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The Valley of the Fallen

And Other Places

The Valley of the Fallen by Donald Katz
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Few writers can match journalist Donald Katz’s ability to make an exotic locale familiar or transform an ordinary place into something peculiar if not completely weird. The Valley of the Fallen and Other Places gathers a pastiche of stories from around the world, each of which subtly underlines the relationship between geography and politics. Locations, counties, regions of the world emerge as characters in Katz’s panoramic cast–as fully drawn as the unusual people that occupy them–so that one realizes of each particular account, that this could only happen in a place like this.

The setting for each of these pieces–whether home or abroad–provides a resonant backdrop for Katz’s startling perceptions and cultural acumen. He paints a portrait of Spain in which people are dying of political repression and vividly depicts Italy in the throes of a postwar capitalist hangover. Katz describes Arkansas, its history of racial strife notwithstanding, as an “American cultural ark” where respect for old-fashioned gumption and the tolerance for human eccentricity have fostered a renaissance of spirit. He captures the poignant ruin of political ideals gone amuck in the image of columns of Ethiopian children being herded through the night at gunpoint, undergoing political re-education. Katz’s observations of the Sinai, where “beliefs, convictions, even hunches become howling zeal,” contrast with Santa Fe’s “philosophical cogitating and quality-of-life improvement projects” in a New Age mecca that breeds tamer but equally fervent faiths.

The cumulative effect of reading this eclectic collection is one of wonder about the mysterious and dazzling world in which we live, and the way our lives are shaped by our place in it.
Random House Publishing Group; October 2001
240 pages; ISBN 9780679647225
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Title: The Valley of the Fallen
Author: Donald Katz

A man's dying is more the survivors' affair than his own.
-Thomas Mann

The macabre series of tubes, pumps, wires, and clamps connected to Francisco Franco miraculously pulsed and wheezed throughout much of the month of November. In taking so very long in dying, Generalissimo Francisco Franco y Bahamonde, the Caudillo de España, by the very grace of God was effectively unweaving a great deal of the heavy matting which had held Spanish society in a political stasis for some 40 years.

Franco had sought to construct a society blessed by an apolitical serenity. Spain was to be an outpost of hope in a ridiculous world that still believed politics to be a matter of popular concern. But one of the wiliest and most vicious Machiavellis ever to wield a scepter was finally dying, and neither his 32 doctors nor the grace of God was going to save him.

Only six floors above Franco, in the very same hospital, another man lay near death. Juan Alberto Sevilla, a 25-year-old engineering student at the University of Madrid, had somehow survived ten days of inhuman torture at the hands of Spanish police. Many of his bones were severely broken; his face had been completely disfigured by hundreds of cigarette burns; his kidneys had ceased to function properly from being so barbarously stomped; and there was doubt as to whether he would ever leave the dialysis machine. His tongue had been all but burned out of his mouth.

After he had been missing for some eight days, authorities contacted Sevilla's family and said that Juan had been taken ill and was being treated. Under the new antiterrorist laws in Spain, an individual may be detained for ten days without being charged. Sevilla was never charged.

"He had been arrested before," his brother said in the lobby of the hospital, "but only for an hour or two. He wrote some light political commentary in the university-sanctioned student newspaper. We couldn't even get him to the hospital until we came up with a 200,000-peseta [about $3,400] fine." The brother was smiling. It was a common smile among the young of Spain; combining an awareness of impossible absurdities and a painful resignation to the immutability of their existence. Juan Sevilla was dying of a bad case of political repression.

Going south out of Bordeaux, in southwestern France, one finds that the flat Bordelais vineyards soon yield to the soft protuberances of the Basque hills. The Pyrenees roll in the distance as you work your way down the Côte Basque: past Bayonne, through Biarritz, St. Jean de Luz, then Hendaye and eventually to the Spanish border. This is the border between information, memories, and active political thought on one side, and a veritable political vacuum on the other.

Hundreds of thousands of Spaniards have been forced to live in France over the last 40 years. They are refugees from the Spanish Civil War, political exiles of Franco's regime or economic victims of the pervasive poverty of Spain during the fifties. They live in Toulouse, in the Quartier St. Michel in Bordeaux, and dominate the population of Bayonne. Some of them have never given up their citizenship of the Republic of Spain. They have waited 40 years for a change in the system that forced them to leave their homes.

Then there are the Basques: even the failing godling in Madrid is believed to fear the power of their will to independence. People here think about Franco often. This was the best vantage point from which to watch Franco die.

The smoldering political passions which lie under the beautiful landscape of this area became apparent during the summer of 1974. It was then that Franco suffered an acute attack of phlebitis (known officially in Madrid as "the crisis"), almost died but didn't ("the miracle"). While his condition worsened the bars and cafés in these towns and villages submitted the largest orders for extra liquor that the region had ever seen. Now they had waited more than a year to have that party.

It's a strangely beautiful area. The broad beaches are marked by massive German blockhouses from World War II. The French government tried to blow them up after the war but the thickness of the walls made the cost of demolition outweigh the immediate desire to rid the area of the ugly shrines.

Jay Gould, the notorious 19th-century American magnate, used to live here. So did Juan Carlos, Spain's new king, until someone told him that it was politically unwise to vacation in the area.

The famous city of Biarritz is considered off-limits to political activists, although there was a killing in the main street several months ago. The European rich still come to Biarritz in the summer to gamble in the casino or hit floating golf balls into a lake. Latter-day Hemingways stalk the streets looking for Sonny's Bar. It was closed last year. Only the scratches on the walls remind you that Biarritz is right in the middle of the Basque country. They say, "Franco au Garrot, Franco Assassin."

The most apparent change in a city like Bayonne, three miles north of Biarritz, is in the quality of the fear. Revenge, violent revenge, has become a way of life for some of the exiles and for all of the Basques. Old friends will talk only if names are never used. Some won't talk at all.

At dinner in Bayonne, the Spanish radio station announced that Franco had survived another operation and was rallying. An old man closed his eyes.

It had been a hell of a life. He had been jailed for his union activities in 1934 when the nascent Spanish Republic reacted to activities from the left. Then he had fought for three years for that republic against Franco, "bad years." Then three more years fighting Hitler as a member of the French underground-then ten months in Buchenwald. After that, he worked 30 years as a second-class citizen of a country he had never considered his own.

"You know that I only cried once," he said. "That was after I got the news about Potsdam. All that time I truly believed that the Allies would liberate Spain and empty the jails as they'd emptied the camps, but they didn't."

The conversation moved back to Franco: a few Franco jokes ensued. All Spaniards tell Franco jokes. None of them are funny. It's the iconoclasm of it all; like Pope jokes or dead baby jokes.

Someone noted that a doctor had said that Franco was dying a painful death, a bad death.


It was the daughter speaking. With an almost supplicant gaze she repeated it, hissing, "Souffrez, souffrez, souffrez!"

In a little village outside Bayonne, a group of Spanish workers assembled for one of their regular meetings. There are many groups like this in France now. Some of them are active Spanish Communist party militants, others are simply trying to maintain the cultural and political ties which bring them hope. Their numbers have been greatly swelled by the latest wave of arrests in Spain and the attendant fears of the Spanish left.

The discussion ranged from the American imperialistic presence in Spain, in the form of military bases and capital investment, to the expectations of the group for a new Spain after Franco:

"Power in Spain must now come from the united workers," a man said. "There are certain things which must come immediately, such as total amnesty. Otherwise it's to the streets."

"Yes," a woman named Carolina was saying, "but no more killing."

"No more killing?"

As the dialectical verbiage became increasingly boring, some of the emotions and memories began to emerge. Sitting around a small kitchen table with this woman, and with these big men with gigantic forearms and soiled hands, I sensed the mood change. Then the stories came. Carolina continued:

"You have to understand that in every Spanish family there is a drama of misery and poverty, scars from the Civil War. I was seven. My father had been killed by Franco's troops; my mother was dying in jail. My other relatives had fought for Franco. I had to live in the street and my uncles and cousins would walk by while I starved. I was little and didn't understand. Franco's system won't die, it must be killed, but too many of us remember the hunger." She clasped her hands as if to snap herself out of a daydream.

"Franco is dying," a man said, "now Francoism must follow."

Even the children carry a vivid picture of the Spanish Civil War. Every Spanish family absorbed a loss. Everyone has had a relative in prison. The war lasted for two and a half years after the day that a young general named Franco launched an attack on the Spanish Republican government.

Seven hundred thousand people lost their lives in battle, another 50,000 died in air raids. Some 400,000 people went into exile. They say that Franco held 300,000 in prisons after the war; by 1942 two-thirds of them had been executed or had died in prison.

The Civil War was the world's first chance to see its new weapons in action. Hitler tested his Stuka dive bombers and incendiary bombs on cities like Guernica. Mussolini sent in his tanks and more than 75,000 men. The war ended in total defeat for the Republic. Despite their repeated requests for a negotiated peace with the nationalists, Franco crushed them in the final months. Three thousand Americans fought in that war.

In Guernica the emotions have long since transcended verbal expression. Franco's condition brought back the memories. Guernica had been the capital of the short-lived independent Basque Republic before the bombing and the war; it still suggests some unfinished business for the powerful movement for Basque nationalism.

The Basque country includes four provinces in Spain and three in France. There are just over two million Basques, the great majority of whom still live in Spain. The enigma of their origins has had anthropologists theorizing for years. Some even believe them to be the Lost Tribe of Israel. The Basque language bears no resemblance to any extant spoken language. They even have a separate blood type.

Their present quest for national autonomy is particularly intimidating for Spanish authorities because of a variety of endemic abilities and traditions. For one thing, they are historically fierce and efficient fighters. For another, there is an established tradition of border running through the Pyrenees. For years, the Basques ran huge smuggling organizations over a variety of frontiers. It is a matter of pride. The border, they believe, is a phenomenon wrought by the French and Spanish and should thus have little effect on the Basques' ability to cross it. A bartender friend named Felipe crossed the border every weekend to see his girlfriend. When I asked him if the fact that there was a price on his head scared him, he laughed. That was a year ago. The Spanish police eventually arrested his girlfriend. Felipe gave himself up.

The recent spate of police violence in the Basque country has caused many of the more conservative Basques to support ETA, a separatist, paramilitary grouping of young Basques. The group has gained both fame and numbers since an ETA bomb blew Spanish president Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco to bits in December 1973. The urban underground in Spain considers ETA a bit primitive but there is a tacit respect for their unmitigated gall.

"You want to know something about that Carrero Blanco bomb?" This was a high-ranking ETA operative. Official permission had been granted for an interview.

"The international press all thought that the Russians were supplying us with sophisticated electronic detonation systems. It was just some guy standing there with a switch."

Throughout the period of Franco's illness, ETA had been surprisingly inactive. Late in September two of their members had been executed with three others for terrorist activities in Spain. The execution had international repercussions. It is common knowledge in the Basque country, and this is corroborated by journalists, that the fingerprints found in the car of the alleged terrorists bore no relationship to those of the five dead men. But still ETA waited. A two-day general strike was called in certain Basque regions but there was none of the usual vengeance. There is a reason:

"They have our people. We have been specifically warned that prisoners will be butchered the day that Franco dies if we resume activity. We can't do that. Besides, there is some hope for an amnesty after Franco is gone. We can wait."

There is also the recent offensive by right-wing terrorists on the ETA operatives in France. The Guerrillas of Christ the King (GCR) are a group of well-armed and suspiciously well-informed men who have launched up to 30 bombing and shooting attacks so far. The man who was authorized to speak for ETA had his entire café blown into the street last summer. A good friend of his was injured, as were his children, after a bomb exploded in their car on the morning of our first interview.

"What about the fear?"

His young son hung joyfully on his neck. He said something in Basque and the boy left.

"Whenever I get scared I think about the importance of it all." He threw a photograph of a gentle-looking man on the table top. "My brother. He was never involved in politics. He ran a little bar in Bilbao, worked hard, loved his family. All the Basques knew him. Then I was sentenced to 100 years in prison. After I escaped through the mountains, the GCR walked into his bar and killed him. It was just to get at me. Now what do you want to know about fear?"

The ETA chieftains estimate that there are as many as 3,000 active members now. Some of them are much too hot to enter Spain while others can't even show their faces in Bayonne. They still believe that they can rally a million Spanish Basques if necessary.

Their arms come from all over the world and from all sides of the political spectrum. Pistols from Spain itself, some explosives from Ireland and the Middle East, submachine guns from Czechoslovakia. They even make weapons at home.

The Basques feel so cut off from mainstream opposition politics that the Spanish left only nominally considers them viable members of a cohesive opposition. "I am simply not Spanish," one man intoned. "A little democracy in Spain will open things up for us. We are united with a group like FRAP [the Maoist underground urban units in Barcelona and Valencia] only insofar as we all hate Franco and his system. But I am Basque."

The radio in the corner reports that Franco needs a third operation. The odds are 100 to 1 against success. There are smiles all around. "Maybe tomorrow we drink champagne."
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