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#99 Intercambio: Remembering Maria – Improbable Truth & True Fiction

Toward the turn of the last millennium, we moved to Andalucía after more years in Barcelona than I care to remember. I’m reticent about recalling how long we were there because it was long enough to have learned both Catalan and Spanish, yet my Catalan was restricted to puzzling out the directions in walking guides, and my Spanish was of a standard to have speech therapists handing me their cards. In some ways, it was a relief to fetch up in Andalucía, where even the Spanish of the Spaniards can sometimes seem a little haphazard. Nonetheless, I felt I really had to do something about my own pitiful inarticulacy.

Actually, that’s not quite fair on myself. I was never inarticulate. Having spent over a decade coaxing people through the vagaries of English as they hummed and hawed and I wondered whether it would be frowned upon if I clouted them over the head with a frying pan, I was so acutely sensitive to inarticulacy that I was determined never to be inarticulate myself. The frustration of patiently waiting while somebody groped about for a way of saying something you had understood five minutes ago was intolerable. I wouldn’t inflict that on anyone else. No, I wasn’t inarticulate. I could articulate with the best of them, tripping along with a fluency that mightily impressed visitors who didn’t know any Spanish. Only thing was, very few people actually understood what I was saying. Articulate, yes. Intelligible, no. So I resolved to improve my Spanish and, through a friend, took on an intercambio with Maria.

The intercambio is a very Spanish institution. The Spanish have an unjustified reputation for being anarchic individualists. They’re certainly anarchic. What other nation could make so much of a concept like Anarcho-syndicalism? But it’s the syndicalism that betrays their true nature. They are not so much individualists as inveterate members of groups. Indeed, the key word to understanding Spanish culture is convivencia or ‘living-together’. No Spanish teenager, for instance, would be seen dead in a disco without at least forty friends; Spanish infants of all ages love a good club, all the more so if it comes with a silly uniform; affiliation is so important that, in this very conservative and very Catholic society, gay couplings, including full scale wedding services with everyone in attendance, are literally ‘all part of the family’; living on top of one another, formerly in higgledy-piggledy villages, nowadays in flats, and always across the generations is a quintessentially Spanish custom; even their hermitages cluster together in small colonies! The intercambio fits nicely into this gregarious tradition for it implies that, rather than sitting down on your own and labouring through a book mugging up on grammatical rules, the very best way to learn a foreign tongue is to ‘exchange’ languages with someone else. I give you mine, you give me yours, and we have a damned good chat together in the meantime.

I don’t think I ever gave much to Maria, apart from a little attention and the occasional gallantry, but she gave me plenty. To be honest, she wasn’t really interested in learning English. Fluent in French, Russian, Chinese and Spanish, she had enough languages to be going on with. English lessons were just a way of passing the time and keeping her brain stimulated. But she was interested in teaching me Spanish. Very interested. She regarded me and my impenetrable argot as yet another challenge in a life that had not been short of challenges, and she was determined to clarify my incomprehensible articulacy. She would be disappointed to hear me ‘speaking’ Spanish today. She’d probably be a little surprised, too. I certainly would. She died six years ago.

Maria was 80 when I met her and had not long since returned to Spain after a life of high adventure and a knack for mistiming things that was nigh on pathological. Back in the thirties, Maria was a communist – you see what I mean about timing. Her boyfriend was a minor functionary in the Republican government. When the Popular Front captured and tried José Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the former dictator and founder of the Spanish Falangist party, one of the party cadres scheduled to sit in judgment didn’t turn up, so Maria’s boyfriend was roped in to make the quorum. Accused, found guilty, and shot, Primo de Rivera became a martyr for the Spanish fascists. Come Franco’s victory a year later, the boyfriend had to leave Spain in a hurry. His name was on several lists, none of them promising. Maria went with him, marrying the man to make clear her commitment to him and his principles. She was seventeen.

Two countries were offering asylum to political refugees, Mexico and Russia. Being dedicated Communists, Maria and her husband went to Russia, just in time for the purges, show trials, air-brushings, gulags and serious disillusionment. They had nowhere else to go though, wouldn’t have been allowed to go anywhere else in any case, so they stuck it out, keeping their heads down and working as Spanish teachers. Survived the Second World War on Soviet terrain, but only just, enduring numerous harum-scarum evacuations on barges, trains and foot, starving often enough, eating grass on occasion to quell the hunger pangs, and incidentally doing the damage to their digestive systems that would eventually kill Maria.

Still desperately seeking a way out, they eventually applied for the only postings on offer to Russian Spanish teachers . . . in China, where Mao was composing the pithy apothegms that would eventually unleash the Cultural Revolution. Survived again, posted to Algeria by the Chinese government, not as it happened for the independence struggle, nor the civil war, but still having to deal with poverty, hostility, and bombs going off in the streets. When Maria’s husband died, she returned to end her career in China shortly before the Berlin wall collapsed and any notion of a Communist block retirement went out the window. Introduced to Felipe Gonzalez, who was on a state visit to China, she told her tale, and Felipe promised to do something for her. He did. She was awarded a small pension by the Spanish government and eventually returned to Spain to live near her daughter in Málaga, where her son, then working as a businessman and translator in France, bought her a small apartment.

Maria never lost her passion for life, nor her passion for social justice, though she was not immune to the prejudices of her age or the propaganda of her lapsed Marxist faith. It was, for instance, as well not to get her onto the subject of homosexuals. She ‘tolerated’ homosexuality (Maria tolerated everything except for injustice), but she found its practitioners utterly risible and couldn’t resist mimicking ‘them’ in a way that made me cringe (all limp wrists, mincing steps and pursed lips). And she had a blind spot when it came to the Chinese and Tibet. As far as she was concerned, the Buddhist monks were a bunch of rapacious feudal pederasts living, quite literally, off the backs of the peasants whom the invading army had ‘liberated’. But for the most part she was, until the very end, a dedicated socialist and anti-imperialist, outraged by discrimination, inequality, realpolitik, and what at the time seemed like the ineluctable triumph of an increasingly deranged capitalism.

She loved laughter, history, charlas (that inimitably Spanish version of a collective natter), her own eccentric version of an Asiatic tea ceremony, the simple food she could digest (she was particularly fond of German jam from Lidl for some reason), even dancing on occasion, and though I hesitate to say it, she loved me, too, lighting up whenever I arrived, dragging my invincibly opaque Spanish behind me. And I loved her. After a day’s teaching you don’t necessarily want to wind down with a couple more hours’ teaching, even if the English side of the intercambio was never more than a pretext for a charla. But Maria gave so much as an exemplar of survival, hope, and engagement that the lessons were rarely burdensome. That said, she never did persuade me of the wisdom of dividing being into ser and estar. Being is complicated enough as it is without muddling it up with two verbs. To ser or not to estar, that is not the question.

Perhaps inevitably, comparisons were made with my own mother’s life, since she was born in the same year as Maria. Mum lived through the war, was in Devon when Plymouth was a target for the Luftwaffe, in the suburbs of London when doodlebugs were dropping out of the sky, married a man who lost a leg during the debacle of the British Expeditionary Force, nursed him in later life when a stroke disabled his remaining leg, and doubtless she had her moments elsewhere; but compared to Maria, she lead a privileged and easy life. Maria was at the sharp end of the twentieth century. It reminded me of the old Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times”. Maria lived in very interesting times indeed.

We last saw Maria when we were en route to research a couple of walking guides in the Canaries. She was dying of stomach cancer and she knew it. We didn’t. We spent the afternoon with her and had a nice time. Jeannette suspected something was up, tuned into an undertone of finality in the farewells. I didn’t. So much for the novelist’s sensitivity and powers of observation. It was, though, the last lesson in living life well and living with dignity that I received from Maria. She was full of laughter that afternoon, there was nothing maudlin, no regrets, no hint of the fact that we were breezing through briefly when she knew it would be the last time we would be together.

She was dead within three months.

It would have been her birthday today.

A life like Maria’s makes fiction look a bit feeble. Perhaps that’s why many older people become obsessed with biography, read nothing else, saying they only have time for what is ‘true’. I’d beg to differ. I think fiction can be more true than ‘real’ lives, but I can understand where the attitude comes from. No novel will ever match the narrative of some lives, so what matters in the end is the craft. If you’ve got a great story, all well and good. But stories are limited. Anyone who has been reading for a couple of decades will have encountered most of them already. Come to that, anyone who has spent the customary portion of their childhood in front of the telly will also know all the stories. In consequence, it’s the quality of the storytelling that counts, which is just as well, because that’s what fascinates most writers. Any writer who thinks they have come up with an entirely new story is kidding themselves. You can change the scenery, change the protagonists, mix up the plots, even find new tropes for traditional conflicts, but the story remains the same. Come up with a good story well told and you can count yourself lucky. You won’t match Maria for sheer verve, vitality, and spectacular misadventure, but you will be living a small part of somebody else’s life, somebody else’s adventure that will expand the living and adventure of your own life and hopefully the lives of those who take the trouble to read the book. That said, I wouldn’t half mind writing the book of Maria.

I am proud to be remembering Maria here.

Thank you, Maria.

And sorry. My Spanish is still rubbish.

(For more conventional homages to Maria, Spanish speakers can click here and here. They maybe more chronologically accurate, too. My own memories of Maria’s tales don’t tie in with the dates given in these pieces. But then I only have time for what is true.)