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.
The 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...
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