Vicente Muñoz Puelles

The dream about the tractor

I have the feeling I have known Berlanga all my life. In any case, since my childhood. Not for nothing he was a close friend of my uncle’s, Ricardo Muñoz Suay. When Ricardo came to Valencia he would stay at the Hotel Londres, which belonged to the Berlangas, and being there, it was normal to come across Luis, who also used to visit the city very often. I knew who he was because, when I was eight or nine, I saw “¡Bienvenido Mr. Marshall!” (Welcome, Mr. Marshall!) at a local cinema, most likely the Price or the Savoy, the nearest to my house. I remember my father proudly pointing at his brother’s name, who was the assistant director, on the screen. And I remember the magnificent image of a tractor dragging a parachute at the end of the film. I dreamt about it several nights. Even today, when I see “Welcome…” again, there are a few seconds during which I am worried that the scene with the tractor won’t appear, that it is only a memory I made up in my dreams.

Sometimes, Luis was also mentioned in the postcards Ricardo sent to us from Rome, where they spent a month and a half together working with Zavattini in 1954; or from different parts of Spain, around which they travelled, also with Zavattini, looking for settings for stories they never filmed; or from Venice, where Ricardo was a member of the panel for la Mostra in 1964.

But it wasn’t until much later that I started to deal with Luis García Berlanga more often, as a result of the publication of my first two novels in the erotic collection he directed: “Amor burgués” (“Bourgeois Love”)[1], which was short-listed in the second edition of The Vertical Smile Awards, and “Anacaona”[2], which won the following year’s edition. I remember that my tendency to identify eroticism with exoticism and my interest in jungles and the erotic habits of other cultures called his attention, although he preferred western cultures, especially the Anglo-Saxon culture.

“On the outside I am a faded Berber”, he told me once, “but I have inside me a schoolgirl with black stockings and a whip, as Daninos used to say of the English."

Years later, I received a commission from the Valencian publishers La Mascara, no longer in business, to write a book which consisted of a long interview about eroticism with García Berlanga. The said interview took place in 1995 during a trip to Paris which started at the bookshop Le scarabée d’or, a small temple of erotic literature, already closed these days, and finished at Demonia, an enormous sex-shop specializing in domination, where you could buy cages and spectacular clamps, and where Luis taught me the excellencies of plastering and radical sex. Undoubtedly, his knowledge was theoretical but that didn’t make him seem any less enthusiastic. After several days of pure mental licentiousness, and because I confessed to being bored, he looked at me as if I had failed an initiation exam and said, with a certain tone of disappointment:

– "I thought you also liked bondage."

I also remember him at Austerlitz station, about to return. The Cinémathèque française was interested in organizing a season of his films, but he didn’t seem to be very excited about it.

– "It must be very flattering to be part of the history of the cinema”, I said.

He looked at me as if my statement seemed insincere to him, and said, sharply:

– "For me, eroticism is more important than film making".

That itinerant conversation, which tried to cover all the aspects related to sex and its addictions, and in which the ghosts of Sade and Krafft-Ebing often appeared, went on in Valencia and in Somosaguas, in Luis’s own private library. Hence the title of the resulting book: “Infiernos eróticos. La colección Berlanga” (“Erotic Hells. The Berlanga Collection")[3], which does not refer to the literary collection called The Vertical Smile, but to his private collection of erotic publications and objects, that is, what big libraries normally call hell, because, theoretically speaking, its contents could condemn us to the eternal fire.

Before getting to García Berlanga’s secret library you had to walk through a big pool room with walls full of books of other genres, which were presumably less exciting. The hell area itself was locked, perhaps because of an atavistic reflection -at his parents’ house the library was also locked, and there was a time when the children could only visit it on Saturdays and Sundays-, or because he was worried that Justine, Fanny Hill, Grushenka, Dolly, Betty Page, Gwendoline, O..., Emmanuelle or any of the other lustful creatures which inhabited it could escape.

The library was on the southern façade of the house and it was lit by a large window with stiff curtains. It had two fundamental areas: the real library, with the bookshelves and a table overloaded with books, and the archive area, with a smaller table and a profusion of intriguing boxes, whose contents only their owner, and probably not even him, knew. There was a desk, large chests, and piles of books and papers and more boxes everywhere. You had to get round those obstacles to get to a specific bookshelf. The head of a life size doll with which Luis had been living for six or seven months, according to the legend, presided over the chaos. There were some two thousand books about eroticism and sexual topics, and an endless number of magazines there.

While showing his library, Luis was sometimes proud and sometimes ashamed. He said he had never had time to organize it and even less to catalogue it, but one suspected he preferred to leave it like that, that in his opinion eroticism should not be constrained to some bookshelves or some record cards. If daily life was imbued with sex, why couldn’t books which praised sex get mixed up and pass on some of their warmth, their salutary and unsettling character to the others?

It was in that room that he told me about Pierre Molinier (1900-1976), a French artist and photographer admired by the surrealists and especially by André Breton, for the first time. In 1973, Luis had been inspired by Pierre Moliner and his personal world, eminently fetishist, to create the central character of his film “Tamaño natural” (“Life Size”), interpreted by Michel Piccoli. That is why he corresponded frequently with Molinier right until a little before his suicide.

He told me that Molinier was a man who loved women deeply, but confused them with the fetishes attributed to them: corsets, suspender belts, high-heeled shoes. In an attempt to get closer to them, he put on those fetishes and had pictures taken with them on. He lived alone in an imaginary world, in an everlasting ecstasy, surrounded by portraits of himself dressed as a woman, life size dolls, women’s clothes, and mirrors which repeated women similar to him, with whom he had sex all the time.

That story drew me to write the novel “La curvatura del empeine” (“The Curve of the Instep”)[4], a very free version of the French artist’s life, in which the main character is called Pierre, but never Molinier.

Luis loved the title and Tusquets, the publishers, gave the book a special honour: number one hundred in The Vertical Smile collection. In 1999, three years after the publication of “La curvatura del empeine”, the IVAM (Valencian Institute of Modern Art) held a comprehensive exhibition dedicated to Pierre Molinier, with his paintings and photographs. There, I had the chance to see works of art which I had described in the novel and also the artist's personal objects: the dolls, the dildos he made for his own use, the shoes, the women’s clothes he wore and even the gun he used to commit suicide. There is a wonderful catalogue [5], in which Juan Manuel Bonet, the then director of the IVAM, talked about García Berlanga and myself and mentioned “what could be described as the posthumous Valencian destiny of this accursed artist”.

Another bond, a less libertine and exciting one, connected us from then on. Luis García Berlanga was a member of the Consell Valencià de Cultura (Valencian Council of Culture), or CVC, an advisory institution of the Generalitat Valenciana (Valencian Regional Government), from December 1985, that is, from its foundation, until January 1998, date in which his term of office ended. When I joined the CVC, in 1999, he was no longer there. We only met there because José Palomero and I were asked to inform about the Valencian literary production in both languages in the Comisión de las Artes (Commission of the Arts).

At the end of the appearance, García Berlanga took the floor to welcome the fact that, for the first time in the CVC, we spoke about literature in terms of production and market, as if it were the cinema, and not in terms of a simple desire, of philosophizing and of aestheticisms. His speech was brief but characteristic of him, a call to pragmatism and to being in touch with the vision on the street, which he was always worried the institution could lose.

At the time I joined the CVC the echo of his stay was evident among the oldest members and among the civil servants. They missed his sense of humour, his gift for friendship, his spontaneity, his naughtiness, his curiosity for the whole and for the detail, his original interpretation of topics, and his irreverent, but always educated, attitude. I suppose he must have contributed highly to the deliberations with his critical sense, his tolerant character and his outstanding talent for debate, which he tended to turn into monologues. Unfortunately, at the time, they wrote very few reports compared to now, and his term at the CVC remains more in his colleagues’ memory than in the often laconic minutes of the commissions.

Something similar must have happened to his father, of whose term at the Cortes (Parliament) in Madrid as a member of parliament there remained, especially, the memory of a Spanish Law for Alcohol, which stated, as his son told me once, that any Spaniard had the right to ask for a free “cuartillo de vino” (half a litre of wine) with his meals.

Berlanga’s joking spirit must have really enjoyed the seriousness of our rituals. But he must have also enjoyed taking part in them and changing them around his way. As far as I know, there is not any cinematographic testimony of his term at the CVC. But I have recently seen in an old video an award presentation on 9 October, 1993, where he, who had been awarded with the Great Honour of the Generalitat Valenciana, gave a speech on behalf of all the award winners. In its modesty, this speech is so creative, opportune and Berlanguian as all his work.

After clearing his throat a few times, Berlanga apologizes and whispers something about the grotesque which, he says, is present in all his life. And then, in case what he just said sounded shocking, he adds: “The flu…”. He greets those present and starts: “The truth is I don’t think the decision to choose me as spokesperson for the award winners is wise, because my tendency to distraction and chaos when I take part in some public event is well known”. He apologizes to Antonio Ferrandis, who has also been given an award, for being he who gives the speech and not Ferrandis, and he is sorry that the actor had not been locked in jail with him during the three months of last summer. His mentioning jail shocks some of those present, until they realize he is talking about “Todos a la cárcel” (“Everybody to Jail”), his latest film at the time, in which Ferrandis had not taken part.

He lists all the merits of the award winners, and when he mentions the women Dorna basketball Club he turns it into “a place with a lot of sentimental memories for those of us who used to loiter near the walls of their school in Godella”. He praises Ferrandis and then, as if he were talking only to him, he tells him an anecdote from the hard times of the post-war about a play, at the María Guerrero theatre, in which José María Rodero recited a monologue to the chicken leg. The drumstick was closely guarded in a corner of the theatre, and one night when José Sacristán, driven by his hunger, decided to “dedicate a more productive monologue to it”, he found, when he turned on the lights, that the whole company was lying in wait.

He uses the anecdote to claim: “We, show business people, continue to have some sort of hungers which are still characteristic of our profession”. And he ends asking that that encounter between artists and sports people, on one side, and the authorities on the other side be the “starting point of a precise and legislated policy for the audiovisual media and sports”.

It is obvious that it is a speech which could easily be given today, especially regarding everything related to the audiovisual media.

Aware of the advanced stage of his disease, the Valencian Council of Culture planned to go to Madrid to pay homage to him several times. However, the worry that we might inconvenience him or the idea that the visit could, inevitably, sound like a goodbye, always stopped us. Also, what would another medal have meant to him? Maybe we were wrong, but we will never know.

In the headquarters of the Valencian Council of Culture, in Museo street, there is a desk with two volumes. Each one of them is on a different stand. They contain all the pictures of its members, both living and dead ones. García Berlanga’s photograph shows him with his unmistakable “julevernesque” air, his broad forehead, his curly hair and silver beard, framing an affable face, with an ironic look.

From time to time I open the volume where Luis is, I look for that page and I think of the dream about the tractor and many others we shared.

Vicente Muñoz Puelles, 2012



[1] MUÑOZ PUELLES, V.: Amor burgués. Barcelona, Tusquets editores, 1981.

[2] MUÑOZ PUELLES, V.: Anacaona. Barcelona, Tusquets editores, 1980.

[3] MUÑOZ PUELLES, V.: Infiernos eróticos. La colección Berlanga. Valencia, La Máscara, 1995.

[4] MUÑOZ PUELLES.: La curvatura del empeine. Barcelona, Tusquets editores, 1996.

[5] AA.VV.: Pierre Molinier. Valencia, IVAM Centro Julio González, 1999.