Camilo Jose Cela
Camilo Jose Cela; drawing by David Levine


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.)

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.

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.

This Issue

October 8, 1992