An extract from The Beautiful Obscure by Luke Stegemann
Local history was perhaps my father’s greatest abiding interest: in the 1970s, long before war had returned to its fashionable status in the national consciousness, he began a study of the World War One memorials found the length and breadth of Australia. Like the studies he later carried out of rural stone and timber churches, his attention was focussed on the humbler memorials. My father was a quiet man, and the hushed simplicity of these monuments, along the main streets of slow towns, with their carved lists of names, spoke to him – as did the churches, regardless of denomination – of both a common faith and a common struggle. A struggle that had little to do with class or political consciousness, but that turned on the daily efforts of ordinary men and women to bear the grief and hardship of life.
In pursuit of local history, one of the most memorable meetings my father had was in Spain, with Pablo Sainz Casado, priest of the small village of Sotosalbos, east of Segovia and in the lee of the Madrid sierra. While travelling along Spanish backroads, on the off-chance of gaining access to its stunning Romanesque church we turned into Sotosalbos – for all the world a forgotten place. As we stood outside, admiring the extraordinary quality of the twelfth-century stone carvings, a priest emerged from behind a wooden door to introduce himself. He was sprightly and full of tales: before long we were chatting like old friends, and Pablo, as he had introduced himself, invited us on a private tour of the treasures contained within the church. Don Pablo, as chance would have it, was not only a priest but also, like my father, a part-time historian specialising in recovering narratives of small churches and their communities. In Don Pablo’s case, he was also something of an anthropologist, investigating and keeping alive accounts of otherwise dying local festivities in honour of saints, temples, holy orders and the Virgin, among others.
Within the scrubbed Romanesque church – its columns carved with biblical beasts and monks working through the seasons of the year – was another of those experiences so common when off the beaten track in Spain: a building containing, within, so much more than could conceivably be guessed at from the outside. Not that the church of Sotosalbos was plain: on the contrary, it is one of the loveliest examples of Romanesque in the province of Segovia. But on the inside was Don Pablo’s world: not only the immaculately kept church, but the small museum he had put together, featuring a twelfth century wooden Mary Magdalene, a startling polychrome Saint Sebastian from the same period, Romanesque frescoes, assorted other statues, retables, oil paintings and objects not just of objectively great value, but of incalculable emotional and spiritual value to the small community who had lived with these objects for eight hundred years.
Twenty-five years after that first visit I returned to Sotosalbos; the church stood as ever, the area around it more tidied and modernised. A paved plaza had been laid out beyond the eastern end, and as I stood outside the church a honking horn announced the arrival of the butcher on his weekly run. With his truck he came trundling into the plaza; from an old stone house on the far side of the square emerged a small, quiet man, shuffling towards the vehicle. He was dressed in grey trousers, old shoes and a shirt buttoned to the neck; add a cloth cap and a blue winter jacket, and the man was in rural uniform.
‘Excuse me,’ I asked him, to clear up a doubt, ‘did the main road use to pass closer by here? Around twenty years ago?’ As I recalled it, it had been somehow closer to the highway.
‘No, no. Not the main road, but there was a small stream, a kind of channel, you may or may not recall, where all the washing was done.’ The man’s skin was papery, almost translucent.
‘I was here on holidays with my parents,’ I mentioned. ‘Years ago. We had a long chat with a very friendly priest.’
‘Don Pablo,’ responded Ermenegildo, for that was the old man’s name. He nodded at the inevitability of what was to come: ‘He died just two or three years ago.’ Pointing a finger to his temple and with a grimace on his face, he passed sentence: ‘He went mad towards the end.’
‘Mad? Did he suffer some disease?’
‘A disease, no. Let’s say…an illness. He was a very clever man, Don Pablo. But too clever. All those books and all that reading – it sent him over the edge.’
This was Don Quixote all over again. But had it been the reading, or something else – a loneliness, a sense of being stricken before the weight of history?
‘He seemed to us a man satisfied in every way,’ I responded. ‘He was in love with his church, its relics, his village. And with his parishioners.’
‘Ah,’ sighed Ermenegildo, ‘Don Pablo gave this village so much, and it never repaid him. He never had the thanks he deserved.’
That too was another all-too-common story. Village rivalries and jealousies were always just below the surface. Don Pablo had a rival – it would not be a Spanish village story without an intense rivalry somewhere in the seams – and yet he seems to have come out the better for it.
‘His books were a success,’ Ermenegildo explained. ‘He ended up publishing a few of them. But there was another gentleman writer in Sotosalbos.’ He would not give names – perhaps this other author was still alive. ‘Don Pablo’s rival had spent his career in the military, and upon retirement took to writing amateur histories. But his books were a failure,’ Ermenegildo went on matter-of-factly. ‘He enjoyed none of the success of Don Pablo.’
So Don Pablo was a paradox: he had enjoyed success with his Chronicles of Sotosalbos that had first been adapted from weekly newspaper columns, and went on to publish other works. His local anthropologies had been a hit; I later learned he had been visited by royalty which, if nothing else, puts an author and his obscure village on the map. He benefitted from weekend traffic from Madrid, cars on their way to skiing holidays or basing Sunday outings around visits to regional restaurants specialising in the local roasted lamb and suckling pig. In the great tradition of the chronicler, he recovered vast amounts from local history in anecdotes and close descriptions: the votive trails across the hills, the sanctuaries in the furthest paddocks, the shepherds’ paths; the sewing, weaving, baking, blacksmithing, woodcutting; the children and women at the well, or watching by the anvil; the annual pig slaughter; the musical concerts and the Gregorian chant; the scarcely moving register of births, deaths and marriages recorded since 1595; the varieties of prayer and meditation; visits from film crews, Americans, Russians (‘This impressive church and parish museum,’ they had written grandly in Russian in the visitors’ book, ‘stands in the service of religion, history, European and universal civilisation’), and a young potter who had ridden his bicycle all the way from Hertfordshire in England to study local techniques. A Nobel Prize winner and his famous philosopher friend had come to Sotosalbos unannounced; two men, as Don Pablo memorably described them, ‘with many windows onto the interior, and few doors that lead to self-promotion.’ Not to forget the regional dances, the sketches and paintings, the scraps of poetry that find their way onto every second page: Don Pablo, indeed, had recorded life in all its teeming splendour, from the miniature to the grand.
But something happened along that path. Ermenegildo insisted it had not been any degenerative disease, but a form of madness that did for Don Pablo. A fever wrapped his brain; the darkness of the imagination took hold of his mind; the great avalanche that is Castilian history swamped him, driving him to distraction and, ultimately, to madness. Having taken on caring for him during the last years of his life, he died raving and lost, I was told, in the arms of Ermenegildo’s wife.
A copy of Don Pablo’s Primeras crónicas de Sotosalbos (Chronicles of Sotosalbos) – duly signed by the author, with the lovely dedication: ‘To Luke, on the occasion of this visit to Sotosalbos with your parents, a sign of friendship and of our encounter with art, history and religion’ – remains to this day one of the singular treasures on my bookshelves. Don Pablo, I sincerely hope, would be pleased to know of that edition sitting proudly in an Australian home. Here on the other side of the world his coat of many colours lives on between the pages.
This is an edited extract from The Beautiful Obscure available from transmissionpress.com or from bookshops from May 27.