Cela, Camilo José (Vol. 13)
Cela, Camilo José 1916–
A novelist, poet, playwright, and travel writer, Cela is considered the most important voice in Spanish letters since the Civil War. His work ranges from the psychological to the surreal, often mirroring the tragedy his country has experienced with harsh realism and violence. Cela's prose style is experimental, frequently employing elements of fragmentation, repetition, and interior monologue within a shifting narrative perspective. It is a complex prose, praised for its powerful characterization and effective dialogue. The Family of Pascual Duarte is Cela's best known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)
It is not to be wondered that the Franco censorship disapproves of Cela's novels. Life in Madrid as he portrays it is brutal, hungry and senseless. Hypocrisy, fear and oppression are in command. Cela's political loyalties may be conservative or reactionary but his literary affiliations are of the most radical; they are with Camus and Sartre, with Moravia, with Zola and French naturalism. Only Cela has very little of the theoretician about him and has no existential, sexual or political message to deliver. It is in his directness and lack of squeamishness that he resembles Sartre and Moravia….
Cela does not ramble so much as he jumps. Now we are with the powerful Dona Rosa, who tyrannizes over her waiters and customers; now with a cafe musician; now with a mediocre nonconformist poet; then with a tender-hearted money lender; then with the bookkeeper of a black-marketeer; with old maids and prostitutes, with singers and seducers…. All of this is rather abruptly and sketchily represented, it is forceful and it is bald.
One sympathizes with Cela in his impatience with literature. Probably he is attacking his conformist contemporaries within Spain. But there is a great deal to be said for his attitude. Literature is conservative; it is "behind the times," and it does not easily cope with certain familiar modern horrors. One asks one's self how Goethe would have described a concentration camp, or how Lope de Vega would...
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Camilo José Cela, whose new book, "The Hive," is one of the first important literary documents to reach us from inside the fascist state, is suffused with anger and bitterness at society in Madrid. "They lie," he says, "who want to disguise life with the crazy mask of literature. The evil that corrodes the soul, the evil that has as many names as we choose to give it, cannot be fought with poultices of conformism or the plasters of rhetorics and poetics. My novel sets out to be no more—yet no less either—than a slice of life, told step by step, without reticences, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on."
Wonderful words—which we have not often heard in this country since the first generation of native realists in the 1900's. It is interesting, too, that our own intellectual return to realism … is such a delayed sequel to the new generation of European novelists who have had to face the historical crisis directly and intimately. And "The Hive" itself, as a study of impoverished, frustrated lower-middle-class city people—less vicious, really, than ignoble and less ignoble maybe than starved—has undoubted power and a deliberately flat, acrid, angry style.
Cela's true position, however, is that of the aristocratic moralist who scourges the values of a corrupt and decaying urban society; the moments of warmth and affection in his narrative are few. (p. 404)...
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Among the native novels [to emerge from Spain since the Civil War] the most significant, both in terms of their perception of contemporary Spanish life and also in sheer literary quality, have been José Cela's—Pascual Duarte's Family, his recently published The Hive, and a little volume of travel sketches in rural Spain, Viaje a la Alcarria….
The first thing that strikes one on reading one of these recent Spanish novels is the chasm of feeling that separates them from that literary renaissance of the twenties and thirties which graced European literature with the works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, of Galdos and Barojo and Sender, of Lorca and Machado…. [While] the writers now emerging have not forgotten this departed generation, they themselves are working in an atmosphere which is inevitably dominated and changed by the Civil War and its social aftermath.
One thing unites them with their predecessors. It is what Barea (a survivor in spirit from the pre-Civil-War Spain) has called "the note of hunger."… Where the moderns differ is in the scope they give to this "note of hunger." For them it is no longer a mere hunger of the body; it is rather a starvation of the spirit such as has never before appeared as a dominant factor in Spanish writing….
In The Hive Cela deliberately presents the inconsequential moments of his hundred and sixty characters in a...
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Spain has been forcibly exporting talented elements of its population for a miliennium; the expulsion of the Arabs, then of the Jews, and in our own time of the artists and scholars opposed to fascism, represent only the most notorious examples of the endless attempt to purify the nation of its intellectual and moral vitality. And this historical observation is relevant in two ways to our appreciating The Family of Pascual Duarte. First, it helps to explain the fact that in post-Christian Western Europe, Spain is a stronghold of pre-Christian attitudes and values. Secondly, it provides the immediate context for the desperate apathy and desperate violence that are the substance of Cela's novel….
Pascual Duarte speaks of suffering and ferocity so appalling as to be almost beyond the reach of our sympathy. They stun even more than they horrify—and that, incidentally, is the ground for differing with the common judgment that Camilo José Cela's novel is a literary classic. Powerful it is without a doubt. Archetypically portentous it seems to be, but what meaning can be attached to Pascual Duarte's mindless violence and mindless repontance eludes our power of conception…. As children of the Enlightenment, we are quite firm about wanting to change the conditions that produce a Pascual Duarte. But there is that in him that suggests a condition anterior to all "conditions," and evokes in us a superstitious terror that the...
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In his poetry—and Cela's overall intuition, and his conditioned use of language, too, is that of a poet—Cela expresses, even more directly, his "nothingism" (and sometimes his "uglyism" as well). His principal contribution to poetry, though [The Family of Pascual Duarte] is written in prose, is a work with the hybrid title Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo. In this book, the author sings the infinitude of hallucinations and fancies in the mind of an incestuous mother conversing wistfully with her dead son, drowned at sea in an ocean of memories and symbols. Certainly the book is one of the more remarkable poetic documents of modern Spain. (p. xii)
[Camilo José Cela] has created a world filled with the swooning of wills, wills kowtowing to a nearly mystic nothingness at the heart of the self. His characters never go towards their destiny through the social complex, via the paths of society at all, let alone the Body of Christ or the Church. They may writhe and struggle, but they always submit to themselves in the end. They may do so outside the law, like Pascual Duarte, or alienated from sanity, like Mrs. Caldwell, or beyond morality, like his wild-Western heroine La Catira, but neither do they struggle against themselves, nor do they strive towards anything beyond themselves. They are content to accept the full measure of their selfness. In Baroja this tendency to be true to one's nature was a vindication of extreme...
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If we add Unamuno's concern for the Nietzschean, the violent, even the demonic, to Baroja's rejection of systematic assembly, we have something close to the essence of Camilo José Cela…. Cela prefers the weird, the apparently meaningless and the amorphous. The world of his novels has been likened to that of Hieronimus Bosch and Brueghel; he sees man as a prisoner in a forbidding universe where chaos and imperfection always defeat the idealist. His first novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942), exemplifies his objective technique: Pascual Duarte, epitome of the unlucky and the lowly, tells his story from the prison cell to which he has been condemned. One thing follows another; there is no distinction made according to quality. In fact the evaluating mind is quite absent—a technique that we find in the rather more outlandish novels of Robbe-Grillet. Pascual is a kind of camera: no intentions, no prophecies, no hopes. He takes things as they come in much the same way as the traditional picaro of the Spanish novel always did. Just as the main characters of La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes and Gil Blas allowed the current of life to take them where it would, so does the typical Cela character embody the qualities of the anti-hero, the man who just cannot be bothered to persist in the chase after any chimerical Good. (pp. 419-20)
Cela's second novel, La colmena, was published in Buenos Aires in 1952. Again...
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Readers familiar with La familia de Pascual Duarte and La colmena will find little in [Oficia de tinieblas 5] reminiscent of those works. There are no defined characters, no action, no plot development. Cela himself admits that this is not a novel; it serves more as a vehicle for expressing many ideas.
The book contains 1,194 monads, or philosophical units, three of which refer specifically to the tenebrae service of the title, a ritual which terminates at the work's conclusion. Monad 1,097 informs the reader that it is a rite from which no man can escape; in it, magic serves evil in a struggle against man.
The book contains no chapter divisions; each monad consists of a series of words without capital letters or punctuation. There is much repetition of word and thought, and often there is reference to another monad by specific number.
Cela alludes to some of our most pressing contemporary concerns: drugs, abortion, Vietnam, technology, homosexuality. In addition, he treats such themes as love death and religion. His preoccupation with sex seems excessive; even the book's cover portrays this inordinate concern. It is one which seems incongruous when one considers the book's title plus a note at the very end stating that it was written between All Souls' Day, 1971 and Holy Week, 1973.
The variety of philosophical, historical and literary allusions is striking....
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The social realist cast of the novel in the Gray Age [of Spanish Literature] was set in 1942 by twenty-six-year-old Camilo José Cela who, in his La Familia de Pascual Duarte ("The Family of Pascual Duarte"), produced Spain's first major novel of the postwar period. This novel is the supposed autobiography of a criminal awaiting execution. Crowding its pages are violence, cruelty, murder, even matricide, as the protagonist seems driven to act because of the influence of a harsh environment and his own violent nature. An account of man in his tragic human situation, La Familia de Pascual Duarte employs a vernacular prose and elicits from the reader not sympathy but a compassionate understanding.
This novel recalls the picaresque tradition in Spanish letters; once again an antihero points up obliquely the social sores of a flawed society. There is, too, a typically Spanish fondness for deformation of reality and for the monstrous, inasmuch as Cela, with his penchant for sardonic humor, bizarrely lights up the grotesque unreality of his sufferingly real characters. With his novel, Cela gave rise to a peculiarly Spanish version of social realism known as Tremendismo, a term used by one critic to describe the effect caused by Cela's work. Tremendismo pairs emphatic realism with literary techniques drawn from James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and John Dos Passos, and with a philosophical orientation vaguely related to...
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