In matters of gunpowder and torches, the Spanish render the rest of humanity, even the Chinese, amateurs. Many places have grown traditions around creation and destruction, but the creation is usually a pantomime. At Nevada’s Burning Man, the finished “Man,” an artsy pyre assembled over a week, resembles a dust-bowl windmill more than it does a da Vinci. In the Buddhist temples of Malaysian Borneo, the “money” thrown into clay kilns, so the smoke may rise and reach the wallets of dead relatives, is slips of colored paper, minimally adorned.
Not so for ninots. Over the course of the year, the falleros, members of an ancient guild of Valencian artisans, construct hundreds of these extraordinary sculptures, ranging from as little as six or eight feet tall, to as much as 60 or 80. In mid-March, abiding by an orthodox procedure that begins with La Cridà (“The Call”) and then La Plantà (“The Installation”), the falleros park the ninots in stone plazas across Valencia’s compact downtown. Each plaza contains multiple ninots arranged in dramatic scenes, called falles.
Along the Mediterranean coast, in a string of fire-based festivals, one town or another is setting itself ablaze from March to September, and each community has its preferred tinder. Ninots are Valencia’s. According to the most common myth, the practice began as spring cleaning. In the 18th century, Valencia’s carpenters would clean out their shops, and in the process throw away wooden frames that had held their oil lamps in the winter darkness. The burning of these lamp stands became a yearly event. Somewhere down the line, shopkeepers began adorning the stands with old clothes to create effigies. Valencian humor, which is sharp and political, turned the effigies into satire. From there the ritual became what it is today—the city’s annual declaration of its opinion on the rest of Spain.
Traditionally built of wood and a thick paste like papier-mâché, ninots now tend to involve, with a wave of environmental indifference, Styrofoam. Finished in bright colors, they look like they’re made of frosting. Each is a masterpiece of ancient craft turned to modern sarcasm. Neptune, saddened by the state of the sea, sits dejected, looking pathetic. A six-story pija, Spain’s version of a Desperate Housewife, pulls a Visa card as big as a highway billboard from an Italian handbag the size of a house. A city councilman gets his back rubbed by a topless dancer—in front of the real city hall. Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush burned together in 2006. Hollywood rarely fares well.
Outsiders, faced with a city’s worth of three-dimensional, firehouse-size portraits destined for quick transformation to ash, tend to react with disbelief. Around a temporary statue of the Virgin Mary assembled of flowers, flummoxed Brits or Moroccans ask the local waiters, “You don’t keep them?” Only one ninot survives each year, preserved in a museum. The rest are put to flames on the last night of Las Falles, called LaCremà, “The Cremation.”
To understand why, you must look past the flames—and the noise. This isn’t always easy. The valenciano appetite for excess is dramatic, even by Spanish standards. Valencians are the country’s party enthusiasts, playing the role that residents of New Orleans play in the U.S. Though 30 years have passed since Spain was a dictatorship, foreign images of the country still can dwell in Franco-era clichés. At first, Las Falles confirms those clichés. Valencia looks like the Spain of postcards—flamenco and bulls and paella. Falles princesses in lace dresses and tall hair combs dance the sevillana, stomping their heels, looking like they stepped right out of a Sargent. Two nights before the big fire, women in a miles-long procession, most of a certain age, pass through the city center at midnight, with their shawls whipping around them, bringing flowers to the Virgin statue. The outsize drama, the violent self-possession in the choreography, make you pause. Each day at 2 p.m., a mascletà—10 minutes of explosions made by lighting off barrels of gunpowder and rocket propellant, just for the deafening boom they produce—draws thousands to the city’s main plaza.
But as in New Orleans, Valencia’s tone of unrepressed joy can mask a core of morbidity. As a country, Spain is less unified than most. A condition of Spanishness is less a matter of spirit than one of financial interdependence and historical habit. For many people along the edges, far from the inland bureaucrats, Spain is a marriage kept alive for the kids. Many in Valencia will say they speak not Español but Castellano, bumping the national lingua franca down a peg to a regional language, equal to Galician, Basque, and Catalan. Street signs can change language with region, for example, which no one tells you when you rent a car.
The 50 million tourists who come annually to Spain—outnumbering the Spaniards—tend to stick to the beaches and the bullfights, where it’s hard to catch more than a whiff of the disunity. But at Las Falles, the regional rifts that define modern Spain are at the heart of the event, represented in the sculptures.
At the end of the week, the singing and the constant explosions have become the Spanish vuvuzela, and wonder has converted to exhaustion. The final parades start just before midnight, and the people of each neighborhood march toward their plaza, sometimes singing, sometimes just stumbling, until they reach the ninots. Fire trucks spray water on the nearby facades in a desultory way, but Valencia’s buildings are stone, and most of the time even the hook-and-ladders let the flames go where they may.
It takes half an hour to destroy an average ninot. As the figures burn, the Valencians dance awhile, stop and watch the flames, then dance some more. Older men critique each sculpture’s inner construction and note the precise manner of its collapse; older princesses console the younger ones (whose starring role has ended), until the year’s misgivings disappear into harmless immolation.