Camilo José Cela

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Camilo José Cela (SAY-lah) was born May 11, 1916, in Iria Flavia del Padrón, Spain. His father, Camilo Cela, was a customs official who wrote during his spare time. Young Cela attended the University of Madrid from 1933 to 1936, interrupting his higher education to enlist in the rebel army of Francisco Franco. He served for three years and rose to corporal. After the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War he returned to Madrid, attending the university from 1939 to 1943. His first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, was published in 1942 and brought him immediate renown. He was widely called Spain’s greatest twentieth century writer of fiction and is considered a master of Castilian prose, with an infallible ear for the language as it is lived and spoken.

Cela is also known for his formal experimentation. The Family of Pascual Duarte is the memoir of a convicted murderer awaiting execution; it is remarkable for its sustained atmosphere of brooding horror and for its insights into the character Duarte, a psychopath who has been compared with certain of Fyodor Dostoevski’s creations. Although it may be classed as an example of the traditional novel, succeeding works have gradually dispensed with most conventional novelistic devices in an effort to produce an imitation of life as Cela comprehends it. The Hive, the second novel to appear in English translation and the work that confirmed his reputation in the English-speaking world, is a relatively unstructured work. It is an impression of the swarming life of a city. Its pages are filled with a multitude of characters, some of whom reappear from time to time, but there is no sustained narrative thread, and the many incidents depicted are not necessarily connected. In his later novels, such as San Camilo, 1936 and Mazurka for Two Dead Men, Cela’s use of free form is even more pronounced. His characters are not the well-developed, fully rounded individuals traditionally expected in first-class fiction; instead they are largely depersonalized, gaining whatever importance they may have through identity with the society to which they belong.

Cela’s view of humankind and the world is strongly pessimistic, and his works form a general indictment of human society. He sees people as moral and ethical degenerates upholding institutions that are invariably rotten. Nevertheless, upon his being awarded the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy cited his “rich and intensive prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man’s vulnerability.” After winning the Nobel Prize he returned to the Spanish mainland to live (he had lived on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca for many years), and in 1991 he divorced his wife of almost fifty years, María del Rosario Conde Picavea, to marry Marina Castaño.

Cela was an enormously prolific writer for many years, and the list of his works is a long one. In addition to his many novels he produced short stories, poetry, books of travel, and various works of nonfiction, including several lexicons of sexual and vulgar language. Widely admired throughout the Spanish-speaking world, he nonetheless felt the pressure of censorship in his own country; it was largely for that reason that he adopted Mallorca as his home for many years.

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