The Ruins of Granada

Translated by Marian Womack

“The Ruins of Granada” (1899) is unique in that it is one of Spain’s first speculative fiction stories and its author, Ángel Ganivet (1865 — 1898), was known mostly for his “serious” writing which helped genre fiction enter the mainstream of Spanish literature. Early in the century, the distinction between “fantasy” and “science fiction” was more fluid than today and thus “The Ruins of Granada” evokes the feel of the “contes philosophiques”—philosophical tales used by early scientists in which a fictional frame provided the context for discussing a scientific theory. The influence of this predominantly nonfiction form can be seen in much nascent science fiction. We feature this story as part of our Strange Scifi Summer; the story was unable to be included in The Big Book of Science Fiction for reasons of space. If you enjoy this story, be sure to visit our interview with Marian and James Womack.

Alhambra of Granada, Spain

‘Would you care to come with me,’ a scholar said to a poet, ‘and see the ruins of Granada?’

‘I have, for some time, for a long time now, wanted to visit that corner of old Spain. If I am a poet, then I am a poet of ruins. There is nothing interests me as much nor moves me so deeply as contemplating the sense of hopelessness contained in the wretched remnants of things which once were and which now are not. If there is anything more beautiful than life, then it is the bitterness and disenchantment that existence leaves as its residue. Life is like a child who diverts us with his innocent games, and the ruins which life leaves behind itself are like a man of wide and varied experiences who always bears on his lips words that can explain great secrets.’

‘In ruins, what attracts me the most is the idea that they are places where something that we once knew only by reading ancient authors has been resuscitated or come back to life. And I prefer the ruins that are left behind after a catastrophe to those which remain after the destructive action of time; there is something natural about the ruins of Greece or Egypt, something that has developed over the years and which shows how briefly the work of man lasts, even those works that seem to be the greatest and most solid; there is more glory in the ruins of Pompey or London or Granada: these are places where life was suddenly brought to a close, and when they are excavated we discover a few centuries later life, exactly as it once was, petrified at the moment of its extinction. For me, a volcano, which can suddenly engulf a city, cover it in flames, is a sculptor inspired by pure chance. After some time, it is curiosity that opens such an immense sepulchre, and the marvellous work of art appears, the image of an entire civilisation, at a particular moment in the history of humanity.’

‘That is how an archaeologist sees it; there is a more beautiful way to interpret this vision; an artist does not see a petrified version of life, but a new kind of life, life in which man is no longer necessary, in which ideas live and interact in the very air, inspired by the poetry that rises from the ruins. I guess that the ruins of Granada will fill me with the idea of love, that I will sense there the sighs of a woman who loved much, who died loving, who loved so much that scented roses and red carnations grow over her grave, calling out to everyone who passes by…’

‘And is there poetry only in those vague ideas? Is there not also poetry in monuments that have been cast down, and in the skeletons of men? I have thought often about the discovery of the ruins of Granada and what it makes me think about is my desire to see a city suddenly annihilated. Historians say that the eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii was presaged by certain strange phenomena which spread panic and enabled almost all the city’s inhabitants to escape to safety. The same thing happened when London was drowned in the sea: the fact that the land was sinking was noticed a long time before the final catastrophe and the Londoners step by step abandoned the city in advance. But the volcano which some thirty centuries ago made Granada disappear forever without leaving a single trace was brand new and, as it burst through the earth’s crust with its lava, it did not leave any time for people to escape, so rapid was its appearance and so quickly did it carry everything away, from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada all the way down to the sea.’

‘Well let us head there at once, I am impatient to see these marvels.’

***

The poet and the scholar headed towards an aerostat station and ordered one to take them to the ruins of Granada.

‘Would you like to travel by the land route or the sea route?’

They had the option of seeing the ruins of London and of ancient Brittany as well.

‘We will go by the shortest route,’ the scholar replied.

‘In that case you should travel via Paris. It is,’ the chief aeronaut added, looking through his travel guide, ‘five thousand and seventy two ptometres.’

The travellers paid for their tickets and got into a small aerostat that was to be towed by a huge balloon that ascended rapidly until it was almost lost from sight. A little while later the balloon came down slightly and the aerostat, driven well by an expert aeronaut, began its flight to the South East, with a following wind.

After a brief and happy journey the travellers found themselves crossing the sky above Granada. As they had travelled, the aeronaut had told them the names of the countries and cities they were flying over, in case they wanted to descend. A few times they did go down in order to enjoy from the scent that rose up from the gardens they saw, or else simply to observe the cities with their inhabitants heading hear and there, busy as ants; at times they had to ascend so as not to knock against the peaks of mountains.

When they came to the end of their journey the aerostat descended until the travellers could see all the details of the dead city. The moon was full and the city was silent and the poet wanted to hear the voice he dreamt would talk to him; the scholar wanted to put together the plan of the city in his head and mentally reconstruct how life had been in the city when it had been alive.

‘I can see fragments of a Moorish city sticking up here and there, buried under mountains of rubble whose meaning I cannot determine.’

‘I am thinking,’ the poet said, ‘of a statue. In the middle of the city the ruins form an extended shape that looks like the reclining body of a woman.’

‘That must be the river which they say had gold in its sand.’

‘And the figure is broken in two, by heaps of stones that seem to be a woman’s waist.’

‘That must be a bridge over the river.’

‘And there are columns spread all over the right hand side of the body, that look like two crossed hands.’

‘That must be a Cathedral.’

‘And high up in the city, where the woman’s shoulders are, there is an eminence that seems to be a reddish pillow.’

‘That must be the Alhambra.’

‘And there is a head that lies on the pillow. It is such a perfect image! Everything is there. The mouth, the nose, the forehead…’

‘Those must be the palace and its turrets.’

‘…the dark splendid hair…’

‘That is all that is left of a forest that the lava burnt to ashes.’

‘And those eyes, that still sparkle so sensuously.’

‘Those must have been cisterns or pools, now filled with rainwater, sparkling in the light of the moon…’

***

When dawn began to break they went down to the ground, landing at the red mountain where the poet had imagined that he saw the head of the reclining statue, symbol of the dead city. The scholar walked over the ground, with its ruins and the typical flora of cemeteries, and he examined everything, looking for archaeological remains for his collection. The poet had stopped to look at some turrets, cut short and cracked, but still somehow standing; the only things standing in that desolate landscape portrait. He took an ebony box out of his pocket and stared at it, fixing his thought in it and on it, on a bright button in the lid of the box, and the ideophone started to sing, melancholically:

How silently you sleep,
you cracked Alhambra bones.
A dream many centuries deep
slips across your stones.
You sleep, and death is your dream
though death is far away.
Awake, for there soon will come
the fresh new light of day.
      Your walls in the light of the sun
are painted in shades of gold;
your walls in the light of the moon,
are lit by beams that are clear and pallid:
and you are asleep for ever,
though death is far away.
      In the firmament the stars
give you their colourless light,
wrapped in the shadowed arms
of the sad and blurry night,
and you are asleep for ever,
though death is far away.
      The silent breezes at dusk
rub themselves against you;
the savage autumn gusts
try as they can to rend you.
And you are asleep for ever,
and death is far away.
      A dream many centuries deep
slips across your stones;
should it reach down to your roots
your death would then be close.
Would that I could be like you
and sleep as the aeons passed
and fall from sleep anew
into nothingness at last!

***

‘Eureka!’ the scholar interrupted. ‘I’ve just made a most marvellous discovery. I have gone down this slope to a place near the river, and I thought that the ground under my feet sounded hollow. I started to dig and remove stones and I found I kind of storage chamber, and inside were several mummies so admirably preserved that I doubt that there are any their equal in any of the museums of the world.’

‘Let’s go then,’ the poet said, without much enthusiasm, putting his ideophone away. ‘I don’t like the sight of mummies all that much, but I am a little curious to see people who existed so many centuries ago. At least, I suppose the mummies are human.’

‘They seem to be; let us go and take a closer look.’

When they reached the mummies’ tomb, the poet and the scholar spent a long time uncovering them, touching them as little as possible, for fear that they would crumble away in their hands. This was an excessive precaution, because the mummies were entirely petrified, and could have been carried from one place to another like blocks hewn from a quarry. There were four of them, and they represented four different types of microcephalic mankind, the sort who lived in the world during the Metallic Age, the period between the nineteenth and twenty-second centuries. However, craneoscopic examination did show that they had attained a certain degree of mental development, roughly of the level of apodic man, that is ‘man without feet’, which existed during the age known as the Metallic Age, or the Movement Age.

All four mummies had irregular features, as their mouths were much larger than their eyes, which allowed one to infer that the people of that period spent more time thinking about eating than about seeing; all of them had beards, from which one can infer that this was an age without barbers.

The first mummy they examined had an extraordinarily well developed superior, or coronal, circumference, which fact suggested that this must be a vertical man, or as they used to say, a comedian (which is to say an individual who, whatever accidents he was faced with in his life, always landed on his feet like a cat).

The second mummy, as was absolutely self-evident once one had examined the smoothness and circularity of his skull, was a horizontal or lazy man, a type of which one can still occasionally find living examples in Araby, where one sees them lying down full length, melancholically dreaming in the hopes of paradise, a place that has been announced to them long since by their gods, to whom they still render homage.

The third example was curious, mainly because of the disposition of his spinal column, twisted almost into a bow; this mean that the man must have been one of the curved people, an optimist as they used to be called, given to agreeable living and laughter, and very poorly suited for tasks that required energy and application.

As for the fourth and final mummy, his posterior circumvolution was extremely pronounced—a clear sign of sensuality—and his skull was flat and angular, thus demonstrating his inverted or pessimistic nature, his desire to move against the flow. In short, he was filled with a kind of insubordinate and infertile energy, poorly adapted to the world in which he lived.

This, in brief, was the scholar’s opinion. And his conclusion was that if these four types represented the general constitution of the men who used to live in this city, then there was no way in which they could have developed to do anything useful or worthy, and that perhaps the volcanic eruption was providential. A result which allows us once again to see the way in which God’s actions with regards to his creatures are always watchful, healthy and beneficent.

The poet listened to all this and grew thoughtful; then he took out his little box and looked sadly at the ideophone; the instrument sang the following sad song:

THE SONG OF THE STONE

Life and death are but a dream
and all the world in dreams is grown;
dream is life itself to a man,
dream is death to the stone.

On your closed and dreaming eyes
one idea is drawn:
‘Worth far more than a man who sees
is the blindness of the stone.’

On your hard and rigid lips
one stiff word will form:
‘Worth more than speech to the man who speaks
is silence to the stone.’

Drawn from the depths of your breast
your hope is dead and gone:
‘Worth more than life to a man
is the death that lives in the stone.’

If life and death are dreams,
if dreams are the world alone,
I will give my life as a man
to dream in the death of the stone.

Ángel Ganivet (1865 — 1898) was born in Granada Spain to a middle class family. At the age of 10, Gavinet fractured his leg and while avoiding amputation, Gavinet remained lame for the remainder of his life. In the 1880’s, Gavinet moved to Madrid to study for a doctorate degree and while there, Gavinet became part of the local literary scene. He also became a diplomat and in 1895, he was relocated to Finland for two years. Gavinet suffered for many years with depression and in 1898, suffering from syphilis and disillusioned with love, Gavinet committed suicide by drowning himself in the Daugava River. Gavinet is often considered a predecessor to Generation of ’98—a Spanish group of novelists, poets, and philosophers who wrote about the political and moral crisis that Spain experienced after their defeat in the Spanish-American War and the subsequent loss of colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific.
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Marian Womack is a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, and a student in the Creative Writing Master’s at the University of Cambridge. She was born in Andalusia and has published two novels in Spanish, as well as contributing to more than 15 anthologies of short fiction, including Alucinadas, the first female-authored Spanish language anthology of SF. Her fiction in English appears in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Apex, Supersonic Mag and The Best of Spanish Steampunk, and she has published on Spanish literature, culture and society in the Times Literary Supplement, the New InternationalistThe Science Fiction and Fantasy Network. Chosen by literary magazine Leer as one of the thirty most influential people in their thirties in Spain’s book sector, she is also a prolific translator and co-runs Ediciones Nevsky, a Madrid/Cambridge-based small press specialising in European & Spanish slipstream in translation. She tweets as @beekeepermadrid and her website is marianwomack.com.