The House At The Corner Of Jesus

The House at the corner of Jesus

By Lawrence Bohme

Poet and translator Lawrence Bohme reminisces in five essays on the summer of 1960 and his discovery of the Montefrio which became his home. In the last three essays Laurence returns to Montefrio in 1985, this time to live in the idealic 'Cortijo de los Siete Olivos'.

II. The House at the Corner of Jesus

My official reason for coming to Spain, when I asked Dad to finance the endeavour, was that I wanted to study "Hispanic culture", which I naively thought of as flamenco singing and the poetry of Lorca and Saint John of the Cross. But I soon realised that these subjects had never existed in the curriculum of the Facultad de Filosofia y Letras. Flamenco, in those patrician days, was looked down on as uncouth music for gypsies, nighthawks and left-wing intellectuals (and I am now forced to say that I think it was better that way). Lorca, being associated with the other political gang, the "reds", was never mentioned in public (his books were printed in Argentina and sold under the counter); and the erotico-mistico Saint John was clearly out of line with the lofty, moralistic image of Christianity which the Franco's totalitarian regime imposed.

For me, after New York in the "beatnik" years, the atmosphere of the university was stifling, almost medieval; my classmates were nuns, priests and - for the large part - well-off Spanish señoritas who were preparing to be school teachers, one of whom, I confess, I almost immediately fell in love with. We only studied the thinkers whose ideas were approved by the Opus Dei, a powerful Catholic organization to which most of the professors belonged - these were frightening people, who had highly intellectual, beautifully constructed, hermetically sealed arguments to support every one of their positions. This explains why I spent much more time in the bars around the Plaza Mayor carousing with my friends from the student residence, and trying to get together privately with my young madrilena, than bothering about school.

One specific impediment to academic success was the great trouble I had with the Latin, both because the Spanish students were already well advanced in this subject from their secondary studies and, also, because being a dead tongue it had no appeal for me whatsoever. A sympathetic young priest in the class offered to coach me at home in his flat, and we spent long hours (or at least, hours which seemed to be long) reading the Wars of Gaul around the mesa de camilla, a round table with a brazier of mouldering embers underneath, roasting the lower parts of our bodies and trying to warm the upper ones (the parts which couldn't be covered with the heavy manta or tablecloth) by swallowing the thimblefuls of brandy served by his old mother. But I feel sure that Joaquin's kind help would not have been enough to save me from being flunked, even if I had stayed on to take the end-of-year exams.

After that disheartening autumn, I spent the Christmas holidays deliciously with Yves, my companion of the summer's bullfighting adventures, in a picturesque garret "under the roof" of a sombre old building north of the Place de la République. It was my first visit to France and by time I said farewell to his working class family, well-stuffed with oysters, foie gras and steak frites, I realized that my life, to paraphrase Josephine Baker, would be divided between two loves, Spain and Paris.

Back in my apartment near the Paseo del Prado (for I had soon moved out of the uncomfortable student residence) I began to realise the mistake I had made. Madrid was really just another hard, grey - and soulless - city; the mysterious Pilar, although lovelier to behold than my Greenwich Village girlfriends, was also much less adventurous; and as for my studies, it was pretty clear that all they being good for was to keep my monthly allowance of 75 Canadian dollars rolling in. I should make it clear that this amount, in those times in Spain, was enough for me to live like a señorito, ordering tailor-made suits, taking taxis everywhere and standing my friends from the Residence to drinks when they were out of pocket, which was most of the time. May my dear Dad forgive me, but I had decided that I could learn much more about Spain in bars than at school. As for degrees, diplomas etcetera, I felt certain that I was smart enough to get along in life without them, and in this at least time has borne me out to the full.

Therefore, with scarcely a thought for the consequences of my academically rash act, I transferred to the University of Granada at the beginning of the spring, in the middle of the first year of the Romance Languages course. That way I would be closer to Montefrio, the fascinating village I had discovered the previous summer, closer to flamenco, and closer to the spirit of my beloved poet Lorca.

Behind the splendour of its Moorish castle, Granada was only a small, sleepy provincial town, extremely conservative, and the Faculty of Letters (then housed in the 19th century palace which is now the School of Translation) was, from my viewpoint, even worse than what I had left in Madrid. The fact that I was the only foreign student was sensational enough for the daily newspaper to interview and photograph me in my Byronesque black corduroy suit. I was asked about my interest in Montefrio, to the great satisfaction of the few villagers who read the paper, and my love of flamenco which I eloquently defined as el grito del hombre en la soledad, "man crying out in his solitude". The reporter from El Ideal also mentioned that I had a "mane of hair like a torrent of gold". Although only moderately long by today's standards, back then it was enough to create a commotion wherever I went.

I chose to study Classical Arabic rather than Latin as the lesser of two evils, but the only thing I did successfully in that class was to copy the teacher's arabesques with great elegance, for which I was much praised, even though I had only the vaguest idea what I was writing.

As I would have easily foreseen if I had then had the painfully acquired self-knowledge I have now, my assault on the Spanish University did not survive the spring, and I was soon chasing a more exciting, and above all more attainable, rainbow. At the beginning of the Semana Santa celebrations, in a tavern where she was surrounded by old men offering her wine, I met a tom-boyish German girl whom I immediately recognised as a kindred spirit, who was christened Leiselotte but insisted on being called only Lilo. That same night I took her up to the Albaicin to see the sun rise from the Plaza de San Nicolas, and, a few days later, to Montefrio to hear my flamenco friends singing saetas, the heart-rending chants for the Easter passion. The fact that Manolo Avila was the most spiritual butcher in the history of music was especially undeniable when he stepped out on the balcony of the gentlemen's club called El Casino, with his grey jacket and white shirt buttoned to the throat, to solemnly salute the crucified Christ - whom he in many ways resembled, and not only when he was singing.

Lilo agreed with me that both Montefrio and Manolo were unique, and after endless conversations and bottles of wine, we decided to spend the summer in the village, and then go together to study in Paris, I at the Sorbonne and she in the atelier of a painter I knew off - that was how we lived then, making it up as we went along. As for Spain, from then on and for many years, it would be that archaic and romantic country to which I would travel as a pilgrim whenever I could, and whose Mecca was Montefrio...

We hitch-hiked to France to make arrangements for our studies in the autumn and returned to Montefrio, where we rented a house to stay in until September. It was as graceful and tall as a tower of the Generalife, the summer palace of the Alhambra, with an ático which had three small whitewashed arabesque arches in each side; there was a framed engraving of the Cristo de Moclin embedded in its corner behind a heavy iron grill, for which they called the place "The Corner of Jesus". This image of Christ carrying the Cross, the original of which is in the nearby town of Moclín, is said to miraculously cure to help the childless women who pray before it become pregnant. As such it is mentioned in Lorca's tragedy Yerma (Barren).

We had to go to Cordoba to settle the deal with the owner, who ran a canteen for construction workers in a tenement house. There, across a a round white plastic table cover, we agreed to pay a monthly rental of 650 pesetas, which was about $10 and seemed to us ridiculously cheap, although the neigbhours later told us we could have got it for half the price. Then the fierce-looking, but somehow very likeable woman handed us a heavy key, as if we were Crusaders setting out to liberate the Temple of Jerusalem. The only condition was that we could not use the parlour and bedroom on the ground floor, where she kept her belongings, and where she stayed a week during the village fiesta in August.

Since we spent most of our time in the tower painting and writing, we actually found the few days of her presence downstairs quite entertaining. She was a hefty peasant woman who dressed, of course, in black, and had a very small one-legged husband. She told us that when the other women teased her for having such a physically reduced husband, she would put them in their places by retorting, "Maybe, but he has a 'cigar' like this!", raising her forearm and gripping it at the elbow. Since no one but her had presumably seen it, they could only fall silent. She made a point of telling us that there were some malas mujeres in the town who were much visited by the other husbands, but that hers had enough to keep him busy at home.

Strangely, the villagers still remember this amazon (who died dramatically of a stroke a few years later in a train station in France, where she had gone to visit a relative) by her curious nickname: La Barranquilla. This was the result of a humorous association between the title of a Colombian ditty about an alligator one often heard on the radio and the fact that, before she moved to Cordoba, she had owned a bar (hence: bar-ranquilla). But her real name was Antonia, although, as usual, no one used it except when addressing her personally. In a town where everyone was named after a saint, and the handful of popular saints at that, the apodo was the only way of effectively identifying one Antonio and Antonia from the other. The history of Spain since the Middle Ages has been one of rigorous state-and-Church-ordered sameness imposed from above on an anarchistic popular diversity, with the result that the two trends incongruously live side by side, as with the repititious nombres de pila (that is, the "font" names, the names with which people are christened by the priest) and the baroque apodos.

It would be another 15 years before the village would have running water in the houses, and my sturdy companion Lilo had to go with the women to fill our jugs and buckets at the fountain behind the house, since we were told that it would have been unthinkable for me, as a man, to assist her (I remember seeing a man go back and forth with two buckets, because his wife was sick they said, but he did it after midnight when no one could see him). High up in my tower I could see the sheet of water which constantly flowed over the stones from the splashing of the clay jugs, down the hill and through the Esquina de Jesus, and hear the stream of chattering produced by the vecinas .

They seemed to talk just for the pleasure of creating a bridge of sound among one another, and I marvelled, as I still marvel, at how Andalusian women manage to think of so many things to say without ever really saying anything at all. It even makes me think that my own compulsive need to communicate is the reason why I feel so much at home here, thousands of miles from the northern city where I grew up, and where the people, when they meet, say precisely what they have to say, and continue sensibly on their way.

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