It happened ten years ago on March 11, 2004. My husband and I had taken the train from Barcelona to Madrid, had checked into our hotel and were sightseeing when the news came. The train station in Madrid had been bombed. We had just walked through that same station 13 hours before, and now 191 people were dead and over 1,800 were injured.
The city was on high alert and memories of 9/11 in the U.S. were emerging. What would be next?
American tourists were advised by the American embassy in Madrid to stay in their hotels. This was my first trip to Spain, and I had no intention of staying in a hotel to watch the endless replays of search-and-rescue teams removing victims from the rubble and to listen to journalists and elected officials discussing possible motives.
The nation was traumatized that day, and that evening thousands gathered to mourn the loss of lives. It began to rain. The day was dark, and my husband and I joined the throngs of thousands, some with umbrellas, many like us without, to march to the city square.
What did a native Harlan Countian feel that day? Here I was the daughter of a coal miner brought up in a Southern Baptist church joining the predominantly Catholic crowd where many were fingering their rosaries and reciting, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”
I felt a connection, the kind that some never feel, that some rarely feel, and that a fortunate few feel from time to time. I am blessed to be one who has an overwhelming sense of connection to some on this Earth who live or who have ever lived. I don’t need a photograph of the processional in Madrid that evening: I see it, feel it, know it on a deep level even today, ten years later.
In tragedies such as this, politics always surface. Who is to blame? If we can assign blame readily, we feel that we can mete out justice. Who is responsible for responding to the crisis? Are they doing their jobs appropriately even though when they were elected they never signed on to deal with such a catastrophe? I saw the political future of Spain do a dramatic turn in hours for the election that followed on a Sunday after the bombings.
For years in my humanities through the arts classes, I have taught my students about another bombing in Spain on April 26, 1937, and the gray, black, and white painting that depicts it- “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. I knew that with the closing of the Museo Reina Sofia against possible additional acts of terrorism, I would not see that famous oil painting during my visit.
“Guernica” is Picasso’s response to the bombing of Guernica, a small Basque village in northern Spain by Hitler’s air force during the Spanish Civil War. It features images such as a dismembered soldier, a dead child in a woman’s arms, a horse with a gaping fatal wound, a person trapped by fire, a skull. To get a sense of the complexity of this oil on canvas which is 137.4 inches by 305.5 inches, you need only put “Guernica by Picasso” in your search engine.
Late last year, I saw a book entitled Guernica by Dave Boling, bought it and began to read ( I read a lot, on vacation days a novel a day thanks to all those wonderful teachers at Cumberland Elementary School and my Aunt Muriel Adams. I love reading and I read quickly and thoroughly).
The book is historical fiction and details the horrendous impact of the bombing on a Basque family. In my correspondence with author Boling, whose wife is Basque, he indicates that “a thread of Picasso is a cultural touchstone even though he was never more than a diversion from the core of the narrative.” Boling indicates that “Picasso’s muse at the time, Dora Maar, did me the great favor of taking a number of pictures of the painting in progress. It was hugely helpful in describing the environment, atmosphere, and process.”
The narrative tells a story of “love, family, and war” in a town destroyed by Hitler’s air force. One reviewer indicates that it is a “novel about loss but also about loss’s counterpoints, love and endurance.” I buy dozens of books each year and donate a large number of them. I will add Guernica to my bookshelves because it resonates with me on a variety of levels. I like the story; I like the history; I like the power of the prose.
Guernica was a best seller in England and Boling’s second work of historical fiction, The Undesirables, was released in England and the British Commonwealth in January of this year and will be released later in 2014 in the U.S. The subject, according to the author, is another “oppressed population, the Boers in South Africa during the Boer War.”
How do we survive in a world in which the powerful have always massacred the weak, in small and large ways?
In the painting “Guernica” a dove with an olive branch occupies a small left-hand upper corner spot in Picasso’s work and through a crack is a glimmer of light. I chose hope in a dark world.
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