Vital Signs

My Aunt & Unamuno

In the summer of 1929, my aunt Zarita Nahon, a philologist and teacher of languages, traveled from Biarritz to Hendaye, en route to Tangier to collect the medieval Spanish balladry, lost in Spain but still extant in the coastal cities of Morocco, for the anthropologist Franz Boas. She was making a detour to visit Miguel de Unamuno—scholar, poet, and philosopher—who had chosen Hendaye ville, as poor and barren as Hendaye plage was rich and elegant, for his exile.

Walking through the dirty streets, crowded with poorly dressed women and children and smelling of frying oil, she found it inconceivable that this great writer could have been expelled from his position as rector of the historic Spanish university at Salamanca, because of his opposition to Alfonso XIII and his prime minister, Primo de Rivera. Unamuno loved Spain as a patriot, a champion of personal and intellectual liberty, not as a political partisan. What could he be doing in this drab little town? Had he buried himself in his books, looking sadly and hopelessly to Spain? His letters to my aunt had given her no clue.

Miguel de Unamuno had been condemned to 16 years in prison for lèse majesté, a sentence that was never carried out, and taken on 24-hour notice under guard to Fuerteventura island—"a bit of the Sahara in the Atlantic Ocean," he had described it. The Spanish government had suggested...

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