Places: The Cypresses Believe in God

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Los cipreses creen en Dios, 1953 (English translation, 1955)

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Historical realism

Time of work: 1931-1936

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Gerona

*Gerona. Cypresses Believe in God, TheTown tucked away in the northeast corner of Catalonia near Spain’s border with France. Gerona might at first seem an unlikely place to carry the symbolic weight of all the forces sweeping through Spain during the tumultuous years of the young republic. Barcelona, also in Catalonia, about sixty miles southwest of Gerona, is a larger city that played a more important role in the Spanish Civil War than Gerona; however, José María Gironella was born in Gerona and, following the traditional advice given to young writers, wrote about what he knew intimately. For him, Gerona stands for all places in Spain, and each locale in this city has a symbolic meaning.

Alvear apartment

Alvear apartment. Gerona home of the Alvears, a typical Spanish family living on the second floor of a flat overhanging the Onar River. Because of the river’s seasonal floods, the neighborhood is seen as unattractive, though the Alvear residence is better than the flats the family occupied earlier in Madrid, before Matías Alvear, a Republican, was transferred to Gerona to work as a clerk in the telegraph office. Because Alvear is from Madrid and his wife, Carmen Elgazu, is from the Basque provinces, events occurring in the rest of Spain influence family members. For example, one month after the Republic is proclaimed, Matías’s brother, a radical, participates in the burning of churches and convents in Madrid.


Seminary. Religious institution in Gerona that the eldest Alvear son, Ignacio, enters at the same time the family settles in the city. The seminary occupies the heights of the city; it, the cathedral, and other churches of Gerona represent the overpowering presence of Roman Catholicism in Spanish life. However, the seminary proves to be only an interlude in Ignacio’s search for himself, and he leaves the religious vocation for the secular life. Coinciding with Ignacio’s loss of vocation is the proclamation of the Spanish Republic. Later, his young brother César, who is deeply devout, becomes a happy and successful seminarian.

Gerona slums

Gerona slums. Ignacio spends more and more time in these Geronese slums, which both attract and repel him. He sees the dilapidated houses, smells the rotting garbage, and hears the growls of the half-starved dogs, but he also gets to know the people, who have an innate happiness that bubbles to the surface in their saloons and cafés. His walks from one part of Gerona to others are like his attraction first to one political ideology, such as socialism, then to another, such as Falangism, as he struggles to find a rational mean between irrational extremes.

Political headquarters

Political headquarters. Gerona’s many political parties have their particular realms. For example, Izquierda Republicana, the left republican party, has the best hall in town. The Liga Catalana, the conservative Catholic party, holds its social events in church halls. The Confederación del Trabajo, whose objective is the establishment of anarchism, meets in the largest of the city’s three gymnasiums. The monarchists gather in the editorial office of El Tradicionalis, and the communists, who are poorly organized, meet in a barbershop.


Cemetery. Tensions between Catholics and communists, between the poor and the privileged, and between right-wing and left-wing parties lead to increasing violence and the piling up of corpses in the local cemetery. Communist and anarchist crowds burn eight churches and three convents in Gerona in less than two hours. Doctors and lawyers are forced from their homes and priests from their rectories. Charged with being “fascists,” they are dragged to the cemetery and shot. Among the victims in the cemetery is the young seminarian César Alvear, and the final beat of his heart ends the novel.

BibliographyIlie, Paul. “Fictive History in Gironella.” Journal of Spanish Studies: Twentieth Century 2 (1974): 77-94. Shows that Gironella points out relationships between the novel and historical events of the time. Citations from the novels are all in the original Spanish.Preston, Paul. Revolution and War in Spain, 1931-1939. New York: Methuen, 1984. This set of twelve essays shows that the Spanish Civil War was not one but many wars. Most pertinent to the background of The Cypresses Believe in God are the essay by Frances Lannon on the responsibilities of the anticlericals and the Catholic church in polarizing Spanish society in the 1930’s and the chapter by Juan Pablo Pusi on the conflicts between the micronationalism of Catalonia and the Second Republic.Schwartz, Ronald. José María Gironella. Boston: Twayne, 1972. Covers the author’s career to 1968. The chapter on The Cypresses Believe in God contains several errors, such as identification of David, Olga, and El Responsable as Communists, and thus should be used with caution.Thomas, Gareth. The Novel of the Spanish Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Gironella’s trilogy receives a chapter, and the introductory chapters are valuable in providing a context. The citations from Gironella and his critics are all in the original Spanish or French.
Categories: Places