Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof

My Life on the Holy Mountain: A Book Proposal

In Book proposal, Flamenco, Granada, Gypsies, Spain on January 29, 2005 at 9:44 pm

I have had this idea in mind for a long time. No one seems as interested in it as me, alas (alack). So, here it is. Admittedly, the “sample chapter” is a bit slapdash. Here is a better look at the topic.

A brief description of the book:

“My Life on the Holy Mountain” is a biography of Manolin Heredia Heredia, my oldest friend in the Sacromonte, an angelic picaro from an ancient Gypsy family, famous for their musicians. Manolin, in his mid-thirties, unmarried, with no prospects, member of a culture that is alternately despised and worshipped, is one of the happiest sad men I’ve ever known. As the Gypsies themselves say, he has the joy of being sad.

The book will cover not just Manolin’s life and struggles, but that of the community as a whole, the Gypsies of The Sacromonte, or “Holy Mountain,” a barrio on the hills on the north side of Granada, Spain where this people has lived for over 500 years.

Their unique culture, full of a passion for creating, is under-represented outside of the most vulgar or romantic books and movies. Metal work, guitar making, horse trading, lying, story telling, singing, dancing and drinking are all arts in the Sacromonte.

As Washington Irving put it almost two centuries ago, “Indeed, all this part of Andalucia abounds with such game-looking characters. Great gossips, great smokers, apt at touching the guitar.”

This story is the story of Manolin, but also of his community, of the Gypsy, of the force of imagination and freedom in a restrictive world. It is also the story of history – the history of Spain, of the Moors, the Jews, the Reconquista, of Europe, of India, of Arabia – a story of survival, cultural power, minority-majority conflict and dialogue.

The book will be a narrative, the story of Manolin, but it will necessarily also be a book about ideas – art, history, cultural survival. I have outlined possible chapters below, but please keep in mind this narrative that will hold all the cultural material in a meaningful context – the life of a man.

The manuscript details:

The book will contain approximately 11 chapters with approximately 250 pages. Each chapter should take about a week and a half to write, so the book should take about four months to complete. Research will take several addition months, bringing the book in at around six or seven months.

List of possible chapter titles:

Chapter 1: Un Gitano Legitimo (A Real Gypsy) Introduction to Manolin and to myself; our relationship.

Chapter 2: Hay Que Tener Arte (You Gotta Have Art) The function of art in Gypsy culture, the immediacy and ‘practical’ nature of their relationship to expression that makes it a part of living culture; stories of the great artists of past and present in the Sacromonte. Manolin’s birth and introduction into art as a method of cultural survival.

Chapter 3: Los Paredes de Jericho (The Walls of Jericho) Granada’s Gypsies through their history, from Arabic times through Franco and up to and including the landslide and current conflict with the city of Granada. The forces of history in Manolin’s life.

Chapter 4: Tiene Historia (He Has History) The story of Gabriel – his birth, death and rebirth. Manolin vs. one Gypsy ideal.

Chapter 5: Humanos Son Humanos (People Are People) The story of Manuel the Bricklayer and his sons and daughters. Manolin vs. the other Gypsy ideal.

Chapter 6: Los Hijos de Benjemi (The Sons of Benjemi)The clans of the Sacromonte and how they fight. Where Manolin stands in the complex politics of the Sacromonte.

Chapter 7: Cante Jondo (Deep Song) The development of cante jondo and flamenco music – the siege of heaven. Soundtrack to Manolin’s life.

Chapter 8: Caras Famosas (Famous Faces) The world looks at Granada and the Sacromonte, visitors who’ve been taken — Washington Irving, Prosper Merimee, John Ford, Malcolm Cowley and Glinka. Tourists, travelers and Manolin.

Chapter 9: Sr. Heredia Va a Madrid (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) The political power of half a million Spanish Gypsies and the fight against racism in Granada, Spain, Europe and the world. Manolin’s nascent political consciousness.

Chapter 10: Verdes Voces (Green Voices) Love, courtship, marriage – and Manolin’s “Ay, no hay chicas?” Manolin’s salvation and damnation.

Chapter 11: “Tenemos Que Irnos, Pero Granada Queda” (“We Must Leave, But Granada Remains”) Leave-taking and some notes on the future – of Manolin, the Gypsies of the Sacromonte and of Granada. Hope springs eternal. History is a heartless machine.

The Market:

A book on the Gypsies of the Sacromonte will be popular for a number of interrelated reasons. First, Gypsies have been made popular by, among others, Isabel Fonesca in her book “Bury Me Standing.” This book, however, was about Eastern European Gypsies.

Secondly, flamenco music, the characteristic art of Southern Spain’s Gitanos, made increasingly popular through Carlos Saura’s movies, the records of Ketama and other young players, has created an unfilled hunger for information on the people who make it. This book is, by necessity, a book on the flamenco subculture. This is in line with a general tendency toward appreciating the cultural products of the world’s varied peoples.

The final reason is the sheer paucity in English of books on Spanish Gypsies, ironically, the very Gypsy people with the most to offer culturally.

Generally speaking, the Western reading public deeply reveres examples of life lived “authentically,” of lives lived for deeper values. Hay que tener arte, say the Gypsies. You must have art. And the American book-buying public agrees.

And that same public has been primed by books like “Memoirs of a Geisha” to read history through personal narrative.

About the author:

Curt Hopkins is a playwright and poet who has spent the last decade working in the Internet industry and as a journalist. He has had essays, plays and poems published in Exquisite Corpse, Bluelawn, Amelia, Catalyst, Timberline, Dada and Big Talk. He has had plays produced at New City New Playwrights Festival in Seattle and Northwest Playwrights Festival in Oregon. He is co-founder of Emergency Horse Magazine and of the Big Time Poetry Theatre and The Making House/AutoImaginary Clown.com theatre groups. His journalism has been published in Newsweek, San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Salon, Seattle Times, The Rocket, New Times and many other magazines and newspapers. He lived for a year among the Gypsies of the Sacromonte barrio in Granada, Spain. He has visited many times since then.

He has written previously about the Gypsies of Granada in Salon.

Sample chapter:

Every story purporting to be true is a story of memory. I have told so many lies about Spain, omitted so much that would be injurious to me, built up around the bad memories and superimposed, telescoped and colorized so much, that it will be a miracle indeed if I am able to tell the plain truth. And maybe the plain truth is not what a reader needs, or a writer. It’s possible that the construction in words of an atmosphere and a structure that the reader can gain from entering, and can enter at all, requires the relegation of the truth to the status of an incidental. But I don’t think so. I think there is some value to trying to tell oneself, and others, the truth. So I will try. In the end perhaps it will be a matter of which Me wins – the confessor or the writer. They are not always the same and they do not always share the same goals and values.

Spain made me. No, that’s not true, though it sounds good. Spain brought to the surface the best and the worst of me. That “worst” part bothers me. The egotism, selfishness, blindness, temper, sharp tongue, the dismissive, contemptuous, frightened and impotent part of me, that flails and lashes out against the chaos of living, that would rather put its eyes out than stare into the incomprehensibility of it all, that part escapes and catches on fire and to this day I have to stay on guard to keep it from flaring up again and burning those I love. And still, I am not always successful. But I am, however marginally, a better person, more aware, stronger than I was before I knew Spain, before, more accurately, I came to know Granada.

By now, Granada is more a religion, or at least a cathedral, than a place to me. Granada rescued me by condemning me to see myself, and the world, as it is, or rather, as I always suspected it was, and was always told it was not. Granada showed me that joy was not an indulgence, but rather the point of life. If my evocation seems a bit purple and extravagant to you, sitting in your office or on your deck or in your coffee shop, surrounded by career worries and plans and money or its absence, your life full of necessities and pragmatism, no-nonsense and proud in your adulthood, having put childish things behind you, prideful of your ability to see through the fairy tales and take things “head on,” well, I blame Granada, and I give it the credit. But the place has grown, in the intervening years since 1987, abstract. And that’s not right. Granada holds, breeds, feeds abstracts, or non-physical, metaphysical realities, but it is not itself anything but made of stone, water, flowers, wind, music, food, vino mosto, language – things you can touch, taste, hear, smell. It’s real.

My way back from the abstract to the real is to tell you about Manolin. Manolin is Spain, he is Granada, and he is, despite the warp of light around him that will surely result in passing him from the Camino del Sacromonte through my mind and memory to you, quite real indeed, I assure you. Manolin is no idea, no symbol. He is a man.

To say Manolin comes from a family of famous musicians would be like saying someone from Amish Pennsylvania comes from a famous farming family. In South Africa, they mine diamonds. In Jiangsu, they produce silk. In the Sacromonte, they make music.

Manolin has been my friend for over ten years. His friendship has been one of those that changes your life, that remakes the scope of what is possible in your life. I first went to Granada with no knowledge of what a Gypsy was. I left knowing what it is to be Gypsy, ser gitano. Manolin has been my Virgil in a journey that seemed on the outside to be an attempt to understand the Gypsy people, their barrio of the Sacromonte, the city and state of mind that is Granada. But it was really a process of coming face-to-face for the first time with me, and with death. For that, above all else, is the purview of the Gypsy.

The Sacromonte, or “Holy Mountain,” clings to the hills on the south of Granada, Spain, a city its 17th century poet Pedro Soto de Rojas, called “paradise closed to many .” The Sacromonte itself was described by another native son, the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, as “the lost village in the Andalucia of cries.” It is a community of caves dug out of the hillsides and whitewashed. There we lived – my wife Susan, my friend Ian and I – first in a cave with dirt floors, then in a villa that used to host the legends of flamenco – Sabicas, Mario Escudero, Cameron, Paco de Lucia, Tomatito, Pepe Habichuela. From the terrace of this villa one could look across the lush tropical ravine of the Darro River and see, at night, the broken tower of the Silla del Moro and the sharp outlines of the Generalife and Alhambra palaces, lit up first by the fading sun, then, later, by electric lights.

Here Manolin was born, in a house at the intersection of the Cuesta del Chapiz – the road to the ancient Arabic quarter of Albaicin – and the Camino del Sacromonte. The house, which has stood in the same place and the same form for 500 years is a tiled apartment around a carmen or atrium garden. It stands as a sentinel between what is easily known and what is unknowable. Here the tourists, both foreign and Spanish, divide to the antique Arab gate and the Mirador de San Nicolas or to the Sacromonte. Either way they choose they will see the light as it plays over the glazed surface of the pottery embedded in the plaster, the copper ladles hanging from the cave roofs, the hammered gold and silver of the Darro in its weedy reaches.

There are few doors into the private carmenes of Gypsy life in this place where architecture is less in service to society than to a drunkenness of the soul. Gypsys are well aware of how to manipulate non-Gypsy images of the mysterious, dangerous, knife-wielding, palm-reading picaro. One of those few doors in it seems is to show up without any such images in your head, as we did. I had heard the world ‘Gypsy’ but had no idea what images I was supposed to be seeing so I saw none. We had no money, so we couldn’t get taken. We had no appointments to keep so we couldn’t be late.

Manolin and I sat on the wall overlooking the school yard one summer afternoon passing an Aguila and a pack of Fortunas back and forth. Behind us, over our left shoulder, on the hill where the monastery of the Sacromonte sat the olive trees rippled green to white with every breeze. He pointed across the Valparaiso, his blue-black hair shading his coffee-colored face.

“See that hill?” he asked, indicating a green and yellow ridge full of prickly pear, wild olive and agave. “That used to be full of Gypsies. You could see the smithing fires from here, and they could see ours. Look behind you.” He turned over his right shoulder and pointed his bottle of beer up past the Vereda en Medio Alta and the hand-pumped fountain. A smear like a giant hand could be seen all the way down through the re-build.

“In 1964 we had rains like we’d never seen. The whole hillside came down. A man and his grandson were buried right there where that cave is now.” So the government, he said, moved half the barrio out to a dusty shantytown in the Vega. It was supposed to be temporary but they remain there. The Sacromonte pays the price for the heartlessness of nature and man both.

Below us the kids squeaked and clapped, running after a red-and-white soccer ball as the habit-clad nuns kept them from rolling off into the ravine or sneaking off for cigarettes. Kiki called from Los Faroles, “I got a tortilla in the oven!” Later, later! We told him. His mother, clad in the black dress of the widow, sat in a cane chair beside the bar, tatting lace. The four-stroke of an old Renault unwound as a driver shifted down on the turn, honking once at Manolin. “My primo, Eduardo,” he said. Explanation enough. Silence descended as Kiki clanged shut the iron gate of his bar, the children disappeared back into the classrooms and the car made the turn by La Faraona. The sky overhead was the improbable robin’s-egg of a Titian painting.

Manolin Heredia Heredia, I thought, looking at my closest friend, angelic picaro from an ancient family. Manolin “tiene la alegria de estar triste.” He has the joy of being sorrowful. He’s a brooding, tender soul, quick to laugh, out with his feelings, open-handed, suspicious, naïve, easy-to-offend, forgiving. The Abadia bell rings lauds, vespers and compline and in the silence afterward the smoke of blond tobacco and the tower of the muezzin under the magnified stones of the stream.

Juanillo waved from the green balcony of his restaurant. Juanillo was a leader in the community and owner of the best restaurant in the barrio. He had a beautiful wife and polio-stricken leg. Sometimes we hung out after the restaurant closed, Manolin, La Susana, Ian and I, sitting on the terrace playing the guitar, singing soleás, drinking sherry in the humid summer night air, the sigh of wind through the trees on the riverbank far below us.

Around us stitching in and out of sight and weaving the material of the Sacromonte together were the people. Rarely does an invidual have the sight to see the hidden raices of his life. Here they were like the everyday miracles of the Hebrew prophets. Ratón, on-street hash connection and a singer of unusual power. Manuel, construction worker, singer and father of the dancer Belen. Gabriel, archangel who served seven years in the carcel under Franco, scars like a raised, white spider web across his chest from an attack by a grieving woman. The angry American who stole money from us and occasioned a show-down with the Guardia Civil. Pilar, the black widow. Mondeja, the painter and his arch-enemy Antonio, who nearly came to blows over whose carnations were more beautiful.

Hay que tener arte, the Gypsies say. You must have art.

We believe love is real, sometimes we believe G)d is real, we believe when we’re young in things like art and freedom. But in Granada you do not have to operate on faith. Those things are real like water is real, like the agave and figs on the hillside are real. You can touch them. You do not have to believe in them any longer. You can pull them up by the roots.

I had first come to Granada with Ian, who had discovered flamenco and cante jondo music, the Gypsy-figured music of Southern Spain that united elements of Byzantine liturgy, Andalucian folk song, Arabic music and Jewish prayer, while working alone in the middle of the snow and coyotes at the Pine Mountain Observatory in Central Oregon. There, alone under the cold echoing dome, tracking the stars, he had discovered his own rhythms and progressions he later discovered to be solea and bulerias. For years I was bothered by Spain. It hung in the corner of my mind like a dream I couldn’t shake.

*************************

I stood by the open train window, the overnight from Madrid. Over the fractured, broken land of the southern La Mancha plains Quixote’s windmills and villages of white blocks turned slowly on the red earth. It wouldn’t be long, the slow rise at the end of the plain, the drop into the verdant trough of the vega, the Moorish castles broken apart atop the weathered crowns of the hills. Then, the city itself, laid out like jewelry against the backdrop of the hide-scraper peaks of the everwhite Sierra Nevada…

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  1. i lived in sacramonte for two years, i know manolin quite well. please send me and email, maybe i can help you. i have some cool pictures of him. email me at
    midgetrampage@yahoo.com

  2. […] decided to write my memoir of life among the Gypsies, instead of writing another horrible book proposal or trying to publish another magazine article about it. Not that this will result in the […]

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