Pío Baroja Essay - Critical Essays


Near the end of his life, Pío Baroja listed those historical personalities who had sustained his interest the longest: the naturalist Charles Darwin; the chemist Louis Pasteur; the physiologist Claude Bernard; the philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Immanuel Kant; and the poets Lord Byron, Giacomo Leopardi, and Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer. His writing was permanently influenced by such French and Spanish serial writers as Xavier de Montepin and Manuel Fernández y González and by the Spanish picaresque novel. He admired Charles Dickens but not William Makepeace Thackeray, Stendhal but not Gustave Flaubert, Paul Verlaine but not Marcel Proust, and Giacomo Leopardi but not Alessandro Manzoni. Despairing of the world’s capacity to produce writers of the highest caliber continually (his motto was “Nothing new under the sun”), he declared that the likes of Fyodor Dostoevski and Leo Tolstoy would not be seen again.

Baroja was as misanthropic and pessimistic as his mentor Schopenhauer and, also like the German philosopher, has been characterized as a misogynist. Baroja’s references to the ignorance, greed, and superficiality of Spanish women are legion, yet his misogyny seems to be an ancillary property of his all-embracing misanthropy rather than an independent prejudice. Baroja’s pessimism is reflected in his diction—in the frequent appearance of such words as imbécil, estúpido, and absurdo, as well as a bevy of more colorful words such as energúmeno (madman) and gaznápiro (simpleton). One of his favorite words for everything is farsante (farcical).

Baroja boasted that he used no word in his novels that was not appropriate in conversation, yet this does not preclude experimentation with unusual words that caught his fancy, for example, cachupinada (entertainment) and zaquizamí (garret). His love of the colorful is evident in the phrase he used to characterize himself—pajarraco del individualismo (big, ugly bird of individualism). Despite Baroja’s commitment to the colloquial mode, he generally avoided slang unless it was for the purpose of local color in dialogue. In The Struggle for Life trilogy especially, his dialogue is strewn with italicized vocabulary peculiar to the low life of Madrid, for example, aluspiar (to stalk), diñar (to die), jamar (to eat). The practice of italicizing the vocabulary of the low life would be accepted and used even more by his follower Juan Antonio Zunzunegui, who came to occupy Baroja’s vacant chair in the Royal Spanish Academy.

Baroja had an ear for pronunciation as well. When he returned to the Basque country after several years in Madrid as a child, he was ridiculed for his Madrilenian accent, and, on occasion, he notes this accent in his characters. He also had a penchant for decorating his prose with the lyrics of traditional songs not only in Basque but also in the other peninsular dialects; even in his essay on Italy, lyrics in the Italian dialects are cited. Indeed, refrains and simple repetitions for musical effects are typical of all of his prose.

Contemptuous of stylistic preciosity, he defended his right as a novelist to be terse and even ungrammatical. Because he avoided grammatical convolutions so consistently, his works are easier reading than many other Spanish classics and are, therefore, very popular in introductory literature courses wherever in the world that Spanish is taught.

Long non-Spanish names that point to the incontestable Basque origin of the characters that they denote are frequent in Baroja’s novels. His fascination with anthropology is obvious in his abundant use of ethnological designations (for example, samnita, the name of a pre-Roman tribe of southern Italy, is used generally as “stalwart” in Lord of Labraz) and in his sweeping generalizations about race (for example, Sacha in El mundo es ansí observing that there is not a significant difference between northern and southern Spaniards, as there is among Italians). Baroja’s use of the novel as a forum to hold forth on just about anything brings about many allusions to figures from the past, not only political leaders and writers but also physiologists, philosophers, painters, and anthropologists, who are more often German, French, or Italian than Spanish.

Baroja’s sensitivity to the suffering in life and his abhorrence of human cruelty and hypocrisy made him a severe judge of the human condition. He hated religion, which he believed is a dangerous illusion foisted on Europeans by the Semites. His novel El cura de Monleón, which deals with a Basque priest’s loss of faith, is unfortunately...

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