Camilo José Cela

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Camilo José Cela had an inimitable way with language, a personal style that is instantly recognizable after minimal acquaintance, thanks to his characteristic handling of the estribillo (tag line), alliterative and rhythmic prose, parallelistic constructions, grotesque caricatures with moments of tenderness, unabashed lyricism with ever-present irony, and the incorporation of popular sayings or proverbs, vulgarities, and obscenities in the context of academically correct and proper passages. His art more closely approaches the painter’s than the dramatist’s, and it is far removed from the adventure novel.

With the exception perhaps of The Family of Pascual Duarte, Cela’s novels have little action and a preponderance of description and dialogue. As a painter with words, one of whose favorite subjects is language itself, unflaggingly aware of its trivializations and absurdities yet fascinated with nuances, examining and playing with words, Cela produced ironic conversations, incidents, and scenes that often could very well stand alone. This characteristic, usually one of his virtues as a writer, becomes at times a vice, for he tends to repeat himself and also to produce novels in which there is little if any character development and often no sustained or sequential action—no plot in the traditional sense. The reader whose interest in a piece of fiction is proportional to “what happens” may find Cela’s short stories more rewarding than his novels.

Because it inspired many imitations, Cela’s first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, is considered the prototype of a novelistic movement called tremendismo, an allusion to its “tremendous” impact upon the reader’s sensibilities. Tremendismo—a modified naturalism that lacks the scientific pretensions of the French movement, and to which expressionistic ingredients were added—was characterized by depiction of crimes of sometimes shocking violence, a wide range of mental and sexual aberrations, and antiheroic figures. Frequently repulsive, deviant, and nauseating acts, as well as an accumulation of ugly, malformed, and repugnant characters, were portrayed against a backdrop of poverty and social problems. To this naturalistic setting were added expressionistic techniques including stylized distortion and the use of caricature and dehumanization (reduction of characters, or acts, or both, to animalistic levels). Tremendismo had links with postwar existentialism in the absurdity of the world portrayed, the concern with problems of guilt and authenticity, and the radical solitariness and uncommunicative nature of its characters. In part, the movement was inspired by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, providing an outlet for outrage when overt protest was impossible.

Not all of Cela’s early novels fit this class: The accumulation of violent and sadistic or irrational crimes that are found in the prototypical first novel disappeared in its successor, Rest Home, which is set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, an environment the author had occasion to know well. Rest Home uses the diary form, excerpts from the writings of several anonymous patients. The sense of alienation and despair that results from helplessness pervades this novel as the victims battle not only their disease but also the indifference of the world at large and the callousness or cruelty of medical personnel; this insensitivity to death, humanity’s cruelty to others, is the “tremendous” element in this otherwise quiet, hopeless, almost paralytic novel. In The Hive, it is the overall tone or atmosphere (there is only one crime, an unsolved murder), an atmosphere of defeatism, cynicism, and sordid materialism, that is characteristic of tremendismo. Still, although critics continue to talk of tremendismo in The Hive, it is so modified and attenuated that there is a legitimate question as to whether the world portrayed in the novel can rightly be so described.


(This entire section contains 4843 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Family of Pascual Duarte

Pascual Duarte, theprotagonist and narrative consciousness of The Family of Pascual Duarte, is a condemned criminal on death row who has undertaken to write his confession as a sort of penance, at the behest of the prison chaplain. Cela utilizes a model derived from the classic Spanish picaresque novel, clearly perceptible in the early chapters—a technique that undoubtedly served to make the somewhat scabrous material more acceptable to the regime’s puritanical but strongly nationalist and traditionalistic censors. The frequent appearances of roads, inns and taverns, squalid settings, and marginal characters all reflect the picaresque tradition, as does the first-person, autobiographical form.

Pascual’s home life, with a brutal father who made his money illegally, an alcoholic and altogether beastly mother (clearly patterned on the mother of the prototypical picaro, Lazarillo de Tormes), and a sister who became a teenage prostitute, was an endless round of brawls. Exemplifying the notion that hopeless situations go from bad to worse is his mother’s promiscuity and the birth of his half brother, Mario, an imbecile who comes into the world at the same time that Pascual’s father, locked in a wardrobe, is dying amid hideous screams after having been bitten by a rabid dog.

Mario never learns to walk or talk but drags himself along the floor like a snake, making whistling noises. He is kicked in the head by his putative father, which results in a festering sore, and finally has an ear and part of his face eaten by a pig as he lies in the street. His brief, unhappy existence comes to an end at the age of seven or eight when he falls into a large stone container of olive oil and drowns. Pascual’s grotesquely lyric recollection of the child’s one moment of “beauty,” with the golden oil clinging to his hair and softening his features and expression, is typical of Cela’s art. The burial of Mario (attended only by Pascual and a village girl, Lola, who was attracted to him) is climaxed by Pascual’s rape of Lola atop Mario’s newly dug grave. It is characteristic of Cela also to combine Eros and Thanatos, sexuality and death: Humanity is viewed as a sensual animal, its reproductive appetite or instincts aroused by the presence of death.

Pascual’s name alludes to the Paschal lamb, or Easter sacrifice, and in an author’s foreword to a special edition of the novel printed outside Spain for use by English-speaking students of Spanish, Cela spoke of the “pro-rata of guilt” or responsibility that each member of society shares for the crimes committed by one of that society’s members, suggesting that persons are products of the society in and by which they are formed and thus, at best, only partially culpable for their acts. Pascual is a product of the dregs of society, whose existence is the result of the worst kind of social injustice, yet he displays no greed or resentment of the easy life of the wealthy; his crimes are usually crimes of passion and, with the exception of the killing of his mother, are not premeditated.

Significantly, Pascual is always morally superior in one or more ways to his victims, suggesting that he is to be viewed as something of a primitive judge and executioner, taking justice into his own hands. His meting out of retribution spares neither person nor beast: He shoots his hunting hound because the dog looked at him the wrong way (interpreted by him as sexual desire or temptation); he knifes his mare (and only transportation) because she had shied, throwing Pascual’s pregnant bride and causing her to miscarry; he strangles his first wife in a moment of temporary insanity, upon learning that while he was jailed for knifing a man in a tavern brawl, she had survived by selling herself to El Estirao, the pimp exploiting Pascual’s sister; and he later asphyxiates El Estirao when the pimp taunts him. The ax-murder of his mother (who subverted the scruples of his first wife and was ruining his second marriage as well) is one of the bloodiest and most violent passages in contemporary Spanish fiction, yet the reader cannot entirely condemn Pascual.

The novel alternates chapters of violent action with slower, introspective and meditative chapters that not only vary the narrative rhythm but also serve to present the human side of the criminal, who might otherwise appear nothing less than monstrous. They also make it clear that Pascual is completely lacking in social consciousness; his crimes are not politically motivated, nor do they have any connection with revolution in the social sense—a point that is extremely important to the hidden message of the novel as a whole. Although Pascual’s autobiographical memoir is abruptly ended by his execution (he had narrated his life only up to the slaying of his mother), it is possible to deduce from evidence elsewhere in the text that he spent some fifteen years in the penitentiary as a result of his conviction for matricide; he was released at a moment immediately prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War that coincided with a brief but bloody social revolution that swept his home province of Badajoz. The reader deduces (for the cause of his execution is nowhere stated) that Pascual has been convicted of the murder of the Count of Torremejía, the major clue being the dedication of his memoirs to the Count, Don Jesús, accompanied by an ambiguous statement that could mean that he killed him, but could also convey the idea of a mercy killing, assuming that he found the Count dying in agony, perhaps having been tortured by terrorists.

A supreme irony inheres in Pascual’s having received extremely light sentences—from two to fifteen years—for several previous killings, while he is executed as a common criminal for what might normally have been classed an act of war, because the victim was an aristocrat. Given the totalitarian censorship in force at the time the novel was written, none of this is overtly expressed; it is necessary to have a thorough knowledge of contemporary Spanish history and to be aware of such details as the social revolution in Badajoz, likewise unmentioned in the novel, to be able to interpret the otherwise enigmatic denouement to Pascual’s career of violence.

One of the clearest proofs that Cela’s major virtue is his style is the fact that, despite competent translations, his works have been relatively ill received by readers of the English-language versions; his style, like poetry, is lost in translation. Too closely bound to colloquial idiom and regional dialect to be fully translatable, Cela’s prose must be appreciated in the original. Thus, Pascual Duarte’s story is atypical in being able to stand on its own in other cultures, as was confirmed by the success of the 1976 film version, which won a best actor’s award at the Cannes International Film Festival for José Luis Gómez. With all of his contradictions, Pascual is Cela’s most complex and memorable character; none of his subsequent novels contains characters sufficiently developed to intrigue the reader and sustain his or her interest.

The Family of Pascual Duarte has been compared by critics repeatedly to Albert Camus’s L’étranger (1942; The Stranger) because of proximity in date of appearance and certain other similarities (the antihero and protagonist-narrator of each novel is a condemned killer awaiting execution, one who speaks impassively of his life and exhibits a shocking lack of internalization of society’s values). The differences between the two novels are many, however, the most important being that the narrative consciousness of The Stranger is an educated and moderately cultured man, guilty of a single, senseless “reflex” crime, and the philosophical dimension of Camus’s writing, while not utterly alien to Cela, is so attenuated because of the audience for which the novel was intended that its impact is minimal.

The Hive

The Hive, regarded by many critics as Cela’s masterpiece, occupied much of the novelist’s time between 1945 and 1950. Because it lacks both plot and protagonist, consisting of a series of loosely connected sketches, some have suggested that Cela must have used as his model John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925); both novels attempt a wide-ranging portrait of urban life. The similarities are relatively superficial, however, and a major difference exists in the treatment of time: Manhattan Transfer covers some twenty years, while The Hive spans only a few days. The action in The Hive takes place during the winter of 1943, and a specific reference is made to the meeting of Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin D. Roosevelt in November of that year, undoubtedly selected by Cela because it was one of the worst periods for Spain, a time when postwar reconstruction had not begun, wartime shortages had grown worse, and the countries that might have helped Spain were too occupied with World War II to think of the Spanish people’s plight.

This background is very significant to the ambience and psychological climate of the novel; characters are either concerned with where their next meal will come from or are involved in the black market and the abuse of the hungry. Many characters are moochers who hang around cafés in the hope of being offered a drink or a meal, or at least a cigarette, while several girls and women are obliged to sell themselves for food, medicine, or small necessities.

In The Hive, Cela brings together a number of characters with no more mutual relationship than that which results from being in the same place for a brief time. The common site in part 1 is the café of Doña Rosa. Although the author in one of his many prologues to the successive editions claims that he did nothing but go to the plaza with his camera, “and if the models were ugly, too bad,” this suggestion of objective, mimetic technique must not be taken too literally, for large doses of his characteristic exaggeration, dehumanization, and caricature are present, as can be appreciated in the figure of Rosa, one of Cela’s most repugnant females.

Exceedingly fat, Rosa smokes, drinks, coughs continually, dotes upon bloody tales of violence and crime, is foulmouthed, and has such a habit of peeling off her face that she is compared to a serpent changing its skin; she has a mustache, beaded with sweat, its hairs like the little black “horns” of a cricket, and spends her days insulting and cheating the customers. There is also a suggestion that she is a lesbian. Much of the negative presentation becomes understandable when one reflects that Doña Rosa is an outspoken advocate of Adolf Hitler: At a time when no criticism of fascism was possible inside Spain, Rosa presents such extreme physical and moral ugliness that her ideological preferences necessarily suffer by association.

Several other recurring motifs of Cela’s fiction are apparent in The Hive: the division of humanity into the basic categories of victims and victimizers, the obsessive preoccupation with aberrant sexuality, the notion that the bad are many and the good are few (and generally not too bright), the concept that humankind is innately cruel, and the insistent repetition of tag lines and names or nicknames. So frequent and systematic is the use of nicknames and variants of the names of characters that, when combined with the large number of characters and the usual brevity of their appearances, it is next to impossible to determine exactly how many characters there are, as well as to be sure in many cases whether a character is completely new or one previously met and now reappearing under a nickname. Various commentators have placed the total number of characters at 160, but other estimates suggest more than 360. Obviously, with few exceptions, characters are superficially drawn, usually caricatures; only a handful can be said to have any psychological depth.

Each of the novel’s six parts is unified by some common denominator (in addition to the time, for there is a certain simultaneity of events in each part or chapter). In the first part, all the characters have some relationship to the café of Doña Rosa, whether as employees, regular customers, or accidental visitors. In the second part, events take place in the street, beginning immediately outside the café as Martín Marco, a ne’er-do-well who serves as a sort of link between various parts and locales, is kicked out for not paying his bill. Some of the customers are followed from the street to their houses, while others are seen in the third part in still another café, where Martín also goes to talk with still more characters (several of whom are under police surveillance and apparently arrested before the novel’s end, implicating Martín also).

The next part returns to the street and events late at night after the closing of the cafés, when the wealthy go to after-hours clubs and the poor must use the vacant lots for their furtive encounters. The common denominator of part 5 is eroticism, with a wide range of amorous intrigues (light on sentiment and heavy on sexuality) and views of several houses of ill repute of different economic levels. There is also a recurring theme of loss, as most of the characters lose something (dreams, hope, illusions, virginity). The clearest example is the case of an adolescent girl, an orphan sold by her aunt to an aged pedophile. The sixth part is united by the numerous reawakenings with the new day, some characters in their homes, others in brothels, Doña Rosa in her café before dawn, the homeless gypsy boy beneath the city bridge, some breakfasting and others hungry, part of the city already going to work and a few about to go to bed. The protagonist, if there is one, is collective: the city of Madrid, which is the beehive of the title, with its workers and drones.

Reviewers of the English translation saw The Hive as a passable example of the “low-life genre,” but if one is sufficiently familiar with the sociopolitical situation of Spain at the time the novel was written, it is possible to extract additional meanings. All of the numerous characters of the novel reappear several times, with the exceptions of Suárez, who is gay, and his lover; the two are accused of complicity in the murder of Suárez’s mother, Doña Margot, not on the basis of any evidence but because their sexual identity was not acceptable. The two are taken to police headquarters for interrogation and simply disappear for the remainder of the novel, a case of critique via omission, a not uncommon technique in the rhetoric of silent dissent.

Another interest of the novelist is the invisible links between human beings, who are usually themselves unaware of those links. Thus Matilde, a widowed pensioner and client of Doña Rosa, owns a boardinghouse where Ventura Aguado, lover of Rosa’s niece, resides—connections unknown to all concerned, reflecting existential theories of human relationships. A much more elaborate development of this theme occurs in Cela’s Tobogán de hambrientos, in which each chapter presents a new cast of characters, linked only by one tenuous contact with a single character from the previous chapter. Thus, in chapter 1, an entire family appears; the following chapter may present the family and relatives and friends of the boyfriend of one daughter of the family in the first chapter, and chapter 3 may take up the associates and relatives of the garbage collector of the family of the boyfriend, chapter 4 the boss of the daughter of the garbage collector, and so on, through a certain number of chapters after which the process is reversed and the novelist proceeds in inverse order, through the same groups, back to the point of origin.

While mild in comparison with many of Cela’s later works, The Hive was daring for its day, and Spanish publishers refused to touch it; it was published in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and smuggled into Spain, selling so well that the government (which levied a profitable tax on several stages of the book business) authorized an expurgated edition, which in turn was soon prohibited and withdrawn from circulation when objectionable points were found—a procedure repeated nine times by 1962. Not only is The Hive significant from the standpoint of literary history as a model for the neorealistic “social” novel in Spain during the 1950’s and 1960’s; it also had considerable import in its day as a manifestation of liberal intellectual opposition to the Franco dictatorship and its policies.

The Hive was a turning point in Cela’s development as a novelist, marking a transition from rural to urban settings and from a semitraditional format to open experimentalism and fragmentary structures. Although the novel’s transitions from character to character and scene to scene may seem abrupt or arbitrary, they are in fact artfully calculated and serve to make otherwise censurable material more palatable than if it had been presented in its totality, without interruption or suspension.

Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son

The fragmentary nature of Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son is even more apparent, with more than two hundred brief chapters, in which sequential or connected action is again lacking. The time element is extremely vague and diffuse; the narration is almost totally retrospective but not in any semblance of chronological order. Mrs. Caldwell speaks in the second-person singular (the familiar you, or “thou”) to her son Ephraim, sometimes reminiscing, sometimes railing, at other times waxing lyrical (there are even sections that are lyric asides, in the nature of prose poems, such as one quite lengthy piece titled “The Iceberg”). Bit by bit, it becomes apparent to the reader that Mrs. Caldwell’s relationship with her son has abnormal undertones, including incest, abuse, sexual or psychological bondage, and possibly crimes involving third parties; subsequently, it is revealed that Ephraim is dead and has been so for many years, drowned in unexplained circumstances in the Aegean Sea. Mrs. Caldwell, the reader realizes, is insane; whether any of the things she recalls actually happened is a matter of conjecture, as is the reality of the ending, for she is supposedly burned to death when she paints flames on the wall of her room in the asylum.

Surrealistic elements are more prominent in Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son than in any of Cela’s previously published prose, although they abound in his early book of poetry Poemas de una adolescencia cruel (1945), written for the most part during the Spanish Civil War and published in 1945. The surrealistic substratum comes to the surface periodically during the writer’s career and is especially evident in the hallucinatory oratorio María Sabina (1967), performed in 1970, and in El solitario, a series of absurdist and surrealistic sketches published in 1963. It comes to the fore in Cela’s long fiction in San Camilo, 1936, and in Oficio de tinieblas, 5. Readers whose concept of Cela had been based on acquaintance with his best-known novels were surprised and disconcerted by what seemed to be an abrupt about-face on his part, a switch from an objective and essentially realistic manner to extreme subjectivity of focus, with an emphasis upon vanguard experimentalism in San Camilo, 1936, and Oficio de tinieblas, 5. In fact, both the extended second-person monologue of the former and the extreme discontinuity of the latter are clearly anticipated in Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son.

San Camilo, 1936

San Camilo, 1936, and The Hive are comparable in providing panoramic views of Madrid at similar points in Spanish history (1936 and 1942, respectively); in both, historical events are interwoven with everyday concerns. Both novels feature an enormous cast and exhibit a strong awareness of social injustice, poverty, hunger, and exploitation. In both, Cela’s characteristic emphasis on sexual themes, abnormality, deviance, and the scatological are prominent, and both encompass only a few days in the life of the capital. Both are essentially plotless, depending upon strict temporal and spatial limitation for unity in place of the structuring function normally exercised by plot; both lack protagonists in the normal sense, although the city of Madrid may play this role. Both novels feature innumerable cuts, abrupt changes of scene, shifts of focus, and an architectonic design, a complex pattern the most visible features of which are repetition and parallelism.

However, San Camilo, 1936, is far from being a mere extension or replay of the earlier novel; a most significant difference is the setting in republican Spain, which imparts a sense of freedom, even license, lacking in The Hive. The days spanned in San Camilo, 1936, are marked by major historical events, immediately preceding and following the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936.

The action of San Camilo, 1936 begins on Sunday, July 12, 1936, which witnessed the political assassination of Lieutenant Castillo, in reprisal for his part in the killing, three months before, of a cousin of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange. Revenge for Castillo’s killing, a gangster-style execution of conservative opposition leader Calvo Sotelo on July 13, led to a series of riots and was the pretext for the uprising on July 16 of General Franco and several other military leaders, obliging the republican government to distribute arms to the populace on July 18. These events, and the funerals of both victims (July 14), are re-created from the vantage point of several witnesses in the novel, although the underlying reasons are not elucidated and the historical antecedents are not mentioned.

The atmosphere of growing tension and pent-up violence is subliminally reinforced through the novelist’s concentration on a series of minor crimes, accidental deaths, actual and attempted political reprisals by both extremes, repetitive motifs of blood and suffering, and an intensifying irrational desire on the part of the narrative consciousness to kill. An impression of neutrality is nevertheless sustained; with three decades of hindsight, the novelist’s ire is directed less at those at either extreme of the Spanish political spectrum than at foreign intervention—a significant departure from the usual strongly partisan accounts of the Spanish Civil War.

Oficio de tinieblas, 5

Oficio de tinieblas, 5, is a novel only in the loosest sense, a logical extension of Cela’s continuing experimentation with the genre; its obsessive preoccupation with Eros and Thanatos, its language and tone are indubitably his. Discontinuous in structure, this work comprises nearly twelve hundred “monads” (numbered paragraphs or subdivisions) abounding in references to farce, concealment, deceit, flight, self-effacement, defeat, inauthenticity, self-elimination, betrayal, prostitution, alienation, and death. Cela’s disappointed idealism and his retreat into apparent cynicism are expressed in San Camilo, 1936, in the theme of massive prostitution—of the state, the nation, the leaders and lawmakers, the ideologies, the totality of Spanish existence. In Oficio de tinieblas, 5, Cela’s retreat takes the form of a desire for death and oblivion, counterpointed by an obsessive emphasis on sexual aberration (the novel is saved from being pornographic by learned euphemisms, Latin and medical terminology for sexual organs and activity).

Mazurka for Two Dead Men

The new freedom of Spain’s post-Franco era is reflected in Mazurka for Two Dead Men, Cela’s first novel to be published after Franco’s death. Here, Cela continues his exploration of violence, portraying the monotonous brutality of peasant life in his native Galicia with fablelike simplicity. Told by multiple narrators, the novel takes place during the first four decades of the twentieth century and treats the Spanish Civil War as merely the culmination of a long cycle of violence. Any appearance of neutrality has been suspended, however, as the pro-Franco characters are clearly villainous, the prorepublicans heroic. Perhaps more notable are the appearances in the novel of a character named Don Camilo and a family named Cela.

Christ Versus Arizona

In 1954, Cela had been welcomed in Venezuela as a guest of honor and commissioned to write a novel set there. The result was La Catira, an ambitious book that nevertheless made clear Cela’s lack of interest in sustained narrative. The novel that followed Mazurka for Two Dead Men is similarly set outside Spain but makes clear one manner—itself often daunting—in which Cela has overcome this apparent defect. As its title suggests, Christ Versus Arizona takes place in the American Southwest. Told through the brutal words of Wendell Liverpool Espana, the novel deals with events in Arizona during the final two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth century. These events include the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral, an event in which Cela expressed much interest and whose site he visited. Espana relates his sordid story of violence and murder in a long monologue without paragraph breaks that clearly reveals his mental state but that makes considerable demands of the reader.

El asesinato del perdedor

El asesinato del perdedor continues Cela’s increasingly difficult experimental style and relates the story—if it can be called that—of Mateo Ruecas, who commits suicide while in prison. The novel is not divided into chapters but rather incorporates the seemingly unrelated (if uniformly brutal and vulgar) monologues of a host of unidentified secondary characters. Cela’s first novel to be published after he received the Nobel Prize, El asesinato del perdedor may well reflect Cela’s well-known disdain for authority and “proper” behavior.


Cela, Camilo José