Alas, my dear Valencia!

Three letters from Mr Leonardo Perales, spectator

Dear readers, the three letters you will read below are a fragment of the extraordinary life of Mr Leonardo Perales Grau. I met him during the performance of Soothing the Soul in El Cabanyal. I was conducting a report and  asked him what he thought of the show. Four hours later we were still leaning against the counter of an old tavern in the neighbourhood. From that moment on, we established a fluid epistolary relationship. The events recounted here, which you have heard many times, would have seemed taken out from the play in question if not for the fact that newspapers have testified to their crudeness. Shameful events that make us sigh: ‘Oh, Valencia of mine!’. [Sergi Tarín]

El Cabanyal, 15 December 2011

My friend Sergi, I do not know if you will remember me. La Aldeana? That wine that poured out of barrels that were like gigantic udders? El Cabanyal? For weeks I have been wanting to send you these words which, as you will see, lack any merit. I only wanted to point out my perplexity, my bewilderment at those eight evenings in Plaza Lorenzo de las Flores. Was it telepathy? A trick of memory to place it on wood, on boards?

How could I explain the chills that Carmen, Malvarrosa and Grau caused me? With a double meaning in the latter case. Did you know I also published short articles in Las Provincias? It was when Martí Dominguez turned that newspaper into a refuge for men of letters. I am speaking of the fifties, of the Valencia of the shawls, the rosaries, and the incurable sodium hydroxide mustaches. And secondly, because my second surname is also Grau. Yes, sir. Something I carry painfully, as a disgrace. Another Grau, like that council lackey with the hollow gaze of the Stygian river’s ferryman; in short, that cyst saved from the scalpel of democracy, is apparently a relative.

But let’s push aside the rotten branches of the family tree. I was telling you about feeling identified with the play and its characters. Soothing the Soul. How could I forget it! I went to the first show and went to the next seven. I have read some reviews, you know? Melodrama this, magic realism that, political cabaret… Nonsense! This is pure Costumbrism! A dry-haired Naturalism, heir to the most heart-wrenching Blasquist (Vicente Blasco Ibañez) prose! This is what I was telling one of the authors, Mr. Zarzoso, who was brought to tears in that table in La Aldeana, joined by so many people who kept the work alive with all their comments and parallelisms.

Mr. Zarzoso said it was like a liturgy, that the benches of La Estrella, with their crowed audience, were the spitting image of a secular, popular, and civic communion. How right he was! El Cabanyal is a big family, you know? A persecuted, mistreated and exploited family. I could fill twenty volumes of an encyclopedia on this. I was born here, in San Pedro Street. My house was a barraca (a traditional Valencian cabin). My grandfather still lived under a straw roof. Then he raised walls, placed partitions, built three floors, and decorated the front with blue and white tiles, the colours of his boat, The Caucasian Woman. The name was a mystery he took to the grave. The town gossiped about a red-haired cabaret dancer who was very popular in the port taverns at the beginning of last century. Girls were very jealous of her, and since they could not pronounce the name of the city she came from, Tbilisi, they called her ‘syphilis’.

In short, suburban inner-history. I would like to tell you that I am witness to the degradation of this old fishing town. Both of us have aged prematurely and can barely stand on our feet. Poor Cabanyal! So far from God and so close to the Town Hall! It hurts to walk down its beaten streets, with closed-off houses bleeding into a puddle of rubble. ‘They sleep among the bushes!’, said Aunt Ludigis, holding her fingers to her chest, as if digging into her heart. She was referring to the three Romanian families living in the middle of a fenced farmyard, among weeds the size of wheat ears. The police evicted them from a house in ruins and threw away their trolleys full of junk, leaving them out in the open. ‘The children spend the night crying and the grief does not let me sleep’, told Aunt Ludigis, and she continuously crossed herself in a reflex act of devout gypsy.

So you see. What can I say that you do not already know about El Cabanyal’s drama, about that urban development plan to extend Mr. Vicente’s avenue to the sea, destroying hundreds of buildings, leaving us in the streets for four pennies. But we have stood up to the mayoress, yes, sir! You will not believe it, but I was one of the founders of Salvem, ‘the platform’, as they call it here. We meet every Wednesday in El Matadero, an old establishment where they used to gut pigs and chickens. I could not tell you how many lawsuits we have brought against the City Council to stop their mastodon hooves. For now the bulldozers sleep in garages waiting for the court hearings. Do you believe in justice? In popular juries? Meanwhile, my relative and his boss continue to trample on the neighbourhood. For over a decade we have gone without investments or social services. And, as you know, poverty brings more poverty. This is the rule at the head of all urban speculation manuals. But I do not wish to tire you. Now that I revise this dense and disturbing letter I notice how little serenity lives in me! I will tell you one last thing. I live alone. I am the only neighbour in my street. In the last few years everyone has left and I have seen how dozens of houses have fallen ill with boredom. Can you understand my astonishment? How can I not feel like a fellow man of those three castaways if their fiction and my reality are made with the sand of the same beach?


El Cabanyal, 10 January 2012

My friend Sergi, I return to you, to your patience. I am writing to you from under the heavy weight of three blankets. It is cold and San Pedro Street is empty, miserably illuminated, extended like an old tablecloth full of dimly lit lamps. Despite the distance, the growl of the sea can be heard clearly. Can you imagine it? I sometimes fabulate that the sea secretly seeps into the city, silent, covering the streets, filling the buildings up to the rooftops. Valencia splashes under this amniotic liquid, returns to its old Roman embryo, and is reborn in the morning, cleansed of rust and weeds.

I shared this same idea with Mr. Zarzoso one afternoon. We met at the Café de les Hores. Have you been? It is a very spacious room, full of all kinds of clocks. We could image Carmen behind the bar, adjusting handles and preparing extravagant cocktails. ‘Have you tried this twilight hour liqueur?’ ‘Suggestive, but I would prefer a glass of sundowner, please, no ice’. Mr. Zarzoso had a melancholic attitude. ‘It is a Hungarian melancholy,’ he clarified later. And he recited by heart a poem he had written 17 years ago and which gave name to his theatre company, La Hongaresa: ‘Only in the magnificent frontiers of wine / in true absence / do the sad Hungarian tribes / rob in slumber’.

I must say it was a pleasant, warm, complicit meeting. We reconstructed the shipwreck of El Cabanyal, his and mine. He told me one or two secrets about Soothing the Soul. The name was chosen by Lola, our Carmen of impossible beverages. During the late Franco regime, public television concluded the broadcast with this phrase, followed by a piece of classical music. The play was written by four hands, those of Mr. Zarzoso and Lluïsa Cunillé, another of the company’s pillars.

He also told me, in a bittersweet tone, about the vicissitudes the play has gone through. Outside Valencia it has been very well received, performed in large and prestigious venues. Here, however, it has run into institutions’ opposition and —in the kindest of cases— a distinguished contempt. The same thing happened to Teatres de la Generalitat, which was also denied public space. After trying for the umpteenth time, Mr. Zarzoso received an e-mail from an official of one of these organisations advising him to apply to a festival in Bilbao against censorship. What do you know! Censors admitting their censorship and, in a fit of schizoid hypocrisy, recommending contests where opprobrium is condemned.

Valencia is a sick city, I tell you. What a shock! The bells of the church of Los Ángeles are now striking midnight with twelve chimes. I think of the watchmakers’ guild, of their congestion before metal, and I shiver under the bright spotlight of the lamp while I write as if I were redacting a verdict of feverish absolution. Disturbed, atrocious, indigestible. Yes, sir. That is also what Mr. Zarzoso thinks. This is why he is a playwright, he says. To heal the rage that, bite by bite, this city infects him with. Did you know that Valencia comes from ‘valentía’ (courage), but that the city was in fact founded by cowards? So is told by Professor Sanchis. Rome bought soldiers from Viriathus and Tantalus, Portuguese pro-independence campaigners of the time, so that they would surrender their weapons when their leaders were defeated. In return, the Empire gave them these shores. What do you think about this pedigree? No wonder things are as they are. We are born from the stingy mud of bribery. The only path forward is exile. Mr. Zarzoso confirmed it this afternoon: ‘Hungarians are only happy when they are abroad’. Will this also be the case for Valencians?


Budapest, Hungary, 27 January 2012

It is terrible… my friend Sergi, I hope you and your loved ones are safe and sound. As for me, I scribble these words from a café with enormous stained-glass windows near Chain Bridge, watching how the Danube sleepily drags the first mournful twilight.

Perhaps you will be far away when this letter reaches you. That would be a good sign. There is no need to tell you about Wednesday’s tragedy. The absolution of the former president Francisco Camps and his second in command, Ricardo Costa, is unacceptable. After trying them for receiving gifts from a corrupt plot in exchange for multimillionaire public contracts, they are set free without any responsibility. Inexplicable. I left the Palace of Justice with long strides, gravely confused.

I crossed the Parterre and at the feet of the Conqueror’s horse, I vomited a whiteish, nauseating liquid. I could hear deafening cheers in the distance and, in the midst of my delirium, I thought I heard a steel neigh coming from the statue and a desperate twinkle in the horse’s eyes, anxious to gallop away. I went back home, packed my suitcase, and stayed up all night summoning a flock of sodomite gargoyles. From the rooftop, I felt insulted by the distant meekness of the city. The moon, a thin thong string, hung from the sky’s washing line and, in bursts, a heady breeze blew, carrying the cheerful voices of girls from one side to the other. How could Valencia be so at peace with its History?

Absolving Camps was like acquitting an entire poisonous era. Like absolving the waste of Formula 1, America’s Cup, and the Pope’s visit. Like pardoning the corrupt branch of the ministries and the tall gangrenous towers of the Palacio de la Generalitat (Valencia’s government headquarters). Early in the morning, I took the subway to the airport. The activity was hectic. What was going on? A long queue circled the main hall. At the far end, a gigantic sign: ‘Exiles: this way. Do not forget to brush off your shoes before boarding the plane’. I waited patiently for my turn. From afar —I could not say for sure— I thought I noticed the calm figure of Mr. Zarzoso. I also looked for you, but the crowd was endless.

I embarked at midday on the first flight to Vienna and from there I travelled by train to Budapest. I arrived at nightfall and searched for a hostel near Keleti station. I collapsed on the bed and for a moment I wondered if that choir of whiny springs was coming from my insides. This morning I read the horrendous news in detail, how the mob took over the Parliament and how business men and women undressed as Camps passed by and they threw their jackets, trousers, and ties at him until they formed an irregular carpet of sumptuous fabrics. Inside the chamber, Camps dissolved Parliament and sworn himself in as head of the Consell, archbishop, captain general of the III Military Region and plenipotentiary president of the Town Hall’s falla. He also changed his title from ‘Most Honourable’ to ‘Most Patient, Resurrected and Absolved Excellency’, and appointed Our Lady of the Forsaken as councillor-spokesperson.

This is only the beginning. Terrified of the uncertain fate of our dark homeland, I ask of you that when these rushed letters reach your hands, you answer with the utmost celerity.



What will have become of Mr. Leonardo? The last I heard of him was that he was on that plane that made a forced landing in The Alpujarras while flying over the Penibaetic System. The truth is that I lost track of him after moving house. Every now and then I ask at my former residence. ‘There are no letters here for you!’, the same old and grumpy voice always replies through the intercom. It does not matter. I am sure that one day the benevolent sadness of the Hungarian gods will reunite us.

Sergi Tarín

Text included in Soothing the Soul, a play by Lluïsa Cunillé and Paco Zarzoso represented by the Companyia Hongaresa de Teatre (Hungarian Theatre Company) and published my Media Vaca with illustrations by Marta Pina.