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Shock Treatment

But Cela regulates his prose so perfectly that his reticence seems both real and a literary device made up for the book. The contradictions in the impossible title of “the traveler,” one who belongs neither in the city nor with the peasants, recall the joke of one of Cela’s favorite novelists, the Basque Pío Baroja (1879–1956), who wrote in a guestbook for his title and profession “a humble man and a wanderer” but remarked later that the tag was “literary fantasy”—he might as easily be called “a proud and sedentary person.” A few years ago, Cela appeared to spoof the element of puton in the improvised simplicity of his old role: he recently starred in a Spanish television series that recreated the trip, this time going flamboyantly in a Rolls Royce, with a beautiful black model, Oteliña, for his chauffeur.

Since the early 1940s Cela had been taking notes on his own life and on the hostile atmosphere in Madrid after the Civil War. He drew on them to write The Hive (1951), a novel of three hundred characters stunned to complete apathy by the poverty and lingering suspicions of the postwar period. Cela complained later that young Spanish imitators usurped his “objective objectivism,” a technique fitting together small, plotless sketches to accumulate what he called a whole “slice of life, drawn without charity,” and used it to write corrupted political literature. But censors saw some form of protest in his version of a city walked by zombies, thieves, and hypocrites. The novel had to find a publisher in Argentina, and even there suffered some slight revision from Perón’s fault finders.

The lack of a unified point of view in The Hive has drawn comparisons with Dos Passos’s swarming picture of New York in Manhattan Transfer and with the mobile camera techniques of some neorealist films. We follow types—prostitutes and businessmen, fake poets and vindictive matrons—over forty-eight hours in 1942, three years after the Civil War finished; violence is common, but less spectacular than it was in Pascual Duarte because people have absorbed and accepted it. A boy singing flamenco in the street learns to deflect a drunk woman’s kick with an ingenious failure of comprehension:

The boy has the face, not of a person, but of a domestic animal, of a poor dirty beast, a powerful farmyard beast. He is too young in years for cynicism—or resignation—to have slashed its mark across his face, and therefore it has a beautiful, candid stupidity, the expression of one who understands nothing of anything that happens.

Tallying a schedule for any of the characters is difficult since chapters switch between morning and evening of both days and rereport incidents according to different witnesses. As the novel “progresses” every few pages see a new but identically sweet, duped prostitute or girlfriend, and it becomes hard to tell people, especially women, apart. Hints of a traditional plot appear with the murder of an old woman, but come to nothing. Instead, we get to overhear dull speeches on logic by the victim’s academician neighbor and talk next door of a little girl’s constipation. The case is never solved.

A foolish “political” poet, Martin Marco, who contributes to right-wing journals but still hopes the authorities will “pull down the big cities and build them up again, all alike, with perfectly straight streets and central heating in every building,” connects tangentially to the lives of several other characters; his generous sister and her husband are among the handful of likable creations in the novel. But he is inflated to only slightly more than two-dimensionality, enough to contain both Cela’s sad shame for the insecure writer and a neat satire of intellectual pretense. A street sign commemorating two dead playwrights confuses him:

Damn it all, they must have done something to be so famous. Only—oh, well—who’s the bright lad who dares say it?”

Like fluttering moths, unruly chips of conscious thought drift through his mind.

Yes: an era of the Spanish stage…a cycle which they undertook to complete and succeeded in completing…theater faithfully mirroring the healthy customs of Andalusia…. It all smacks of charity to me, it belongs with suburban flag days and all that. What can one do about it? Anyway, nobody will budge them now. Here they are, and not God Almighty Himself can budge them.”

It perturbs Martin that there exists no strict classification of intellectual values, no tidy list of brains.

Martin’s fate seems likely to be as blandly depressing as the rest: in an epilogue a few days later he wanders stupidly through Madrid unaware that he is sought by the police, whether for the widow’s murder or for old political associations, we are not sure.

With action broken into the smallest possible units for study, The Hive collects so many details that it threatens to become an abstraction. Cela remarks in the prologue that the properly impartial observation of people and situations, while concentrating on the present, is based on something eternal and immovable, perhaps on laws from biology:4

History, unfailing history, goes against the grain of ideas. Or to the margin of them…. History is like the circulation of blood or the digestion of food. The arteries and the stomach, through which the historic substance runs and is digested, are of hard and cold flint.

The idea that history has no meaning suggests the influence of Unamuno’s theory about Spain, developed over several essays, of intrahistoria, the real, organic experience of the people running underneath the political record, which is a distraction. People are helpless, failed by politicians and books and gods. Yet Cela’s study and arrangement of that life gives him a domineering authority over the entire novel. When he appears on occasion disguised as a wry, omniscient narrative voice to remind us that “we none of us ever understand with full clarity what it is that happens to us,” he is like a scientist evaluating his diseased lab sample; at times the novel has the detached and assured tone of a clinical report.

Cela’s next novel concentrates on a single delusion. Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is supposed to be the notebook of an English woman gone crazy since her son drowned in the Aegean Sea. (In a preface Cela pretends to have met the woman on the trip to the Alcarria.) The diary is less the unfolding of a life over time than it is the grouping, under 213 headings, of witty, completely illogical thoughts and incestuous tributes to the dead son. Sometimes we are asked to remember a fact, the son’s old girlfriend or where he used to live, but the chapters build on one another only as the later entries, written as Mrs. Caldwell becomes further unbalanced, are woollier than the early ones.

Each section is a busy collision of the general motto announced at the beginning with the peculiar associations that flow from it. Here is Chapter 52, “The Skin, That Seismograph”:

When the human race manages not to feel too vile, it will use the skin, that great invention, for a seismograph.

For my part, my son, I can tell you that I feel very happy when a shiver runs up my spine, or when the light hair on my arms stands on end, or when I notice a chill and somewhat rough skin brushing across my temples.

Then I understand that a tiny, blind fish comes out of your eyes.

It is not Cela’s goal to speculate on the universal mother-son relationship, or to propose, by the novel’s close, a theory of mental illness. Madness is felt, not understood, by the disconnection of reading so many hermetic prose poems as a novel.


After he wrote Mrs. Caldwell Cela slowly confirmed his place among Spain’s literary elite, in part by way of another notorious episode. His son writes that in 1953 Cela arrived broke in Venezuela just as the dictator there, Marcos Pérez Jiménez, decided to sponsor a nationalist novel. He got the commission. (Venezuela’s minister of the interior apparently had considered asking Camus or Hemingway.) The Venezuelans were disappointed when he produced La Catira (The Blond, 1955), a sadistic story about a runaway bride called Primitiva Sanchez, set in the Venezuelan plains and told in dialect, but the giant sum Cela was paid made him rich. He bought a house in Majorca and in 1956 started a journal there, Papeles de Son Armadans, that extended some courageous openings to writers ignored by Franco, resisted the regime’s centralizing insistence on Castilian Spanish with poems printed in Galician and Catalan, and published solid literary criticism, especially on poetry. In Majorca he also arranged for a constant round of readings and concerts to take place in his house and organized important literary conferences. (Understandably, these contributions, which he called “exactly the opposite” of combative, were later counted as important in the Nobel committee’s decision to honor him.)

Through the magazine Cela published several sketches and essays, a collaboration with doodles by Picasso, whom he visited for the first time when the painter was eighty, and a dramatic poem, María Sabina (1967). He also continued writing travel books and finished another novel, Tobogán de Hambrientos (Toboggan of Hungry People). He won his campaign to enter the conservative Royal Spanish Academy in 1957, and appeased doubting cynics by having reporters photograph him nude in the shower on the morning of his initiation.

In 1968 Cela issued through his own publishing house the two-volume Diccionario Secreto, an insanely thorough and erudite collection of obscene definitions ignored by the dictionary of the Royal Academy. The first part lists hundreds of ways to say “testicles” drawn from obscure tropes by writers from Spain’s Golden Age, lexicons of regional Spanish and Latin American variants, commonly understood equivalents such as eggs and the number two, and relevant slang phrases like nadar sin calabazas, literally “swimming without your pumpkins.” The second book uses the same method for a longer study of urine and the penis.

Despite its glee at shocking Spain’s prudes, the dictionary might be Cela’s most earnest attempt to convince his readers of something; he used the ideas from the introduction for his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1989. From the Greeks, he writes, have come two theories of language. One says that people’s choice of words is fluid, always subject to new agreements; the other, which he supports, sees a necessary relationship between things and their names. Spain is rich in this second, natural language, but the government’s inhibiting bureaucracy and timid writers have favored the first view and created an unnatural “acceptable” speech, based on euphemism, that “looks for cleanliness not in what is said but in how it is said.”

This corruption is not a problem just of nationality—it is to be found as well in Americans’ embarrassed substitution of “rooster” and “donkey” for rougher terms—but the challenge of the book seems meant particularly for censors in Spain who at that time had only recently begun loosening their views. Although censorship there was mostly Catholic-controlled, Cela has a vague theory attributing the origins of Spain’s facility for euphemism to the Jews who stayed in Spain after 1492 and had to convert to Catholicism. Compared with the rowdy medieval poets and priests, he writes, the conversos were “virtuous in their conduct and prudent in their writing and their speech, making show of a reserve not so much calculated as it was deeply felt, adequate to their mentality, and as useful to their conscience as it was effective for their ends.” In a different essay Cela argues that intolerance beginning under Ferdinand and Isabella was due not to Spain’s cultural deprivation after 1492 but to the deformation of Catholicism by nonbelievers who stayed: “The identification of Church and State is an oriental concept—Moorish or Jewish, never Christian.” The theory is probably more cranky than anti-Semitic: in his childhood memoirs Cela writes that “the Jews have all my sympathy, and the state of Israel is one of history’s most curious and plausible historical experiments.”5 And among other things it does not appear to allow for evidence that Fernando de Rojas, author of a dialogue novel, La Celestina (1499), which is one of the memorably bawdy books in Spanish literature and which Cela himself adapted to modern Spanish, was a converso.

The reasons Cela gives for his extreme hatred of official-sounding language (among the changes he proposed in the 1978 constitution was removing the phrase “political pluralism” because he “didn’t like it”) reveal the hesitating nature of his rebellion, which denies the authority of people but remains loyal to a powerfully static order that he imagines organizing the material world. Cela’s ambivalence is not that of the Anglo-American liberal wondering how to preserve the best parts of tradition or puzzling over the intellectual traps of different ideologies. Those worries for him are histrionics: free, unpolluted expression accurately “calls things by their names.” His son recalls walking in the forest with Cela when he was a boy and watching him quiz strangers on their songs and sayings and the names of local creeks and boulders, which he then repeated reverently. Cela himself has written that he rarely begins work on the theme or plot of a book until he finds its perfect, natural title.

His preference for the colloquial also makes some of his stunts more plausible as serious gestures. Perhaps his extravagant appearances on Spanish television and the flip exchanges in the Senate are intended partly as attacks on the lazy misuse of language. Not surprisingly for one so attuned to the danger of words used badly, in a crisis Cela frequently has resorted to the argumentative force of mute actions: as a boy he went on hunger strikes when feeling peevish, as an adolescent he tried running away, and as a young man he got into frequent fights from which he still carries scars. The adult Cela’s attacks usually have been verbal, but he still has been ruthless in punishing the boring as well as the dishonest: Cela’s son describes him at a party enduring a socialite’s thoughtless chatter as long as he could and then vengefully attributing to her his own huge fart.

San Camilo, 1936 (1969) continues the contest between humility and exhibitionism, setting an archive full of details about the beginning of the Civil War amid the broken thoughts of a twenty-year-old poet in Madrid. (The poet’s medical studies, illness, and middle-class feelings suggest Cela’s own life at the outset of the war, even though another minor character is named Camilo José Cela.) Events triggering the war are described: we see the murder and burial of the monarchist martyr Calvo Sotelo that precipitated Franco’s rebellion in Morocco, the outbreak of “Glorious National Uprising” on July 18, 1936 (coincidentally the feast day in honor of Cela’s patron Saint Camillus, also the patron of hospitals), and the first skirmishes. Cela plugs in period trivia that he spent years compiling, droning radio coverage of Spanish competitors in the Tour de France that year and advertisements for beauty aids.

Once introduced these facts are swiftly embalmed. Politicians appear meanly assembled in brothels (Republicans and Republican-sympathizing journalists are seen as especially depraved), and partisans left and right get reduced to sordid equivalence (“I murder or am murdered you murder or are murdered he murders or is murdered, it doesn’t matter much”). Most often the novel has the narrator masturbating and mumbling rank fantasies into a mirror:

…no, don’t kill her, hit her on the mouth but don’t kill her…. Magdalena has no tattoos but she does have scars, sores, and bruises, scars from two Caesareans and various boils, rose-colored sores with greenish flecks, bruises from the bites of whoregobblers, the point is to be able to recognize corpses easily, they ought to tattoo a number on people’s backs so they could never get away…

The witty, monotonous, abusive voice in the narrator’s monologue is the same one Cela uses to describe the Communist leader La Pasionaria whipping up a Republican crowd, the same one quoting a newspaper account of two lovers electrocuted that summer in New York, the same one tracking dozens of made-up side characters. Some of these, like the narrator’s girlfriend Transito/Toisha, change names; others, such as Matiítas, a homosexual clerk in a condom shop, die suddenly in violent assaults or accidents (he is sitting ecstatically on a rifle when it goes off) but continue to be present as rotten corpses. One is never sure who is talking, thinking, or doing, which is the point, since

…we Spaniards are all guilty, the living, the dead, and those of us who are going to die, do not disguise your pain as anger or as fear, no, not as fear either, anger and fear are stronger than you they will grip you without your going to look for them, without your watering them with your wild rabbit’s tears, spit words out of your mouth, strip yourself of words, wash yourself of words, which all mean the same thing, blood and stupidity, insomnia, hatred and tedium…

The battering style produces a rich musical hysteria belonging neither to the narrator nor to collective Madrid. But the novel’s evaluation of Spain’s problems sometimes sounds naively gloomy. “Man is an avaricious and needy beast,” and war is an infection the beast catches. If responsible government means that “rulers have the obligation not to cough or spit little spiders of mange on the ruled,” Cela accuses the country’s rulers of having coughed.

In an epilogue a thoughtful uncle explains that the fight between the fascists and the left is, like the Inquisition, one of Spain’s periodic, purging epidemics in which honor is attained only by self-preservation and by believing in something “other than history, that great fallacy.” After the novel’s earlier, rather square equation of the disarray in prewar Spain with excessive sex, he tells the narrator to ignore it, and sleep with as many girls as he can manage.

Cela continues to publish new books, including, recently, Mazurca para dos muertos (Mazurka for Two Dead Men) (1983),6 another Civil War novel set in his home province of Galicia, and Cristo versus Arizona (1988), a novel set around the OK Corral, which one Tucson reviewer, writing in Spanish, called “a violation.” But his reputation, the literary one, anyway, rests mostly on works written in the Forties and Fifties, especially on Pascual Duarte and The Hive.

When Cela won the Nobel Prize in 1989, The New York Times called his selection “the symbol of a changing, modernizing Spain.” An American professor, carried away, perhaps, about the new prominence of his field, wrote in a Spanish magazine that now that “Spain is news all over the world and there is an impulse to celebrate its spirit of democracy and reconciliation after years of fighting and dictatorship, it is perfectly logical to select a figure who embraces the whole period.”

It seems curious that such pessimistic books should be taken as a bridge to democracy—there must be some reconciling element in Cela’s willingness to shock. Perhaps it is that his bile is impartial and splatters evenly, blaming and forgiving all. For if Cela’s obsession with the precise details of aggression can be ugly and demanding, it is also soothingly abstract, cynical rather than tragic. His novels revisit the Civil War but seem to counsel oblivion; his record of defiance scolds, but sometimes appears to suggest that little could have been done differently.

  1. 4

    Cela appears to have passed on his fascination with biological metaphors to his son, now a philosopher and the author of a book called Of Genes, Gods and Tyrants: The Biological Causation of Morality.

  2. 5

    Whatever his views, when he was younger Cela sometimes liked to attach Abraham, Zacarías, and David to his baptismal name, Camilo José Manuel Juan Ramón Francisco Santiago, to “bother the Nazis,” he writes. On entering the Royal Academy he was profiled by a Jewish paper in Argentina and praised for never having concealed his “real” heritage in Fascist Spain.

  3. 6

    Mazurka for Two Dead Men will be published in English in November by New Directions.

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