Francisco Ayala, 103

Francisco Ayala, 103; Spanish author, Franco foe

After Gen. Francisco Franco's death, Francisco Ayala returned from exile and became one of Spain's most decorated men of letters.
After Gen. Francisco Franco's death, Francisco Ayala returned from exile and became one of Spain's most decorated men of letters. (The Associated Press)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Friday, November 6, 2009

Francisco Ayala, 103, a highly honored Spanish author and sociologist whose opposition to the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco led him into decades of self-imposed exile and influenced the enduring theme of his literary career -- the toxic effect of power -- died Tuesday at his home in Madrid. The cause of death was undisclosed; he was reported to have been suffering from bronchitis.

Mr. Ayala was among the last of a generation of leading poets and intellectuals of the venerated "Generation of '27," which included Federico García Lorca, Pedro Salinas and Luis Cernuda, and he was a leading Franco opponent during the civil war of the late 1930s. His father and a younger brother had been executed at the start of the war.

Mr. Ayala left Spain in 1939 when the anti-Franco government was crushed, marking the start of his exile. He worked in Argentina, Brazil and Puerto Rico and then in the United States, where he taught Spanish literature at Princeton University, New York University, the University of Chicago and other colleges.

In a career spanning eight decades, Mr. Ayala wrote more than 50 novels, essays and short stories. He returned to Spain after Franco's death in 1975 and became one of the country's most decorated men of letters. In 1983, Mr. Ayala was elected to the Spanish Royal Language Academy and won the prestigious Prince of Asturias literature award.

In 1991, he won the Miguel de Cervantes literary prize, considered the Spanish-language equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for work that "has conspicuously enriched the literary patrimony of the Spanish speaking world."

In Mr. Ayala's novels, characters trudged through lives of moral and political chaos. "Death as a Way of Life" (1964), initially published in Spanish a few years earlier as "Muertes de Perro," describes a South American country under a totalitarian government. Another of his works, "Los Usurpadores" ("The Usurpers," 1949), was a collection of short stories he wrote in Argentina and examines the immorality of the abuse of power.

In one story from the collection, "The Bewitched," a Spaniard during the Middle Ages spends his life fighting bureaucracy and trying to gain an audience with the king. When he is finally granted a visit with the monarch, he finds the ruler so mentally and physically handicapped that he can't speak coherently, let alone govern a country. Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges was reported to have called the story "a masterpiece of Hispanic literature."

"The Inquisitor," another notable story in "The Usurpers," focuses on a grand rabbi who converts to Catholicism and is so fanatical in his prosecution and devoted to proving the purity of his faith he doesn't spare his only daughter from arrest when she denounces his work.

The book's theme, Mr. Ayala wrote in the introduction, was "power exercised by man over his fellow man is always a usurpation."

Malcolm Compitello, head of the Spanish and Portuguese department at the University of Arizona, said Mr. Ayala's novels reflect on why the Spanish Civil War took place and the effects the war had on those who stayed and those who left.

Compitello likened Mr. Ayala's work to the power of Pablo Picasso's mural-size painting "Guernica," which depicts the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. "Ayala's profound analysis described through literature the experience this kind of cataclysmic event had on the Spanish people in the same way Picasso did through art," he said.

Francisco de Paula Ayala García-Duarte was born March 16, 1906, in Granada, a city in the southern region of Andalucía, and grew up in Madrid. He started writing poetry as a child and published his first novel, "Tragicomedy of a Man With No Spirit," when he was 19.

While studying law at the University of Madrid, he worked as a critic for the modernist journal Revista de Occidente, which had been started by philosopher José Ortega y Gasset as a riposte to the country's conservative literary culture. Mr. Ayala received a law degree in 1929 and a doctorate in law in 1932, then became a law professor and switched for a period from writing fiction to books on law and sociology.

In 1931, he married a Chilean, Etelvina Silva Vargas, whom he had met in Germany when both were studying on scholarships. She died in 1990. Survivors include his second wife, Carolyn Richmond of Madrid, whom he marred in 1999; a daughter from his first marriage, Nina Mallory of New York; a brother; a granddaughter; and three great-granddaughters.

As a young lawyer, Mr. Ayala grew active in the movement to fight Franco's Nationalist forces and served as the opposition Republican government's ambassador to Czechoslovakia. When the Republic was defeated in 1939, he began his career of teaching and writing abroad.

He enjoyed a triumphant return to Spain in the post-Franco years. Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero called him a symbol of the country's "moral reconstruction" in Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Toward the end of his life, Mr. Ayala was often pessimistic when asked his views on human nature, which he saw as a continuum of violence.

"Technology has progressed, arms," he said, "but it's the same barbarity that beats a child to death as drops bombs on hundreds of people or cities. War can be repeated indefinitely, human beings haven't essentially changed. Bestiality is part of the human condition."

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