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The high cloudless sky

The high cloudless sky
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First Published: Fri, Aug 07 2009. 08 27 PM IST

Testament to history: Poet Lorca’s statue at the city square. Lourdes Cardenal / Commons.Wikimedia.org
Testament to history: Poet Lorca’s statue at the city square. Lourdes Cardenal / Commons.Wikimedia.org
Updated: Fri, Aug 07 2009. 08 27 PM IST
We were in an open square, perhaps the same square where we had begun our wandering through the streets of Madrid, but by now we had consumed several bottles of Rioja, and it no longer mattered where we were, so long as we found a place that served food.
In Madrid during summer, you didn’t eat at 9pm, for at that time, the sun still shone brightly; not at 10, when there were still those bars you had not yet visited; nor at 11, for the night was still young; but maybe by midnight, when the air was cool again, your friends slightly hungry, the remnants of tapas consumed several hours earlier now fully digested, and the young women wearing flimsy tops and tight skirts felt it necessary to wrap a light shawl around, if they didn’t already have boyfriends holding them tight, making them no longer a voyeur’s delight.
Testament to history: Poet Lorca’s statue at the city square. Lourdes Cardenal / Commons.Wikimedia.org
It was at that late hour, with the breeze light, that Madrid reminded you that it was a mountain town, with what Ernest Hemingway once described as the city with “the high cloudless Spanish sky that makes the Italian sky seem sentimental and it has air that is actively pleasurable to breathe”.
On our trail following the footsteps of Hemingway, we had already had some cocktails at Taberna Chicote on the Gran Vía, a bar in art deco splendour, which aimed to promote “talk and opinion” at its founding in 1931, eight years after Hemingway first visited the city. That road was bombed often by Gen. Franco’s forces during the Spanish Civil War, but Chicote never downed shutters, earning Hemingway’s loyalty. (The road was called Avenida de los Quince y Medio, or the Avenue of the Fifteen-and-a-Halves, after the 150mm howitzer shells that devastated the area. Many of Madrid’s bars show the fading, grizzly image of Papa Hemingway enjoying a drink, and you often wonder if Hemingway did anything other than frequenting bars in Madrid. He did quite a lot: He wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Dangerous Summer, Death in the Afternoon, and several other works about Spain.)
Hemingway was fond of Cerveceria Alemana, in the Plaza Santa Ana, a quaint square, where, as in many parts of Europe, old men played chess with large black-and-white pieces. The bar is charming, with a wooden exterior, and inside, there are clean tiles and marble tabletops, and on the walls you see oil paintings and photographs of bullfighters. Hemingway liked this part of the town, because bullfighters lived close by, and he was researching their lives to write Death in the Afternoon. He even lived nearby during his early visits, at Pensión Aguilar in Via San Jerónimo, because bullfighters lived there.
The Cerveceria’s simple décor reminds me of Mumbai’s old Irani restaurants. Was this the “clean, well-lighted place”, with its older waiter continuing to smile, not wanting to rush anyone into leaving?
Finally, it was time to eat, and we walked towards El Sobrino de Botin, in Calle Cuchilleros, south of the Plaza Mayor. The restaurant is nearly two centuries old. This was where, it is said, the painter Francisco Goya was a dishwasher, and where the wood-fired oven roasts suckling pigs and lamb to perfection. Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises ends at Botin, as Jake Barnes invites Lady Brett Ashley for a meal with Rioja wine. Feeling left out, a restaurant next door announces, with inverted snobbery, “Hemingway never ate here”.
Spain that summer was in a peculiar mood. Earlier in the evening, we had seen the poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s statue at a square. Some were lobbying the authorities to dig what could be a mass grave from the Civil War, because they suspected Lorca was buried there; others wanted to avoid reopening old wounds. During that war, to defend Spain’s freedom, idealists from around the world came, becoming part of the International Brigades.
That war was seminal in defining the “us-and-them” debate that engulfed Europe in the lead-up to World War II. The devastation of Guernica in April 1937 under Operation Rugen became a symbol of human suffering. Pablo Picasso painted a large canvas expressing his anguish, and refused to let it be shown in Spain until democracy was restored.
Now we could view it, at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in downtown Madrid. Guernica is a dark painting with figures—some human, some animal—writhing in agony, mouths agape, eyes wide open. It shocks you, forcing out a soundless scream, as in Munch’s eerie painting. The United Nations has a tapestry of Guernica, reminding the diplomats of the horrors of war.
The museum does justice to Guernica—it covers the entire wall, and the mood is subdued. You feel awed by Picasso’s vision and helpless at your inability to do anything about it. It inspires pacifist thoughts. But Hemingway wasn’t a pacifist. He liked the just war. Some causes, and some lands, were worth fighting for, he felt.
The mountains that surround Madrid are called Sierra de Guadarrama. On the road to Segovia, north of the Puerta de Navacerrada, is the bridge he writes about in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
“There are no other countries like Spain,” Robert Jordan says in the novel. A woman asks him if he has seen any other country. No, Fernando says. “Nor do I wish to.” Jordan duly blows up that bridge to defend the land Hemingway once called “the last good country left”.
Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Aug 07 2009. 08 27 PM IST