinist and dancing master. When his father died he took his precocious musical talent to London. Deciding to pursue the career of an opera singer he travelled to Italy for tuition between 1825 and 1835. He returned to London and quickly achieved success as a composer. In 1843 he wrote The Bohemian Girl based on a Cervantes story, La Gitanella, from Novellas Ejemplares, the Exemplary Novels.
La Gitanella tells of a fifteen year old gypsy girl, Preciosa, who captures the heart of a nobleman, Don Juan, but to marry her he must spend two years as a gypsy. The story examines the nature of stereotypes, truth and lies. The twist in the tale is that Preciosa had been kidnapped by the gypsies as a child. Balfe’s version, with libretto by Alfred Bunn, is rather more melodramatic. It was hugely successful and is by far his best known work, in particular the Aria I dreamt I dwelt in Marble Halls. Here Arlene, the gypsy girl of the title, recalls her almost forgotten earlier life.
I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls
With vassals and serfs at my side
And of all who assembled within those walls
That I was the hope and the pride
And I hunger and thirst enough, for company and sustenance, that I call another. The barman fixes me with a steely eye, daring me. I order skewered pork, as though it were so familiar that I had almost forgotten. I was rewarded in minutes, the steaming tapas carried aloft through the bar, the whole pig on a forest of spikes on a golden field of french fries. They don’t do things by halves.
It is only a short sashay to the Irish Bar in the City of Grenada, where I plan to have a digestif. Hannigan’s Irish Bar is remote from the complementary tapas that are de rigueur everywhere else. Here I can sit in splendid isolation, and contemplate the sound and stories that permeate the city. In truth, there is a very good music mix, so that sometimes it seems to follow the song that has just occurred in my head.
Wending my way home to Plaza de los Campos, the snow has turned to rain. The streets glisten. Assassins shimmer in the alleyways, hats aslant and opal eyed. They drift like vapour through the nightlife crowds, settle in silence in darkened doorways, watching, waiting for their time to arrive.
Your elegy, Grenada
is spoken by the stars
which from the heavens
perforate your black heart.
(Federico Garcia Lorca)