The Family of Pascual Duarte
Journey to the Alcarria: Travels Through the Spanish Countryside
San Camilo, 1936
Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son
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.”’
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.” 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 …