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Shock Treatment

The Family of Pascual Duarte

by Camilo José Cela, translated by Anthony Kerrigan
Little, Brown, 166 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Journey to the Alcarria: Travels Through the Spanish Countryside

by Camilo José Cela, translated by Frances M. López-Morillas
Atlantic Monthly Press, 139 pp., $8.95 (paper)

The Hive

by Camilo José Cela, translated by J.M. Cohen
Noonday Press, 249 pp., $8.95

San Camilo, 1936

by Camilo José Cela, translated by John H.R. Polt
Duke University Press, 302 pp., $14.95

Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son

by Camilo José Cela, translated by J.S. Bernstein
Cornell University Press, 206 pp., $9.95 (paper)


After the death of General Franco, King Juan Carlos appointed the novelist Camilo José Cela to Spain’s Parliament and asked him to help oversee the literary style of the new democratic constitution. Cela remembers a Senate vote in which he managed to avoid taking a position with the same steadfast, principled evasion that has been a theme in his fiction: “President Fontan said, ‘Senator Cela, you vote neither yes nor no, and you don’t abstain?’ I stood and said respectfully, ‘No, Mr. President, I am absent.”’1

Cela was in his sixties at the time, just beginning to be recognized as an old statesman of Spanish letters. His companion reputation, as a clowning, sometimes combative literary stuntman, had matured years earlier: since he published his first novel in 1942, Cela has known that being “absent” draws attention. He has turned non-commitment into a weird form of advocacy, defying the regular views of propriety and objecting to narrow officialism in Spain’s governing and religious bureaucracies even as he occasionally has held positions of some power. When he was in his twenties he fought for Franco in the Civil War and worked for him as a censor, criticizing the Republicans who lost and left the country; then he wrote violent and depressing novels that made him, briefly, Spanish censorship’s most public victim. In the Fifties and Sixties, he sought and gained entry into the conservative Royal Academy, and terrified it by putting out a book of sexual expressions barred from the academy’s official dictionary. At many points in his career, including the speech he gave accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989, he has argued for the writer’s independence. Other times he has appeared to argue that the independent writer has nothing to say.

Cela’s great talent for savaging everyone else’s hypocrisies while guarding his own privacy often seems more defense than offense, a strategy learned, perhaps, in the early years of Franco’s muffling dictatorship. A writer then needed huge resources of self-preservation, for in the period following the Civil War Spain supplied little monetary or mental nourishment to feed a literary career. With the final victory of the Nationalists in 1939, the best-known intellectuals and artists, the philosopher Ortega y Gasset and the historian Americo Castro, the film director Luis Buñuel and the cellist Pablo Casals, had moved elsewhere in Europe or gone to Mexico, Argentina, or the United States. The new cultural bureaucracy in Spain seemed unlikely to produce figures rivaling the exiles’ reputation internationally: in their book Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy, the historians Raymond Carr and Juan Pablo Fusi have described how universities began teaching that the Enlightenment and modern philosophy were “anti-Spanish.”2 Journalists reported on Franco’s happy family life or rehearsed Spain’s old glories, the wealth of its sixteenth-century empire and lost “unity” under the Catholic Counter-Reformation. A population dragged back by war to nineteenth-century income levels was entertained by literature about triumphing Christians; new editions of Ben Hur and Quo Vadis became best sellers.

With open complaint risky, the most ambitious writing might at least try to record Spain’s trauma. Cela’s first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte (1942), was sophisticated in design but close in purpose to sheer documentary reporting. The inner life of the title character, a murderous peasant, was of less consequence than the concrete details of his training in crime and aggression. The book had a tone of deadpan observation; ideas and feelings were alluded to but overwhelmed by wit and irony.

The novel’s cynicism shocked and became extremely influential; a fact inevitably repeated about Cela is that this first creation is, after Don Quixote, the most widely read of all Spanish novels. Yet it may not be called typical of his style because Cela, far from plagiarizing his own early success, has shown extraordinary technical resolve, creating a different shape and narrative technique and language for each project. Some of his novels are plotless, extremely self-conscious and aggressive literary performances; in a parallel career as a journalist and essayist, he has produced hundreds of tentative essays on literature and diffident, wry newspaper columns on Spanish politics.

The five books available in English, a small portion of Cela’s published work (over eighty volumes in Spanish), have a wide enough span of both chronology and form to give the non-Spanish reader a sense of his stylistic dexterity: after Pascual Duarte, there are Journey to the Alcarria (1948), a small travel sketch; The Hive (1951), a bitter experimental novel of Madrid with several hundred characters; Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son (1953), the casual, aphoristic notebook of a senile English widow; and San Camilo, 1936 (1969), which uses real and invented historical figures and events, and scant punctuation, to describe the first days of civil war.

The characters in Cela’s fiction, by contrast, have been consistently humble and confined. His favorite types are prostitutes, criminals, and mental defectives with poor odds for changing their lives. Frequently, too, there is a country-city opposition—Cela thinks the “big cities are responsible for the downfall of humanity”—but the main difference seems to be the quality of misery each environment produces, the city offering clutter and depravity, the country a purer, more epic defeat. Cela writes in a prologue to The Hive: “I wanted to develop the idea that the healthy man has no ideas. I sometimes think that religious, moral, social, and political ideas are nothing but manifestations of an imbalance in the nervous system.” The remark sounds the same joking hostility that appears behind some of his outrageous public episodes—his attempt once to draw water up his rump on a television talk show—but it is more than a throw-away line written to upset. Cela’s novels imagine a world restricted to coarse biological demands, one in which, as we read in The Hive, “There are truths one feels in one’s body, such as hunger or the need to make water.” He writes constantly, but not from any belief in literature’s edifying potential; he loves to say in interviews that, had Shakespeare and Dante and Cervantes never lived, the world still would have turned.

Cela was born May 11, 1916, in Iria-Flavia, a village in the isolated province of Galicia in northwest Spain. His father, Camilo José Cela y Fernández, was a conservative customs official and part-time journalist, a student of esperanto and reader of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. His mother, Camila Enmanuela Trulock y Bertorini, was the daughter of an English manager of the West Galicia Railway; her Italian grandfather, the Bertorini side, was the engineer who designed it. According to the memoirs of his childhood, the mother had a more “aesthetic understanding of life” than her husband, and an “almost pathological tenderness” that made her seem like a Tolstoy heroine. From her chaotic, intuitive character Cela learned to think of images gliding among the five senses: “this rose smells like the silhouette of that bridge; velvet is soft to the touch like Beethoven’s Für Elise.”

Cela has said he wishes he had never grown past five or six, but he describes himself in his memoirs as a depressive child, slow to read and write and prone to lie in bed and cry without provocation. Much joy seems to have come from stories of odd relatives such as Uncle Claudio, who lived with eighteen children by marriage and thirty or forty illegitimate ones in the same house, and Aunt Ana, who left her large fortune to the town druggist so he could put cats to sleep without their feeling any pain. His foreign heritage also did him good:

Feeling oneself connected to various geographies doesn’t seem to me any disadvantage, not least for the writer. Some bloods polish the roughness of others and the mix of them all lets one see things with a certain aplomb, with the necessary coldness and with sufficient perspective.

The pirates from Cornwall, and all of Cela’s other English and Italian forebears, served two purposes. By mixing up his ancestry, they saved him from thinking too much about pure Spanishness, a recurring national worry since the expulsion of Jews and Moors in 1492. They also gave him an early appreciation of detachment.

In Madrid, where the family moved when he was nine, Cela was the apathetic charge of various Catholic institutions, which he slyly says had no effect on his life-long skepticism and only pushed him to educate himself by walking around the city. Already when he was eighteen and preparing to be a doctor he felt more attracted to literature, particularly to Nietzsche as his father had been, and to lectures by the poet Pedro Salinas, who noticed and encouraged him. He published some poems (he had little experience writing prose), which came out in Argentina owing to connections he had there.

In 1934, as he began studying medicine, Cela was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was just one of the several severe physical problems to bother him. (He was frequently sick and survived a bad fall as a child, and he was shot in the thigh in the Civil War. When he was already well-known someone in a nightclub brawl stabbed him in the buttocks; the wound occasionally has intruded on the sedentary writing life and, according to Cela’s son, forced him to seek relief in some twenty operations.) But the illness led to a stay in the sanatorium, the setting of an early novel, Pabellón de Reposo (Rest Home), and during recovery to a thorough reading of a seventy-volume collection of Spanish writers. Most of his literary tastes formed during this one intense period of study, which yielded the discovery, among others, of the vitriolic satirist Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), whom Cela calls “the most astonishing writer the Spanish language has ever had.”3 Prolonged sickness must also have contributed to the resigned, static feeling of Cela’s novels, though it does not appear to have driven him to introspection.

Tuberculosis at first kept him from fighting in the Civil War, but Cela reapplied and was accepted into Franco’s Nationalist army in 1937, and served until he was wounded in early 1938. Here begins the part of his career that later saw charges, coming mostly from younger novelists writing in the 1980s, of comfortable, even happy cooperation with the fascists. There is a famous letter of March 1938, in which Cela, discharged because of his injury, applies to the Madrid office of Franco’s “Investigation and Vigilance” forces and offers “facts about the conduct of certain people which could be useful” to the Glorious National Movement. After the war he contributed to fascist publications, including a piece saluting the campaign of a Nationalist army captain, and had a ludicrous assignment with the government censoring harmless newsletters: New Pharmacy, Messenger from the Heart of Jesus, and the Bulletin of the School for Railroad Orphans. (Cela was always short of money, since acceptance by the new government did not necessarily pay well; at different points he tried movie-acting and apprentice bullfighting, and, right after the war, writing an advice column for a women’s magazine.)

  1. 1

    Cambio 16 January 8, 1990.

  2. 2

    Raymond Carr and Juan Pablo Fusi, Spain: Dictatorship to Democracy (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981).

  3. 3

    In addition to his humor and difficult style, Quevedo’s scandalous career as a spy in Naples, where he alternately alienated and ingratiated himself with Spanish royalty, and his ability to shock, insult, and provoke duels form an interesting model for Cela’s literary education.

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