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Shock Treatment

Cela has declined to outline his allegiances during this period, and he has appeared rude, calling the war a scuffle between equally idiotic extremes, and in one glib interview, a “rugby game.” But the intellectuals he associated with may give a truer sense of his inclinations. He was close to a group, among them the ethnographer Julio Caro Baroja and the historian Gregorio Marãnon, who wrote for Falangist journals but tried to keep open to writers from before the war who were now banished from the lists of approved reading; Carr and Fusi describe how several in the group were punished by the government for their soft attempts at liberal-mindedness and quietly “deserted” the regime. Cela’s defense of those years is abrupt: “It’s good military and political strategy to keep from dying when you can’t yet kill the enemy.”


The publication of The Family of Pascual Duarte in 1942 while he was studying law did much to rescue Cela from further accusations of conformity. The novel, his fastest and most entertaining, is told in the form of the confession of Pascual Duarte, a bumpkin from the poorest part of Spain who has killed several of his family and acquaintance. He describes shooting his beloved dog, stabbing a horse to death, and raping a woman in a cemetery (“I bit her until blood came, until she was worn out and docile as a young mare”), and remembers the hideous departures of his retarded younger brother, found bobbing in a tub of oil (this after the boy’s ears were earlier chewed off by a hog), and of his father, locked frothing in a cupboard to die from rabies. Cela playfully appends “testimonials” verifying Pascual’s confession and execution in which two myopic witnesses, a priest and a guard, quibble over his character. Was he a hyena or a “poor tamed lamb,” deranged or serene and repentant at the end? Both condemner and pardoner are poor judges, but so is Pascual, who admits to the noblest and the basest feelings and constantly apologizes for his narrative’s disorder.

The novel appalled Franco’s censors, who quickly held up the second edition and rather comically continued to worry years later that reading this “abnormal” writer might induce an “inexplicable physical malaise.” (They rarely put the threat in political terms.) The reaction seemed to confirm Cela’s parody of the pathetic vulnerability of honest writing under Franco: in fact the fictional transcriber who claims to have found the criminal’s manuscript and scraped off its more “repugnant intimacies” is less squeamish than the real censors were, since he thinks its publication valuable as a “model to be shunned.”

Despite the ban, copies printed in a garage in the city of Burgos sold out, and Cela was told by critics that he had started a new protest literature, tremendismo, that criticized Spain’s general decay using descriptions of highly concentrated decay. Arguments for the novel’s political message point out that Pascual confesses in the early days of Civil War, and his last victim, killed before the novel opens, is a rich landlord; speaking for the Swedish Academy, Knut Ahnlund said that “the story of this matricide can be read as an allegory, as a saga of the tremendous misfortunes and discords of this country.” Cela himself vaguely agrees that Pascual is hateful to society’s “burghers, institutionalists, and god-fearers” (enemies broad enough to be found on either side of Spain’s political divide), and is executed because “keeping him alive was too inconvenient; the truth is that we didn’t know what to do with him.”

But he is right to remind readers who call him “tremendous” that Spanish writers have a long-established habit of describing all the possible pleasures and deformations of the human body, practiced as vividly by moralizing authors as it was in picaresque adventure stories. In the Little Sermons on Sin (1438), the Archpriest of Talavera fights wickedness with outrageous misogyny, insults, and threats of gross physical punishment that excite more than they persuade. His advice to a woman stupid enough to marry someone younger: “Let her take comfort in her evil senility, her tanned old hide, her wrinkled belly, her stinking mouth and rotten teeth! For a youth a pretty girl, and burn the rancid hag!” Later there is Cervantes, whom we might expect to be more wild than a priest. But it is still surprising how hard one must look for the sweetness that made Don Quixote seem suitable for adaptation to Broadway; the Impossible Dream is lost among scenes in which the hero is thrashed cartoonishly flat, or comic episodes based on someone’s trying to contain a bowel movement.

If Cela contributed a new kind of shock to the Spanish novel, it was his juxtaposition of drollery and artifice with an enormous sense of resignation, all appearing in the opening paragraph of Pascual Duarte:

I am not, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax. Then, we are all sent down various paths to the same end: death. Some men are ordered down a path lined with flowers, others are asked to advance along a road sown with prickly pears. They first gaze about serenely and in the aroma of their joyfulness they smile the smile of the innocent while the latter writhe under the violent sun of the plain and knit their brows like varmints at bay. There is a world of difference between adorning one’s flesh with rouge and eau-de-cologne and doing it with tattoos that later will never wear off…

The clean, informal prose describing such an inflexible bitterness is as important as the murders are in setting up the novel’s brutal atmosphere.

Because the stories are similar, The Family of Pascual Duarte is sometimes compared with Camus’s The Stranger, which came out in France a few months earlier, as an example of Spanish existentialism. But Cela finds documenting the filth in this world more important than the giddy intellectual questioning of Camus. It might make more sense to compare him, as the novel’s translator Anthony Kerrigan has, to the foul-mouthed nihilism practiced by Celine. Pascual’s problem cannot be put abstractly. His rage is set off like “a nest of vipers” and soothed by the smell of his own dirty pants.

In 1944, after he had published Pabellón de Reposo and his third novel, Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes (New Adventures and Misfortunes of Lazarillo de Tormes) about a twentieth-century pícaro, Cela married. In 1946 he had a son, Camilo, Jr., and in the summer of that year began the first of several books about his walking trips through Spain. Since, outside of the accounts of writers who were Republican sympathizers during the Spanish Civil War (Spender, Orwell, Hemingway, and others), modern Spain has been seen in England and America mostly as a brilliant travel itinerary, it is worth comparing Cela’s approach with the famous travel books written by English hispanophiles. One has merely to look at the titles to see how far he is from the more reflective and sentimental English examples. Cela doesn’t seek a personal, historical interpretation of the kind found in V.S. Pritchett’s The Spanish Temper. He doesn’t follow Somerset Maugham’s Don Fernando in calling up an emblematic figure to try to “explain” Spain, nor does he stay any place long enough for the patient anthropology of Gerald Brenan’s diary of the Alpujarras region, South of Granada.

His Journey to the Alcarria (1948) is about moving through places and not understanding them; it contains a whole philosophy of being “on foot.” In the first chapter we see Cela in Madrid studying maps of the region he is preparing to visit, a dry, honey-producing backwater northeast of Madrid. The solitude of planning in the middle of the night and the distractions of the dirty city exhaust him—he “gets tired all at once, like a wounded bird”—and as he falls asleep he decides to skip dry research and make the trip “a bit haphazardly, rather like a fire on a threshing floor.”

Cela’s trip follows the effort of Spanish writers at the start of the century, the essayist Miguel de Unamuno, the poet Antonio de Machado, Ortegay Gassett, and others, to find some of Spain’s residual greatness in the countryside. But he prefers strictly recording the present to reflecting on more cosmic matters; the “quarrel between reason and faith, between the European consciousness and the medieval soul” that Pritchett describes in Unamuno shrinks here to a fight between the hungry traveler and a vendor who won’t sell him her raw tomatoes. Conversations are ritualistic back-and-forths about the weather or the direction a road is taking, and much time is absorbed by naps and looking for water. Exposition is omitted; Cela describes scenes that are already underway and leaves off before they finish, always smothering the impulse to interpret:

An old light-colored ox with long horns and a sharp thin face like a knight of Toledo is drinking from the basin of a brimming fountain beside the washing place, barely dipping his grizzled muzzle into the water. When he has finished drinking he lifts his head and passes behind the women, humble and wise. He seems like a loyal eunuch, bored and discreet, who guards a harem as turbulent as the break of day. The traveler follows the animal’s slow, resigned progress with perplexed eyes. Sometimes the traveler feels transfixed by things he cannot possibly explain.

The traveler is drawn to pitiful people, lonely children and deformed idiots whose external tics he relates rather than their intimacies; his reassurances to a serious little boy that he too loves picking his nose is the book’s most personal exchange. He enjoys their customary repressed banality and interferes only in private, with casual ironies in the commentary. Usually, too, whenever the war comes up he tries to divert the talk:

The traveler walks down a few narrow streets and smokes a cigarette with an old man at the door of the house.

This seems like a fine town.”

It’s not bad. But you should have seen it before the war, when the airplanes came.”

The people of Brihuega talk about before and after the airplanes the way Christians talk about before and after the Flood.

Now it’s not even a shadow of what it was before.”

The old man feels contemplative and mournful. The traveler looks down at the pebbles on the street and lets his words fall slowly and almost at random.

Good-looking girls too, from what I’ve seen.”

Discomfort at the sight of his own emotion is the sour side of Cela’s motto that “all things are to be found in the vineyard of the Lord,” a phrase that can sound either exceptionally tolerant or pessimistic. The obsession with external things seems motivated by an almost complete blockage of interior feeling, a small version, perhaps, of the entire country’s inability to discuss the war except in muddled symbols. Cela states the problem in his compressed manner when he writes that “the traveler is a man whose life is criss-crossed with renunciations.” On a train he feels “as though he were walking through an immense warehouse full of coffins, peopled with souls in torment bearing the double baggage of their sins and their works of charity”; in a romantic garden he forbids himself indulging in “delicate, unhealthy lines from Shelley.” This sense of his hopelessness and restraint, and of Spain’s, is responsible for the book’s deep melancholy.

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