16-MILLIMETER SHORT SUBJECTS
Planes leave Bilbao on a seaward heading.
Once airborne the plane follows Bilbao’s estuary to the open sea. We take the route the freighters that went down the Ibaizabal River used to take at one time. When the south wind is up you can see the countryside clear as clear. The old cranes along Bilbao’s river, the factories, the new port.
Where we live a south wind is the norm in the fall. If it starts in October the mild weather can hang on almost till Christmas. Our maternal grandmother, Anparo, used to say that that winter of 1936 was as mild as could be, it hardly snowed at all. As if God had wanted to soften the war, as if He’d taken pity on our fighting men. That’s how she put it.
When we get to the sea the plane banks to the right, Galea Point, the beaches at Sopelana, and just past them Urdaibai, Guernica. As soon as we reach the area around Ondarroa and Mutriku the plane heads inland, making for the broad continent, on its way to Frankfurt.
Between Ondarroa and Mutriku lies the neighborhood of San Jeronimo. In the fall of 2005 I wrote a column titled “San Jeronimo.” In it I told how when I was young I went once with my parents to the San Jeronimo neighborhood fair. When I was a teenager. September 30th is the feast day and every year it rains. “San Jeronimo the pisspot” the people in town call him because of it. The thing is, that time I went with my parents the accordionist Kaxiano was playing in the neighborhood’s small square. At the entrance a woman handed me a card, as she did all the kids. She had two decks of cards and dealt them out to the boys from one deck and to the girls from the other. You were supposed to dance with the person who had the same card as your own. One huge dilemma. Unable to overcome the shyness, I tossed my own lucky card in a corner and ended up not dancing with anyone at all.
I wondered who the girl was who’d been left cooling her heels with the same card as mine. And whether she’d found love since then, or was even now cooling her heels, wondering when the boy with the card would show up.
That was what I recounted in the column.
It came out in the fall of 2005. One night that winter Nerea said to me, “I was the girl who had the same card as you in San Jeronimo.”
We’ve been together ever since.
Every single summer, the Bastidas would make the same trip, at the beginning of June. Having rented a bus, they’d all climb in and set out for Ondarroa, the whole family and the maids, too. Images of the bus turn up as well, in sixteen-millimeter short films Bastida himself shot. In the old-style images from the nineteen-twenties there’s the cabriolet-style bus and in it the architect’s children, laughing, their hair blowing in the breeze.
They’d arrive in June and in September make the return trip. They spent the whole summer on the seacoast. Bastida was a methodical fellow, and the family’s daily life, too, was orderly. They’d get up very early in the morning and go to Mass, then from there to the beach, and around three go to have dinner. “Your father and his brothers also often came with us to eat at the house. Once they’d finished their chores on the beach. Your grandfather, too, often spent time at our place,” Carmen Bastida said. “I remember how he turned up at our house in Bilbao one winter day with an enormous hake. We were flabbergasted. ‘Mind you, I’ve remembered you-all.’ That was what he said,” she told us.
In the afternoon they’d do the housework. On weekends, go fishing in the river.
They went to church at seven in the morning, “We weren’t too pleased about going to seven-o’clock Mass, it was too early for us. But we were thankful at the same time to have got up that early, especially during the town fiestas, because if you went to eleven-o’clock Mass, when it got out the big-heads would be outside lying in wait for the children. And I was very scared of the big-heads.”
Bastida would remain at home until 1 P.M. himself, working, reading the press from abroad or listening to music. He had a gramophone in the living room and quite a quantity of recordings as well. “His favorite music of all was Wagner’s.”
He did his work at a great chestnut-wood table, he created all his designs right there. “This was the table he worked at,” Carmen told us, stroking her father’s table. We were having coffee at that same table, and it was there that Carmen had spread out the albums of black-and-white photographs.
Nerea and I had gone to visit Carmen at the house in Bilbao. It was unchanged since Ricardo Bastida had lived in it, it felt as if the architect might open the street door and walk right in. His workplace was just as he’d left it. Painter friends’ gifts hanging on the walls. Among them, works by Arteta. The sketches he’d made on paper for the Bank of Bilbao in Madrid.
Bastida would show up on the beach sometime after one. Always dressed in a suit. He’d take off the jacket and pass the time in his white dress shirt. There he’d be, in the shade, talking with friends. Carmen told us there was a saying around town about the white dress shirt.
“That Bastida, either he’s way too clean or he’s an out-and-out slob. Either he changes that shirt every single day or wears the selfsame shirt day in and day out.”
Since he invariably wore a white dress shirt.
“It goes without saying that he changed the shirt every day,” Carmen added with a smile, and sat back.
“Do you remember what you liked best of that whole time?” I asked her after a brief silence.
“The taste of the strawberry ice creams. In June we’d pick mountain strawberries and then go for ice to the icehouse at the harbor. We’d gather the strawberries, get hold of the ice and make the ice cream at home. I will never, ever forget that taste.”
The happiest day of all was the fifteenth of August, the day of the Blessed Virgin. It was the town’s feast day and it was also Ricardo Bastida’s birthday. All the children in town went that day to the Bastidas’ country house, since Ricardo handed out sweets and such among the children.
Bastida loved the cinema. In keeping with that inclination, in the twenties he began making movies. Some of them were fictional, and others recorded the family’s own daily habits. “Papa used to drive us mad, at first making movies was nice, we’d dress up in costumes and we felt like artistes. But then, all of it had to be organized, getting scenes ready, shooting takes over and over again. Even today I’m astonished at all that work Papa put into it. And all to be doing something with his children,” Carmen said of those movies.
Starting with the oldest and down to the newest we watched the films. “Sea Folk” was the first we saw.
It was about the people of the coast, how the fishermen go about their work in the worst of conditions. He’d filmed the loss of a boat, storm and all. It looked real, even though for the special effects he’d used a little toy whaler. They filmed it on the Sagustan fishing ground between Ondarroa and Lekeitio, and directly across from Irabaltza Rock. The actors were the Bastidas and their children. And the people who worked in their household.
The second movie had a rural setting, “Jose Mari’s Sandals,” filmed at an actual baserri, complete with a yoke of oxen. The third was a comedy, “Doctor Patakoff,” about a mad doctor.
After these came the films that showed the family’s own daily life. Bathing at Arrigorri beach. Ricardo, the eldest of the architect’s sons, turned up swimming off the strand there. “He was a graceful boy, an architect, he died in the war.”
“He made a trip with his father to the United States when he was a boy-” I blurted out. I had read it in the architect’s biography.
“That’s exactly right. He was only fourteen. They crossed the Atlantic and spent time in New York, Chicago, Detroit and elsewhere. Papa had him write a daily diary of the trip. It’s no big thing, kid stuff, children’s tales.”
The business of the diary made me gasp with surprise. I went to ask her something but Carmen had her eyes on the movie.
“Look, Atano III.”
It was true. Atano III was on the screen. Playing a game of handball at the town fronton without taking off his beret. Next we saw images of the bicycle race coming along the Lekeitio road, the prowess of the great cyclist Barruetabeña.
Just after that, the children themselves, how they got out of bed in the morning, how they took their midday meal on wickerwork chairs, the girls’ hair covered with mantillas, the day the son Jose Mari put on long pants for the first time.
As the years pass, the way the children look goes on changing. From black-and-white images to ones in color. Carmen herself appears as a baby, Carmen as an older girl in Doña Casilda Park in Bilbao, Carmen as a young woman at the country house in summer. Those color prints are the last. The very last images are a family portrait, with the maidservants in the garden.
In the foreground are Ricardo and Rosario, husband and wife. Aged now. One thing called my attention, a gesture between husband and wife. At a certain point, the couple is looking at each another, they stand quite close together. For a moment it looks as if they’re going to give each other a kiss. But Rosario gives Ricardo a tap on the nose with the tip of a finger. Her husband smiles back at her.
“My life was changed by two events. The first blow was the war. The second was Papa’s death.”
I sat looking at Carmen. She was on in years, but her large eyes were those of a girl. Our dad always wanted to pay Carmen a visit, from time to time our mother would say to him they ought to go see her and share childhood stories. But he never did. Now I was the one sitting before this woman. *
Dad was startled the day I took up the atlas and a ballpoint pen and went in to him. It wasn’t long after he’d retired from fishing.
I handed him the pen so he could draw the exact route they used to take to Rockall. He looked leery, as if another boat captain had asked him for one of his maritime secrets, the way to some hidden fishing ground.
He did it at last: Pass France, go up St. George’s Channel and head northwest. That was the way to get to Rockall.
As I watched his nervous hand drawing, a strange sensation came over me. I understood that the mark Dad made with the ballpoint pen would remain in that atlas forever.
But at the same time something told me that he himself was not going to be around forever, the mark in the book was forever but Dad was not. I felt fear, a terror at losing my father.
A boat’s captain never shows anyone his navigational charts, when he goes ashore he rolls them up and takes them home along with him.
Death doesn’t show us its charts, either.
As we were saying our goodbyes, Carmen Bastida put a packet in my hands. “This is Papa’s correspondence with Arteta,” she said. “I hope you find something of value in it. They’re for you, there’s no need to return it.”
They were photocopies of the original letters, since she’d known I’d be visiting, and that I was running down traces of Bastida and Arteta’s relationship, she’d had the packet ready. She didn’t give it to me, though, until we were just saying goodbye.
“Don’t fret. Your grandparents were good people,” she said as she came to kiss me goodbye. It set me thinking.
The next day, I opened the packet and began to look through the letters Arteta and Bastida had written each other. Unfortunately, there were no letters from the time of the country-house mural and their work on the Bank of Bilbao. A bit later I learned that while construction was going on in Madrid, Bastida paid a weekly visit on Arteta there. And so there was no need for letters. The letters were from later.
The business in Madrid turned out as they’d thought it would. They had a huge success. As a result, the two artists worked together on a number of other projects. The first, at the Bilbao secondary school.
It was 1927. On October 1st the first public secondary school in downtown Bilbao would be opening, and they wanted a portrait of King Alfonso XIII for the occasion. Bastida had designed the school and he remembered his friend Arteta then, too. Arteta finished the painting in good time, and on the day of note they hung the picture in the school’s auditorium.
After the war, though, it was lost, without a trace. And that’s how it appears in the art books as well, as a missing picture.
In the spring of 2005 I was at that very school, giving a talk. In that very auditorium. Almost as soon as I entered the hall I realized that there was the painting, smack in the middle of the wall. I couldn’t believe it.
“You’ve got a jewel here,” I told the students and teachers, dumbstruck, since I too had believed that all trace of the painting was lost.
One of the teachers, hearing this, told me the history of the painting.
“It hasn’t always hung in the same place,” the teacher said. “Not long ago, in among worm-eaten tables and chairs in the storeroom, they unearthed a large canvas. The picture was of Franco, painted in the nineteen-forties. When they began cleaning it they realized there was another image painted underneath. With the top coat gone, they met up with the face of Alfonso XIII.”
It was Arteta’s painting. In all those years the painting hadn’t left the school building, it had been right there, but under another image.
Franco the dictator, you might say, overlay all things.
The second commission they worked on together was the seminary of Logroño. Bastida proposed to Arteta that he paint the pictures to decorate the Logroño seminary.
For Arteta the job was hell on earth. The bishop in charge of the seminary didn’t have great faith in the agnostic painter and he wouldn’t leave him alone. Arteta had a bad time of it, and it comes across in the letters. But they have their comic side as well.
Reading the letters you see clear as day what Arteta and Bastida were like. They were totally different from each other. Arteta wrote his letters by hand. He’d take a half-sheet and fold it. He’d start his letter on the front, then fill the inside, and finish up on the back. If there was a mistake, he’d just cross it out and go on.
Bastida’s letters bear no relation. They’re an entirely different thing. They’re typewritten, immaculate and have no crossings out. No matter what, he wrote using carbon paper, to keep a copy at home of the letters he’d written.
The pages themselves are elegant. At the top on the left they have a printed letterhead.
RICARDO DE BASTIDA
Telephone No. 1
The great majority of the times, Arteta was writing to Bastida to ask for help. For instance, when he has to present to the bishop the painting project he’d come up with, he asks the architect to take his side. And he writes him to complain as well, that the bishop is meddling in his work too much.
It seems the bishop would not leave Arteta in peace, he was always showing him church books and holy cards and Arteta was on the verge of going insane. The bishop kept showing him little holy cards and telling the painter he wanted it to look like this saint or that.
“The man does not realize that illustrations are one thing and painting is another,” Arteta would say to Bastida in a fury. What’s more, he wants to put the Virgin Mother in the very center of the mural, as if the mural were an outsize holy card.
The letter Bastida sent Arteta on May 23, 1929, is memorable and worth keeping in mind.
Bastida tells Arteta to hold fast, to pay no attention to what the bishop has said. If once he does, in the matter of the positioning of the Virgin Mother for instance, it will be the ruin of the picture. For from that point on he will always and perpetually have to do what the bishop wants. Hold on, Bastida tells him, to please hold on, if the bishop sees him stick to his guns, he’ll leave him in peace and not be meddling in his work anymore. Something of the same kind happened to Bastida himself, he says, when he presented the plans for the building, but finally the bishop had to approve them and the subject was closed, after a long hard fight.
Though it may be a difficulty for you, rein in your refinement. Forgive my stating things so clearly: what’s right is not to give way when your artistic conscience is hurt, but to persevere. If you don’t do so, if you give way for the sake of being pleasant, you will regret having done it for the rest of your life, it will be a millstone around your conscience. I say it again, don’t take the rawness of my words amiss: if you do not win this first battle, everything will be overturned.
Your good friend sends regards with the greatest pleasure,
The architect’s letter, however, wasn’t powerful enough. On June 8th in a letter from Logroño Arteta confesses to Bastida that he gave way to the bishop. He says he’ll put the Virgin Mother in the very center but that it won’t be so bad that way. In primitive painting, too, it was done in just that way and it will be based on that.
But Arteta was trying to deceive himself.
Bastida knew very well what would happen. On the first of October the work was to be finished but in the letter Arteta wrote on September 4th his despair is evident. There are many difficulties. The marble dust is not as fine as what he used in Madrid and the water, too, is not to Arteta’s liking. It dries too fast. His money is running out as well and Arteta asks Bastida if there might be any way to get a portion of the payment before the work is finished.
After all that time he’s painted nothing but the mural’s horizon line.
My dear Bastida:
You will be alarmed to learn that work is so far behindhand. But matters began to take an ugly turn when I started painting the image of the Virgin Mother. I’ve done it over four times. A few times because I myself didn’t like it, and the rest because of the bishop. These last-minute changes have snarled up the work mightily.
Look, the first head I painted the bishop did like, but he told me it seemed small to him, skimpy, and went on to inform me of the importance of the image of the Virgin Mother, by means of a deeply pious diatribe.
I had no recourse but to make it larger. The outcome finally didn’t seem all that bad to me, since in primitive painting too one image is frequently larger than another. But the matter didn’t stop there. When the bishop realized that the Virgin Mother was larger than the apostles he told me, “It’s not good for male figures to be smaller than female ones,” and he added, “You will be able to make those images larger, won’t you?”
It doesn’t matter to me in the least if I correct and go over this a hundred times, but it gripes my soul that on top of making a mess of the work the bishop doesn’t appreciate the efforts I make. Moreover, I took sick this past week.
With warm regards and an embrace,
Though it’s hard to credit, Arteta at last did finish the work and what’s more everyone liked it. Even the bishop himself. The critics praised the gestures at primitivism, saying they brought to mind Fra Angelico’s murals.
There was, however, at least one critic on hand to emphasize Arteta’s lack of faith, and say that he hadn’t actually believed in the whole endeavor.
Both Arteta’s doubts and his lack of certainty reminded me of my own novel and its writing-process.
I wrote the novel’s first sentence in December of 2002.
I wanted a powerful sentence to start off the novel, a sentence like the one that opens Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. “In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together.” That sentence says a lot. It tells us that the novel will be about two mutes, and it illuminates the two mutes’ marginalization as well. And also the camaraderie they feel for each other.
Or the opening sentence of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they eletrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” A marvellous opening. In a single sentence the story is situated, when and where and how the narrator is.
“By the time my father was born the house was in ruins.”
That was the sentence I chose as the beginning of my novel. Later I erased the words “my father” and was left with “By the time he was born they had razed the house to the ground.” I thought “By the time he was born” really had something going for it, that it would pique a reader’s curiosity.
I even applied for a grant for the novel project that very year, with that sparkling opening sentence of mine, but they rejected it. I titled the project “Two Friends,” and it wouldn’t make it much past twenty-some pages.
Out of those twenty pages, there was a single sentence in that first draft that was worth giving a thought to.
“Houses go and die if nobody lives in them, and people do, too.”
When they rejected it I was sad, I have to admit. But here and now I’m thankful for that jury’s wits. It was too early back then to write the book, things do have their own season.
Nevertheless, I’ve got to say that I held on to that 2002 beginning, I left it unchanged for a long, long time. I even made a bet with friends, that I’d hang on to that sentence until the novel was done. But, on the other hand, I felt that that would be a bad sign, I wouldn’t get very far along if I hung on to the same sentence.
I finally do lose the bet, as on so many other occasions, and I do change the opening sentence.
“Fish and trees are alike.”