Sisters author brings the past to life
Last updated 12/14/2021 at Noon
Fernando Aleu is living a fascinating, richly diverse life. A vibrant, handsome man of 92, he has stories, and now a book, that reflect his sense of style, education, and experiences spanning the globe.
He’s a retired neurologist — businessman and patriarch. His charming personality is magnetic, drawing in friends and admirers as effectively as an alluring fragrance. He’s also proud to call himself a Sisters resident.
Growing up in Spain, prior to and during World War II, he witnessed events that shaped history and the man he would become. Enduring three years of the Spanish Civil War, and then World War II, Aleu and his family survived dark, lean, and sad times in Spain.
Along with his career as a neurologist, Aleu managed to flourish in the fragrance business. He saw the opportunity to go into business as another example of synchronicity in his life. Aleu recalled arriving in the United States from Spain. “My mom put my bottle of Agua Lavanda in my suitcase when I wasn’t looking. I was going to Iowa for my neurological residency. My new roommate, Wally Carruthers, mentioned that he liked my fragrance. He put it on and went out for the evening. The next day, he said he had a hot date, and she went crazy about the way he smelled. He wanted to buy a bottle of it. But it was from Spain and not available in the States,” said Aleu, chuckling.
Aleu wrote a letter to the manufacturer in Spain and addressed it to the president of Puig perfume company. That precipitated a meeting and eventually a business partnership lasting for decades. “Some of our products include Prada, Nina Ricci, Paco Rabanne, and Carolina Herrera. We use their name with a commercial arrangement and do well,” he said.
Aleu published his first book in the ninth decade of his life. “The Barcelona Incident” is a historical fiction novel based on events that took place in Barcelona harbor in 1943. A 14-year-old boy at the time, Aleu witnessed the exchange of 4,000 Allied and Nazi prisoners wounded in the bloody campaigns of Dunkirk in northern France, and El Alamein in Africa.
Four huge ships rolled slowly into the eerily quiet Barcelona harbor. Soon after, Aleu saw a line of black limousines drive in, each flying either a fluttering swastika, Union Jack, or Swiss flag. Decades later, the memory would spark the idea to write a book encompassing the people, events, and emotions of those brutal, life-altering times.
Seeing the exchange firsthand required skipping school, disobeying a police officer, and risking severe punishment if they were caught. Aleu’s curiosity and sense of adventure overpowered any fear of repercussions. He and a few friends from his swim team climbed a mountain above the harbor; a perfect vantage point to watch the drama unfolding below. He didn’t understand until later what he was witnessing. But he knew it was an important event.
In 2011, Aleu’s granddaughter Anna asked him to tell her something about his life that left a lasting impression.
“I came up with the Barcelona story,” he said from his home in Pine Meadow Village.
When Anna asked, Aleu was recovering from a hip injury after a skiing accident with his son Alex. He chuckled when he recalled that he was the one who asked his son to race downhill — something he realized soon after was a bad idea. Always on the go, Aleu needed a diversion to get through the slow recovery. He liked Anna’s suggestion that the story would make a great book.
A disciplined man by nature, to write the book he created a regimen to ensure a timely, finished product. After the first few days writing, the hours began to flow effortlessly, and the characters became his cherished, and sometimes conflicted, companions.
Memories floated in, often associated with aromas like the wafting smoke from an elegant German woman’s cigarette or steaming plates of delicious food illuminated under brightly gleaming chandeliers. He recalled his beloved uncle’s invitation to join him at the Ritz to witness the guests there for the exchange. Aleu was mesmerized by what he saw. His uncle saw his nephew’s awe and understood how a boy who’d known hunger, civil war and bombings by Hitler could be captivated by such abundance.
After the guests went to bed and his uncle finished at the hotel, he sat Aleu down and told him the truth behind the splendor. Aleu explained their conversation: “He said, ‘I want you to witness what I’m going to do tomorrow. There are musicians here in the hotel that are a great success, but tonight they have to change their names because they are Jews running away from Germany. They fled to France and were kicked out of France and now they’re here. They are wonderful people.’ I couldn’t understand why the Jews had to change names. I understood more later. That experience made a big impression.”
After the exchange, Aleu and his young friends were trying to understand what was happening to the Jews and other strange activities in Barcelona.
“We saw mysterious trucks coming late at night and wondered what they were carrying and where they were going.
We learned that the Germans were stealing art from European Jewish families and museums and transporting them in the trucks.
At the time the only way to get to South America was through Barcelona.
All the stolen cargo was coming through Barcelona, then on to Buenos Aires, Chile, and Mexico.
The Germans knew they were losing the war and wanted to take something.
One of my friends was a big radio buff and got broadcasts from the BBC talking about what was going on.
Then when Americans established roots in Europe they broadcast stations called Radio Free America.
We were listening to all this,” he explained.
Aleu chose to write his book as historical fiction because he wanted to play with the ironies of life.
“My Jewish character, Max, was the best-looking boy in Europe, and became the ideal look for a German. He looked like the perfect Aryan type, but he was Jewish,” he said. “I wanted the most passionate Nazi to fall in love with that guy. Rosie was a woman who was hypersexual; she didn’t love him, she needed him. Max was one of the 2,000 in Barcelona to be exchanged. Rosie, who was a big shot with the Gestapo, wanted to save him from going to Germany because she knew it would be his death,” Aleu said.
Being a neurologist informed the development of his characters, who are forced to make excruciating choices that pull apart their sense of fidelity to a political belief, moral values, and allegiance to country and loved ones. A believer in redemption and the human ability to adapt and change, Aleu allows some of his characters the chance to redeem themselves from despicable pasts.
“The Barcelona Incident” is doing well in Spain. After it was published in Spanish in 2020, Aleu enjoyed translating it into English. He was assisted by Sisters High School graduate Matthew Cartmill, who now lives in Spain and is an interpreter and translator there. There’s even some talk of the book being turned into a film. Aleu isn’t holding his breath, but if it happens, he’d be ecstatic.
With his characters firmly ensconced on the page, Aleu has begun to miss spending time with them. He’s decided it’s time to write a sequel and rejoin his characters for their next adventure. Aleu’s daughter Rebecca supports his endeavors and admires his ability to bring the past to life.
“Getting to read the book, you see his life experiences traveling on ships, living in Barcelona, and his love of music through the story,” she said.
“The Barcelona Incident” is available at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters.