Camilo José Cela

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Terrell Louise Tatum (review date winter 1955)

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SOURCE: Tatum, Terrell Louise. Review of Baraja de invenciones, by Camilo José Cela. Books Abroad 29, no. 1 (winter 1955): 45.

[In the following review, Tatum calls the pieces in Baraja de invenciones shocking and gloomy.]

Spain's distinguished “inventor” prefaces this collection [Baraja de invenciones] with a brief, but striking Autobiografía in which he says: “Me considero el más importante novelista español desde el 98.”

Thirty-three “invenciones” comprise the collection and their impact is often shocking. Old and young Celaesque types, principally Spanish, stalk starkly and tragically through the poetry-impregnated pages. They move like peasants plodding before their oxen along the roads and through the villages of Spain. Or like earlier Cela madrileños, hurrying to their swarming or lonely pisos, bending against the winter wind from the Guadarramas. Closely identified with these people are the animals which serve them and the violent, but unforgettable Spanish landscape that surrounds them. Death and the cemetery often hover near.


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Camilo José Cela 1916–-2002

(Also known as Camilo José Manuel Juan Ramón Francisco Santiago Cela) Spanish novelist, short story and novella writer, poet, travel writer, nonfiction writer, memoirist, author of children's books, and editor.

The following entry presents criticism on Cela's short fiction from 1955 through 1992.

Considered the most important prose writer of contemporary Spain, Cela was best known for his stylistically diverse works of fiction that chronicle the political, social, and psychological legacy of the Spanish Civil War. He was also credited with broadening the range of the Spanish language through his meticulous reproduction of working-class speech and his continuous experimentation with revolutionary modes of expression. Although he wrote a number of short stories and novellas, these works have received much less critical attention than his novels and very few have been translated into English.

Biographical Information

Cela was born on May 11, 1916, in the small town of Iria-Flavia in the Galacian region of Spain. After graduating from high school in 1933, Cela studied medicine at the Central University of Madrid for one year; later, in 1939, he enrolled in law school at the same institution. Cela's love for literature, however, overshadowed both attempts to find a suitable career. In 1937, Cela began a two-year stint as a Nationalist soldier in the Spanish Civil War, an experience that has served as the foundation for much of his work. His first novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte), was published in 1942 and has been called the most translated Spanish novel since Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote. Despite Cela's early affiliation with the Falange, the official political party of fascist Spain, the regime of Generalissimo Francisco Franco frequently banned his provocative works and attacked his literary periodical, Papeles de Son Armadans, for publishing the works of authors condemned by the dictatorship. He proved to be an influential and prolific author, publishing novels, short fiction, travelogues, and various works of nonfiction. King Juan Carlos appointed Cela to the Spanish Senate in 1977. He also worked as a lecturer in England, France, Latin America, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, and the United States. He received several prestigious awards for his fiction, including the Premio Principe de Asturias in 1987, the Nobel Prize for literature in 1989, and the Cervantes Prize in 1994. He died from heart disease on January 17, 2002.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Critics note that Cela's stories range from humorous to melancholic and tend to focus on Spanish life after the tumultuous events of the Spanish Civil War. Many of his early short stories were originally written for newspapers and meant for light entertainment. Yet the incorporation of “tremendista” elements—extreme...

(This entire section contains 808 words.)

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brutality or horror—is also a defining characteristic of his short fiction. For example, “El misterioso asesinato de la Rue Blanchard” (“The Mysterious Murder on Blanchard Street”) exhibits black humor when one-legged Joaquin Bonhome accidentally kills himself and his wife when he goes to kick her and falls on his head; she is killed by a falling piece of jagged glass that was dislodged by his movement. At the end of the story, his despised brother-in-law is unjustly convicted of murder for the two deaths. In “Don Homobono y los grillos” (“Mr. Goodfellow and the Crickets”), the kindly protagonist saves a cricket from a small boy, only to kill it later when it disturbs his sleep. “Claudius, professor de idiomas” (“Claudius, Professor of Love”) is considered one of Cela's finest short stories. Based on a series of chance meetings between two old acquaintances, one of the men reveals that he is in Spain on vacation. He bemoans the fact that his work must be piling up in his absence, but he clearly enjoys his time attending cultural and social events. At one point in the story, the vacationing man is identified as an executioner—the hangman of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies. In later short stories and sketches, called “apuntes carpetovetónicos,” Cela chronicles the normal, everyday events of life in small Spanish towns in the years following the Spanish Civil War. His use of local settings and well-chosen details to explore the monotony and uncertainty of life was regarded as a significant influence on other Spanish writers.

Critical Reception

Scant critical attention has been paid to Cela's short fiction. Yet commentators view these works as a noteworthy aspect of Cela's oeuvre. Critics have applauded the broad subject range of his stories, noting that he had the ability to create entertaining tales from a wide range of inspirations and sources. However, they have derided the improbable plots and unrealistic dialogue of some of his short fiction and view his stories as superficial and too sentimental. His short stories have been unfavorably compared with his novels, which have received a preponderance of the critical attention. In addition, very few of Cela's short stories have been translated, which has hindered greater consideration of his short fiction.

David William Foster (review date summer 1966)

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SOURCE: Foster, David William. Review of La familia del héroe, by Camilo José Cela. Books Abroad 40, no. 3 (summer 1966): 318.

[In the following review, Foster offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of La familia del héroe.]

As a work of fiction, La familia del héroe demonstrates Cela's continued inspiration by the European new novel, a tendency in his fiction which began with Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo (1958) and matured with Tobogán de hambrientos (1962). Garito de hospicianos (1963) seems to be more a collection of unrelated essays, a few with narrative overtones, than a novel, although the style and thematics are identical to Cela's works of fiction. The most prominent characteristic of Cela's work is the new novel's substitution of pattern for plot. In the novel under review, Evangelino Gadoupa Faquitrós, grandson of the hero, don Samuel Faquitrós, relates to a group of contertulianos the history of his illustrious family. The novel is divided into nine sections, each one occasioned by the vermouth which don Evangelino has ordered in the preceding chapter: “Primer vermú, Segundo vermú … Noveno y último vermú.” Don Evangelino describes the grotesque descendants of his heroic grandfather in a monologue which forms the bulk of the text. In terms of pattern, it is significant that Cela interrupts to describe don Evangelino in “Quinto vermú,” the central segment of the work.

Cela adheres to another technique of the new novel, the eschewing of interiorization and the restriction of the subject matter to phenomena that can be observed “objectively.” When one of the listeners interrupts the speaker to offer a possible explanation for the behavior of one of the latter's relatives, he is told: “Well, but look, I won't say you're right and I won't say you're wrong—I'm only telling how things were.” In another instance, “I'm telling you the story of my family. Taken together, the stories of all Spanish families make up the story of Spain, the story of our elders' homeland. The most absolute of objectivities is the best adornment of the storytellers.”

This last statement also serves as an orientation for the novel's theme. Cela is concerned basically with deflating the Spanish national sense of pride, a pride which he sees as ill-founded and pretentious, given the nature of man and the farce which he calls life. On a higher level, Cela takes exception to the supposed dignity of man. The vision of man in his fiction, and Lorenzo Goñi's devastating caricatures, underline his feeling that sadness for man's plight is an atavism, as expressed in a later prologue to La colmena (1951), his major work.

The reader as an individual may take exception to Cela's vision of man and the increasing crudity of his expression. The critic, although acknowledging that Cela is still the most accomplished novelist and the best craftsman of the Spanish language produced since the Civil War, notes that Cela's vision of mankind has failed to make any significant advances during the last five years or so, and that he seems to be committed to an expressive form which allows for a certain amount of structural virtuosity, but which also has ceased to be a contribution.

Principal Works

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*Esas nubes que pasan 1945

*El bonito crimen del carabinero y otras invenciones 1947

El gallego y su cuadrilla y otros apuntes carpetovetónicos 1949

Santa Balbina 37: Gas en cada piso (novella) 1952

Timoteo, el incomprendido (novella) 1952

*Baraja de invenciones 1953

Café de artistas (novella) 1953

El molino de viento, y otras novelas cortas 1956

Cajón de sastre 1957

Historias de Espana: Los ciegos, los tontos 1957

Gavilla de fábulas sin amor [illustrated by Pablo Picasso] 1962

Obra completa. 17 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, essays, memoirs, and poetry) 1962-1986

Las compañías convenientes, y otros fingimientos y cegueras 1963

Once cuentos de futbol 1963

Toreo de salon 1963

El ciudadano Iscariote Reclús 1965

La familia del héroe; o, Discurso histórico de los últimos restos; ejercicios para una sola mano (novella) 1965

Nuevas escenas matritenses 1965-66; also published as Fotografias al minuto, 1972

Cuentos para leer después del baño 1974

Rol de cornudos 1976

El espejo y otros cuentos 1981

La dama pájara y otros cuentos 1994

La familia de Pascual Duarte [The Family of Pascual Duarte] (novel) 1942

Pabellón de reposo [Rest Home] (novel) 1943

Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes, y siete apuntes carpetovetónicos (novel) 1944

Viaje a la Alcarria [Journey to the Alcarria] (travel book) 1948

La colmena [The Hive] (novel) 1951

Del Miño al Bidasoa (travel book) 1952

Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo [Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son] (novel) 1953

Historias de Venezuela: La catira (novel) 1955

Judíos, moros y cristianos (travel book) 1956

Primer viaje andaluz (travel book) 1959

Los viejos amigos. 2 vols. (novel) 1960-61

Tobogán de hambrientos (novel) 1962

Garito de hospicianos; o, Guirigay de imposturas y bambollas (essay) 1963

Izas, rabizas y colipoterras (nonfiction) 1964

Páginas de geografia errabunda (travel book) 1965

Viaje al Pirineo de Lérida (travel book) 1965

Madrid (travel book) 1966

Viaje a U.S.A. (travel book) 1967

La bandada de palomas (juvenilia) 1969

San Camilo, 1936: Visperas, festividad y octava de San Camilo del ano 1936 en Madrid (novel) 1969

La Mancha en el corazón y en los ojos (travel book) 1971

Balada del vagabundo sin suerte y otros papeles volanderos (travel book) 1973

Oficio de tineblas 5; o, novela de tesis escrita para ser cantada por un coro de enfermos (novel) 1973

Mazurca para dos muertos (novel) 1983

Nuevo viaje a la Alcarria. 3 vols. (travel books) 1986

Cristo versus Arizona (novel) 1988

Memorias, entendimientos y voluntades (memoirs) 1993

El asesinato del perdedor (novel) 1994

La cruz de San Andrés (novel) 1994

Poesía completa (poetry) 1996

Diccionario geográfico popular de España (nonfiction) 1998

Madera de Boj [Boxwood] (novel) 1999

*These works were also published as Nuevo retablo de don Cristobita: Invenciones, figuraciones y alucinaciones in 1957.

†These works were also published as A la pata de palo, 4 vols., 1965-1967 and as El tacata oxidado: Florilegio de carpetoventónismos y otras lindezas in 1973.

D. W. McPheeters (essay date 1969)

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SOURCE: McPheeters, D. W. “Years of Transition.” In Camilo José Cela, pp. 72-82. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1969.

[In the following essay, McPheeters surveys Cela's short fiction and sketches published between the years 1944 and 1951—a very productive period in the author's literary career.]

Studies of Cela's works have not considered the writings of the seven years between 1944 and 1951—the dates of the novels Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes and La colmena—in relation to his developing novelistic style. During this period he published six volumes of sketches and short stories, the first of the books of vagabondage—Viaje a la Alcarria—and meanwhile continued to work on La colmena. An entire monograph could easily be devoted to the short stories, which are of value for showing the elaboration of his methods of observation and presentation which culminate in La colmena, but this brief chapter can include only a sampling.


Cela himself has told us how in 1941, almost by accident, he wrote his first short story. Friends on the journal Medina asked him to write a tale, and he replied: “Come, man, I don't know how to write stories, … if you want a poem. …”1 Since then, the short fictional piece has become a regular part of his literary effort. In the prologue to the second volume of the Obra completa, the author does not distinguish clearly between the various genres; indeed, he claims to be unconcerned with the usual classifications, the main difference between the short story, the “apunte carpetovetónico,” the short novel, and the novel being, in his opinion, merely one of weight by the scales (II, 21-22). It will be demonstrated, however, that with the publication of the third volume of sketches Cela attempts to separate and define the “apuntes” more clearly. There is substantial elaboration of technique between the first collection of short stories, Esas nubes que pasan, 1945, and La colmena, 1951. The title, The Passing Clouds, and the mood of the prefatory page—“The clouds over the city, lofty at times, like proud gentlemen in love; gray and taciturn, on occasion, like weary traveling beggars, like debtors who dislike the morning light” (II, 48)—remind one of the well-known “Las nubes” (“The Clouds”) by Azorín. Cela's friends from an old seafaring town begin to appear so that, from the outset, the tone of the collection is colored by a melancholy reminiscence. Some of the stories are humorous, with occasional “tremendista” elements, grotesqueness, sentimentality, improbable coincidences and plots, and, at times, unlikely dialogue. Although the stories retain something of the conventionality of an earlier generation of Spanish writers, they nonetheless give evidence of his skill of treatment. Poetic and lyric flights are frequent and, by comparison, longer than those found in later writings.

The very first tale incorporates arbitrary, unconvincing, and only partially developed features, but has an amusing ending. Don Anselmo, whose name is the story's title, causes the proprietor of a shooting gallery to lose an eye accidentally, and friends advise that he go away for a few months even though the injury is not entirely his fault. Anselmo leaves behind a large sum to care for the poor man. After an absence of eight years, he returns with a Puerto Rican wife, two servants, and two parrots, all of whom die conveniently in one paragraph. Cela never hesitates to dispatch his characters—the fatum to which he alludes on occasion. To amuse himself, the lonely widower visits neighboring cities until one day he comes home in downcast mood. The victim of the shooting accident is now performing as a circus wild man, eating raw meat, and considers himself fortunate to have good pay and plenty to eat, but Don Anselmo is touched by such degradation.

Another composition, “El misterioso asesinato de la Rue Blanchard” (“The Mysterious Murder on Blanchard Street”), contains “tremendista” elements and a rather unlikely double “murder.” One-legged Joaquín Bonhome attempts to give his repulsive wife a kick, with the result that a hook on the wall penetrates her glass eye and kills her; and he falls backward striking his head in such a way that he dies also. The wife's effete brother, whom the cripple has always despised, is sent to the French penal colony of Guiana for the supposed “crime.”

“Don Juan,” on the other hand, is a charming, deceptively simple account with the sentimental overtones of the traditional Spanish short story. A poet and amateur gardener, unable to find a publisher for his book on the care of flowers, dies, and when it no longer matters, one of his two surviving cronies pays for an edition of the work as a final tribute. Here the simplicity and naturalness of sentiments are an excellent combination. Other tales, however, are no more than anecdotes or jokes, for instance, “Don Homobono y los grillos” (“Mr. Goodfellow and the Crickets”). With a few platitudes about Mother Nature, the kindly protagonist saves a cricket from the clutches of a small boy, but later that hot August night when a cricket keeps him awake, the former benefactor swats the creature without compunction (II, 143-46). In the last story of the collection, “Culpemos a la primavera” (“Blame It on the Spring”), there is an amusing but overly ingenious plot involving the amorous intrigues of two servant girls, a milkmaid, a young brother and sister, the father of the family, and a neighboring doctor. To the mother's considerable vexation, a kind of spring madness affecting the characters leads to their love trysts. The story ends with four lines describing the mother's death and burial the following winter.

These rather ephemeral stories were first written for daily papers to amuse the casual reader who would hardly submit them to intense scrutiny. The humor of some is considerable and is much more gentle and humane than the sardonic irony of situations involving the apartment building of the homosexual in La colmena. It is well to remember that Cela has this light humorous vein; if one were to judge only on the basis of his two best-known novels, such talent would in all probability go unnoticed.

The contrast in range and variety of these scenes with the sustained hopelessness—or, at best, dreariness lightly touched by humor—of La colmena is striking. The episode of the impecunious musician and the colored glasses, incorporated in La colmena, was first published in Arriba (1946) as a short story, and Cela includes it in volume II of the Obra completa as the first of four “Cuentos al natural” (“Artless Stories”) which, except for their simplicity and a certain lack of anecdotal quality in the usual sense, are not particularly homogeneous. In “El capitán Jerónimo Expósito” (II, 231-35), the second of the “Artless Stories,” Captain Jerónimo, as the title implies, is a foundling. The main idea seems to be that emerging from nothing, he makes his own personality by organizing a band of adventurers who, at the story's abrupt, rather pointless end, await orders from their leader. Cela himself becomes aware of the truncated outcome, and much later, in Los viejos amigos (II, 65-67), adds three pages, continuing the story of the group's departure from Algeciras for La Guayra. Nothing more is ever heard from the men; so “they probably fell by the wayside.” The narrator adds phlegmatically that if he ever learns more about their exploits, he will not remain silent. Although most of the persons in La colmena lead aimless lives, curiously the writing about them is charged with implications. The “Captain Jerónimo” as it stands lacks the incidental or circumstantial elements necessary to a story; it reads like a note for a longer account of a minor epic of crime, high adventure, or just plain frustration. The last selection of this series has the general heading “Fauna del adoquinado” (“Fauna of the Pavement”) and the subtitle “El prodigio de que un niño viva como un saltamontes” (“The Miracle that a Child Can Live like a Grasshopper”), II, 241-43. The boy reminds one vaguely of the little gypsy street dancer in La colmena, but at the story's end we are told that the lad may grow up to be a taxi driver, notary, carpenter, or priest so that he is pretty much like many others of his age. There is a note of wistfulness for the carefree days of youth which most men, in common with the author, feel at times.

Cela's short stories range from the brutal—at least two contain crimes as violent and senseless as those in Pascual Duarte—to the purely humorous, lyric, ironic, commonplace, burlesque, or caricatural. One describes a young writer, C.J.C., on a train composing an insipid story “in the old style” (II, 207-11); some are about everyday situations, but with a certain imaginary dimension or even fantasy; and still others are about Galicia and include songs in the local dialect of that region. The inspiration for “La horca” (“The Gibbet”) came to Cela after listening to Ravel's music at a friend's house (II, 452-56). A section on watches and clocks provides the pretext for narratives like that of the gypsy who has a cracker tin filled with stolen timepieces until the police of the Guardia Civil arrest him and confiscate it. The gypsy is partly consoled when a fellow prisoner gives him a watch; it is still in his possession many years later when he dies (II, 351-61). In these stories Cela demonstrates the inventiveness that writers for the popular press often have—the ability to take almost any object as a suggestion from which to spin a yarn—but his is a far superior style. At times there is a frankly sentimental note, as in the tales about a blind man's dog and a sea-going dog (II, 523-29), or allegory as in the fables anthropomorphizing the outlaw goat named Smith (II, 316-25) and the migration of the body lice in “La tierra de promisión” (“The Promised Land”), II, 212-15. “Claudius, profesor de idiomas” (“Claudius, Professor of Languages”), II, 184-98, is possibly one of his best stories: its plot is based on the series of chance meetings, typical of two acquaintances who see each other infrequently. The friend is identified briefly as the former hangman of Batavia in the Dutch East Indies, who now bustles around from one edifying cultural activity to another. At length, he remarks, “I am worried, my friend; in Batavia I must be so far behind in my work!” Either death has taken a holiday, or Claudius, like Camus' Sisyphus, is unable, or really does not want, to escape his absurd vocation.

This sampling of themes from Cela's short stories shows his innate talent for creating literature from all manner of materials, an ability sometimes displayed in feats of virtuosity. The important thing to bear in mind is that his latent capacity to chronicle the everyday, vulgar existence of ordinary people is brought forth by a closer observation of his surroundings, first, in rural settings and then in Madrid, where he comes to grips with the harsh realities of urban life after the ruinous Civil War. Had Cela continued in the earlier vein, he might be remembered as a clever storyteller of modest talent. He needed to escape from the world of literature and contemplate people as they live in order to add sinew to a facile style.


Viaje a la Alcarria will be discussed in a later chapter, together with other works of the same type. For the moment it is necessary to mention that Cela presents his observations of half-forgotten towns in a region close to Madrid where, as he says, he saw no unusual happenings and was glad, because if it were necessary to narrate out-of-the-ordinary events, people would accuse him of exaggerating (IV, 28). So, the various short stories included in El gallego y su cuadrilla y otros apuntes carpetovetónicos (1949) offer the humdrum, everyday life of small towns. The almost untranslatable term “carpetovetónico” has come to refer to “the dryness, the violent, bitter spirit of contrast and rudeness of the world of sun-scorched and dusty Castile.”2 The word itself derives from the names of two central Iberian tribes mentioned by Roman writers. The towns are little places through which the traveler today drives without even a fleeting thought as to their inhabitants, but where life goes on beneath an exterior as unchanging as the harsh land. Critics have been quick to point out parallels between his “apuntes” and the sketches of customs and regions of nineteenth-century writers.3 But there is a great difference in spirit and locale between the works of such authors and those of Cela, who has deliberately avoided the picturesqueness of a Pereda, for example. He neither visits old churches searching for almost forgotten artistic treasures, nor is he a landscapist. He turns to the little-known, unexplored towns of the Old Castile so fascinating to writers of the Generation of 1898—none of those cited by Cela are natives of the province—and finds that “Castile is at first a bit like a narcotic of bitter and hard draughts which does not affect the Castilian who is already an addict, but which startles and frightens the stranger” (V, 137).

Other regions attract tourists and vacationers because of benign climate, local color, cultural importance, mountain and seaside resorts, or other pleasant settings. Rodríguez-Moñino puts it well in his prologue to Cela's El gallego y su cuadrilla y otros apuntes carpetovetónicos when he declares that city dwellers of Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilbao do not spend holidays in places like Cebreros, where Cela during four summers returned for lengthy visits.4

The weariness which small towns produce in us, the dry Castilian and Estremaduran towns, comes from a feeling expressed concretely in these words: they do not have any personality, they are all alike, nothing ever happens in them, they are boring and monotonous.

If one must spend a few days in such places, he at first feels out of his element, then antipathy, and finally frank aversion. And Rodríguez-Moñino asks: “What did Cela do in that place where there is nothing to do? He lived. Lived and saw how one lives.” Like a taproot the author was able to extract from beneath an inhospitable surface the moisture sufficient to nourish a luxuriant growth, so that “… he has penetrated deeply the life and essence of those places and has been pouring out in the pages of this book the fruits of a really amazing psychological observation.”

Cela has defined the “apunte carpetovetónico” as something invented for his exclusive use, “… that little, startled chronicle of the dry lands of Spain, that inexhaustible vein of literary themes” (III, 23). The “notes”—“jottings” would be applicable on occasion—may be as rigid as sticks, but articulation is not necessary to show “this, that, or something else. Unlike the article, the ‘apunte’ is neither born nor dies, but simply flows out and disappears … it may well have neither beginning nor end …” (III, 787-88). And it is not a short story which at times expresses an abstraction or permits subjectivism; the objectivity of the “apunte” is fundamental. The author places himself before the commonplace locales with no special artistic or emotional attitude toward them, but, of course, must select material and clothe it in literary language. This will be his same approach in La colmena. Small details permit a display of his skill with words, as in the long paragraph on the flies of Cebreros—quite likely a reflection of “Las moscas” (“The Flies”) of Antonio Machado, a poet whom Cela greatly admires. Attention to small creatures or objects is a characteristic of the Generation of 1898. Whatever the traditional affinities of these sketches, there is no denying that Cela caused the attention of his contemporaries to turn once more to local settings for inspiration. One of the best, Miguel Delibes' appealing novel Las ratas (The Rats), has as its locale a tiny hamlet near Valladolid in Old Castile.

An essential of Cela's technique is the ability to suggest in a few details or mannerisms an entire character or situation. He locates precisely the boundaries of Cebreros, but captures its essential Castilian isolation thus:

The town is far from the railroad, far from the main highway, far from the river, hidden in the shadow of the parish church tower, an Herreran tower of old granite which the drought of four centuries, that drought which denuded Castile, has not allowed to grow the affectionate, silent, greenish moss of age.

(III, 48)

In his Lazarillo Cela speaks feelingly of the village idiot, also the subject of one of the best sketches in El gallego y su cuadrilla y otros apuntes carpetovetónicos. With humor and sympathy he endows this much abused type with the dignity afforded the average villager. The town will not support more than one such moron at a time; so Blas Herrero Martínez—he is honored with a full set of names—has to wait until the ancient Perejilondo dies before taking over the position. Meanwhile, on Sunday Blas serves his apprenticeship by gathering cigarette butts in Doña Luisita's café for the old “tonto,” who gives him a half-dozen as his pay. Finally the old man dies, and the young Blas secretly dances for joy; then realizing that he must show some signs of grief, he makes a point of visiting the grave of the deceased where he leaves all but his usual six butts. Gradually he forgets about his dead predecessor and collects only as many as he wants: “It was a strange sensation to squat down and pick up a butt and have no doubt that it was one's very own …” (III, 119). The village idiot is a familiar type the world over, as anyone who has ever lived in a small town may know; but seldom has the absurdity of every man's role in this world been so aptly expressed.

In an effort to show the new direction Cela's writing will take, only a few of the best sketches will be discussed. In “El café de la Luisita” (“Luisita's Café”), III, 124-26, he dedicates paragraphs to each café in Cebreros with such skillful choice of details that one can visualize the coffeehouses and the particular clientele they attract. Luisita's café is given a more precise description, including a summary presentation of the proprietress and her husband: “Luisita, who was over fifty years of age, was fat and always on duty. Her husband was a scrawny, faded drunk, no longer good for anything” (III, 125). In the last paragraph the writer mentions the bars and taverns of the town and the human fauna which frequents them, but “to talk about all those taverns and their inhabitants would take a whole volume.” In La colmena Cela does indeed give us a novel populated largely by habitués of cafés and bars.

“Doña Concha” portrays the incredibly monotonous life of a childless lady in a small town and her secret envy of the married sister with ten children, to whom she has willed her property. “… The nephews don't know this and they do not wish her dead. Doña Concha hardly knows her nephews …” (III, 91).

“Toros en Cebreros” (“Bullfight in Cebreros”) is almost an editorial in favor of preserving the old custom of the local bullfight that a shortage of funds threatens with suspension. Cela points out that the Spaniard is more likely to revolt because some hallowed custom is threatened than because he is hungry, that historically the people usually had a reason for rebellion although their excesses might cause them to lose sight of it in twenty-four hours. In Arriba, where this and many other early sketches were first published, the censorship cut out three rather innocuous paragraphs of ironical references to local administrators (III, 61-63). “El gallego y su cuadrilla,” bearing the title of the collection, describes a small-town bullfight in the province of Toledo (III, 130-35). Here, on a blisteringly hot, dusty day, there is no glamor of the great bullrings: the “toreros” fight in shirt sleeves, not in the “suit of lights”; there is no band; and the arena is the town square, closed off by wagons and barricades. In a sequel, “Baile en la plaza” (“Dance in the Square”), bloody streams from the slain bull and the fatally injured matador mingle in the plaza, and the peasants are careful to wet the soles of their hempen sandals in the gore so as to make them hard and to insure longer wear. The author shifts back and forth from the dying bullfighter to the flirting couple dancing in the square (III, 136-39), thus employing a technique that he will use with proficiency in La colmena.

“Una función de varietés” (“A Vaudeville Performance”) is broadly humorous. Cela interrupts his narration of the banal performance to describe the Ballet Hollywood's great success with the town's womanizers, who later invite the girls of the troupe to a party in the anisette factory. Their womenfolk interrupt the gathering and exchange unflattering remarks with the girls. After this digression, the amusing account of the program and the grand finale continues, and finally: “The curtain rose and fell many times and the people began to file out. The vaudeville had ended. A little later was when the episode of the anisette factory transpired” (III, 146-49).

In the excellent “La romería” (“The Pilgrimage”), III, 93-111, there is a wealth of everyday experience in the account of a typical family outing—a hike—with the customary physical discomforts and minor personality conflicts of a hot, thirsty, boring day with the usual wasp sting, sunburn, and other irritations. On the return trip the family “… found itself near the first lights of the town. A sigh of relief, very low, was audible within each breast” (III, 109). The mother-in-law, characteristically, has the last word to which the dispirited daughter and husband do not even bother to reply.

These sketches have little relation with short stories built around dramatic or picturesque incidents, much less with those where there is emphasis on plot development. Here Cela's ability to turn a phrase to point up the utter triviality, monotony, or commonplaceness of life or, for that matter, death in a small Spanish town has become a fundamental process with him. Even where a topic might be elaborated with colorful or emotional language, he tends to understatement and restraint, with few false notes—an important development in the transition from his earlier “tremendista” tendencies.

Cela's ability to capture essential personality with a gesture, mannerism, or other trait recalls to some critics the neo-realistic or behaviorist approach of those who believe that traditional novels, attempting to portray internal psychology, lack validity and concentrate on externals with almost photographic objectivity; but these outward manifestations are only significant if equated with something fundamental in the subject's temperament.5 Cela repeats the outward peculiarities of his characters to facilitate rapid identification.


  1. Gómez-Santos, Diálogos, p. 134.

  2. Zamora Vicente, Camilo José Cela, pp. 143-44.

  3. When Kirsner, The Novels, p. 120, finds the “Apuntes” undeveloped compared to the cuadros de costumbres of the nineteenth century, something of the problem of equating Cela's sketches with the older works becomes evident.

  4. I have the curious first edition which has the imprint on the title page, Madrid: Ricardo Aguilera, 1949, but on the spine the date 1951. Moñino's “Prólogo” is on pp. i-vii.

  5. Gustavo Bueno Martínez attempts a systematic application of behaviorist principles to Cela's novel in “La colmena, novela behaviorista,” Clav, III, no. 17 (1952), 53-58.

Thomas R. Franz (essay date March 1973)

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SOURCE: Franz, Thomas R. “Cela's La familia del héroe, the nouveau roman, and the Creative Act.” MLN 88, no. 2 (March 1973): 375-77.

[In the following essay, Franz challenges the perception of La familia del héroe as objective or neutral.]

In his study, Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela, David W. Foster points out many ways in which Cela's La familia del héroe appears to embody techniques employed in the French “new novel.”1 Among these are the substitution of pattern for plot, the denial of character “depth,” the restriction of subject matter to observable phenomena, and an “objective” presentation of these observed “facts.” In support of his statement, Foster cites principally the division of the book into nine vermús and the various places where the raconteur, don Evangelino Gadoupa Faquitrós, rejects his listeners' urgings that he form value judgments about the lives he is describing. Most of this appears beyond dispute. However, it is both a distortion of the French “new novel” and a misunderstanding of Cela's form to maintain that La familia del héroe is in any way an “objective” presentation.

In his essay, “New Novel, New Man” (1961), Alain Robbe-Grillet strongly objects to the appraisal of the description contained in the “new novel” as being “neutral” or “objective.” We would do well to read his exact words, because he leaves no possible room for doubt:

The New Novel aims only at a total subjectivity.

Since there were many objects in our books, and since there was something unaccustomed about them, a special meaning was quickly attached to the word “objectivity,” uttered in their regard by certain critics, though in a very special sense: oriented toward the object. Taken in its habitual sense—neutral, cold, impartial—the word became an absurdity. Not only is it a man who, in my novels for instance, describes everything, but it is the least neutral, the least impartial of men: always engaged, on the contrary, in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delirium.2

There are two narrators present in La familia del héroe.3 The first (who remains anonymous) is an external, semi-omniscient narrator who describes the entire happenings at the El Rosicler tavern, and also a chance street encounter several minutes before the tavern scenes. The second, and internal, narrator is, of course, don Evangelino Gadoupa Faquitrós, whose accounts of his degenerate relatives form the principle substance of Cela's novella. Upon close examination, this second narrator would appear to be caught up in the same type of engagement, idiosyncratic behavior, and obsessiveness which characterizes the narrators of Robbe-Grillet's fiction. He is strongly anti-clerical, as seen in his treatment of the priest, Taboada (pp. 39, 58) and his prejudicial remarks against the Jesuits (p. 39). He is a serious alcoholic, although so ironically ignorant of this fact that he moralizes on the evils of alcohol in others (pp. 81-82). He is obsessed with his supposed status as a hero's grandson, and continually browbeats the pastelero, don Fidel Serrano (pp. 69-73), and the camarero (pp. 54, 73, 81-82). In a variety of ways, he reveals an insensitivity to both his listeners and the world he pretends to describe. He gargles with his vermouth (p. 41). He returns from the washroom with his pants unbuttoned (p. 62). His so-called “poesías con moraleja” turn out to be off-color limericks (p. 46), while his warped sense of history leads him to declare his relative, don Segundo Martín Abollado (a viejo verde par excellence who lost two governorships because of his scandalous behavior), the present-day equal of such enshrined military heroes as Hernán Cortés and Juan de Austria (pp. 77-78). The effect of this gradual assimilation of information regarding the novella's internal narrator is to make us extremely suspect of his “objectivity,” no matter how many times he imputes unwarranted value judgments to others and gives evidence of his own impartiality.

Yet this is only half the story, since we must account for the fact that don Evangelino—as biased and as repugnant as he is—completely enthralls his listeners in the tavern with the “facts” he claims to be reporting. No matter what we think of don Evangelino, we will have to admit that he is entertaining. He knows how to build his narration around the most grotesque elements in his relatives' lives and to infuse these elements with a sense of life independent of the details omitted. His rapid, un-chronological delivery tends to juxtapose diverse happenings in such a way that ironies and humorous similarities are always apparent. It is not the “facts” or the “objectivity” of the raconteur's narration which so impresses his listeners, but their sense of being present at real happenings supercharged with excitement and extraordinary perspectives. In effect, they accept his fictional world to the point that his idiosyncracies as a human being no longer interfere with their act of participating in his art. It is as if Cela were giving us a lesson in the reading of fiction by letting us discover that we must never break faith with the storyteller by demanding of him what he cannot give: a spotless personal life, the proper details to satisfy our disparate senses of curiosity and verisimilitude, or a perennial sense of our well-being and secure orientation within the often chaotic fictional world. We therefore note that the unnamed external narrator severely rebukes an anonymous listener (to the whole series of stories which comprise the internal novella) when the listener corrects the external narrator's use of a word:

Después encendió [don Evangelino] con prosopopolla la colilla del farias, que se le había apagado.

—Oiga, ¿por qué no dice usted prosopopeya?

—¡Porque no me da la gana y a usted no le importa!


(p. 73)

In parallel fashion, the browbeaten camarero finally refuses to let don Evangelino interrupt the fictional world of his daydreams with prosaic demands for still another vermouth:

—… Mozo, vermú.

El camarero, se conoce que absorto en sus cavilaciones ni atendió.

—… Mozo, vermú.

El nieto de don Samuel se conoce que no supo ordenar de forma suficientemente persuasiva el nuevo vermú, porque el camarero ni se dignó pestañear.

(pp. 81-82)

And, similarly, the reader himself has no right to question the truth of many fantastic details, such as the footnote (p. 78) informing us that a ludicrous musical composition in honor of football, written in 1925, was a success forty years later at the Second Vatican Council. He must, rather, realize that in all fantastic presentations and distortions of reality there is, as Robbe-Grillet has said, a suggestion of “the eye which sees them, the thought which re-examines them, the passion which distorts them” (Robbe-Gillet, p. 137). And it is just such a process of re-examination and distortion which defines each man's way of forging the unique substance which constitutes his self.


  1. Univ. of Missouri Studies, Vol. 43 (Columbia, Missouri: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1967), 145-46.

  2. In Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965), p. 138. Hereafter, Robbe-Grillet, and cited in the text.

  3. La familia del héroe o discurso histórico de los últimos restos (ejercicios para una sola mano), Nueva edición corregida y aumentada (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1965). All references are cited in the text.

Fred Abrams (essay date spring 1973)

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SOURCE: Abrams, Fred. “Tremendismo and Symbolic Imagery in Cela's ‘Marcelo Brito’: An Analysis.” Romance Notes 16, no. 3 (spring 1973): 439-44.

[In the following essay, Abrams considers “Marcelo Brito” to be a “unique synthesis of the tremendista technique and cleverly devised symbolic imagery.”]

Jerónimo Mallo has defined tremendismo as a literary term applicable to “relatos novelescos relativos a personas, hechos y situaciones verdaderamente terribles de los que unas veces por la magnitud y otras por la acumulación de motivos de horror se recibe al leerlos una impresión tremenda.”1 “Marcelo Brito,” the third story in Cela's collection Esas nubes que pasan,2 is a unique synthesis of the tremendista technique and cleverly devised symbolic imagery in which hagiology and onomastic invention play an important part. Each of the stories is told to the author by an old sailor named Anselmo who, in this capacity, gives unity to the episodic structure of the book.

Marcelo Brito was convicted for the decapitation slaying of his wife Marta, age 23, a crime for which he was not responsible. Marta's mother Justina had committed the horrible act by axing her daughter to death. Marcelo probably would have remained in prison for the rest of his life, if Justina had not secretly confessed her guilt in a letter, which was discovered after her death. From the outset, Cela stresses two symbolic motifs which lead to and heighten the tremendista climax to his story: death associated with water and death by decapitation. The word mar is the focal point around which the author groups the names of his protagonists to highlight the water and decapitation images. Water is initially introduced in the names “Marcelo,” “Marta,” and Anselmo's profession (marinero). “Anselmo” yields in anagram “San Elmo,” patron saint of sailors, and “Justina,” from “Justino,” is a subtle hagiological allusion to Justin Martyr, put to death by decapitation during the reign of Marcus Aurelius.3

During his ten years in prison, Marcelo spent a great deal of time building a model of the “Santa María” in a green bottle and often became hysterical:

… y allá lo tuvieron casi diez años, metiendo las largas pinzas—con las jarcias y los obenques y los foques de la Santa María—por el cuello de la botella. Sobre el camastro tenía una fotografía de Marta, su difunta mujer, de traje negro y con un ramo de azahar en la mano, y según me contó José Martínez Calvet—su compañero de celda, a quien hube de conocer andando el tiempo en Betanzos, en la romería D'os caneiros—, algunas veces su exaltación al verla llegaba a tal extremo, que había que esconderle la botella, con su carabelita dentro, porque no echase a perder toda su labor estragando lo que—cuando no le daba por pensar—era lo único que le entretenía.

(pp. 44-45)

Anselmo follows this description with a diatribe against lawyers and the corrupt nature of justice. Lawyers who passed by Marcelo's cell on one occasion when he was experiencing a fit of hysteria assumed that it was a manifestation of repentance for the crime committed. Anselmo notes, however, that it was something quite different because Marcelo was innocent:

Los abogadetes se marcharon con su sonrisa satisfecha y su aire triunfal, y yo muchas veces me he preguntado qué habrán dicho si es que llegaron a enterarse de lo que más tarde hemos sabido todos: que la pobre Marta se fué para el Purgatorio con la cabeza atada con unos cordeles, puestos para enmendar lo que su marido ni hizo ni probablemente se le ocurrió jamás hacer.

(p. 46)

The construction of the “Santa María” in a green bottle4 and Marcelo's outbursts of hysteria are symptomatic of his obsession with the manner in which Marta died. Symbolically, the bottle represents in Marcelo's tortured mind the decapitated body of his dead spouse, and his manipulation of the strings attached to the boat for masts, jib, etc., through the neck of the bottle reflects a fixation on the grotesque fact that Marta's head had to be tied to her body with cords before she could be buried. Significant too is the name “Santa María” in which the word mar again appears, and the final letters of Santa (ta) combined with the three initial letters of María (Mar) produce “taMar,” an anagram of “Marta.” The name “José Martínez Calvet” serves a double function because it contains a water image and also permits Cela to emphasize the importance of anagrams in the story.5

Released from prison, Marcelo takes a job in a factory and, within two years, falls in love with “Dolores,” the daughter of “Jacinta.” The phonetic similarity between the names “Jacinta” and “Justina” is intentional. Cela is onomastically communicating to the reader the psychological association in Marcelo's mind between Jacinta and his former mother-in-law, the ax murderess. A decapitation image is also inferred from Greek mythology because the name “Jacinta” derives from Hyacinth, beloved by Apollo and Zephyr, son of a Spartan king. In a fit of jealousy, Zephyr hurled Apollo's quoit at Hyacinth's head and killed him.6 To determine whether Jacinta could possibly imperil his future happiness, Marcelo continues to test her in various ways over an extended period of time, until he finally becomes completely convinced that she is ingenuous, obtuse, and quite innocuous. Cela creates suspense, however, by temporarily leading the reader to believe that the future mother-in-law could possibly cause the tragic conclusion to the story. But fate will strike Marcelo and Dolores in a horrible way which does not involve Jacinta.

Cela's choice of the name “Dolores” for Marcelo's second wife is ideologically related to his deft development of water and decapitation imagery. Under Dolores, a name of biblical origin, Tibón lists:

Nombre místico, alusivo a los siete dolores de la Virgen María (Viernes de dolores). Plural de dolor, latín dolor, derivado de doleo, ‘experimentar dolor, sufrir,’ que se ha relacionado con dolo, ‘cortar (la madera) con hacha.’ El sentido primitivo de doleo fue tal vez ‘recibo golpes, soy batido.’7

The etymological affiliation of “Dolores” with “Maria” introduces another water image which Cela intensifies and couples with decapitation by revealing two tragic incidents in the life of Dolores involving her first husband, a marinero, and their small son, decapitated by a 32-car railroad train:

Dolores era joven y guapa, aunque viuda ya de un marinero a quien la mar quiso tragarse, y el único hijo que había tenido—de unos cuatro años por entonces—había sido muerto, diez u once meses atrás, por un mercancías que pasó sin avisar. … El caso es que Dolores no tomó cuidado del chiquillo y que el mercancías—con treinta y dos unidades—le pasó por encima y le dejó la cabecita como una hoja de bacalao. …8

The description of the little boy's head “left like a piece of codfish” is yet another water image.

A little more than a year after they are married, Marcelo and Dolores have a son whom they name Marcelo Jr. The happy couple adopt the custom of having a picnic each Sunday at the edge of a river. At this point Cela introduces the significant detail that Dolores has taken a job in a sawmill. Sawmills, of course, are located near rivers, and a sawmill blade cutting into logs symbolically recalls the decapitations of Marta and the young son of Dolores by her previous marriage. Also present is an etymological play on the name “Dolores” which, as previously mentioned derives ultimately from Lat. dolo, i.e., “to cut (wood) with an ax.”

One Sunday Marcelo Brito Jr., now five years of age, drowns in a river when he strays away from his parents:

Hasta que un día—la fatalidad se ensañaba con el desgraciado Brito—sucedió lo que todo el mundo (después de que sucedió, que antes nadie lo dijo) salió diciendo con que tenía que suceder; el niño—nadie, sino Dios, que está en lo Alto, supo nunca exactamente cómo fué—debió caerse, o resbalar, o perder pie, o marearse; el caso es que se lo llevó la corriente y se ahogó.

(pp. 53-54)

Significantly, the verb marearse appears last in the series to reinforce Cela's character names, all carefully contrived to presage the death of Marcelo Brito Jr. by drowning. The author's titular intention, as a foreshadowing device linked to the child's aquatic death, may now be seen in two ways. In the name “Marcelo,” the letters m,a,r,e,o appear in sequence. The entire name may be taken as an allusion to Britomartis, a daughter of Jupiter who fell into the sea while being pursued by Minos.9

The death of Marcelo Brito Jr. brings into sharp relief the final synthesis of water and decapitation images. Washed up against the grating of a water mill,10 the child's body is found next to a dead chicken. Since chickens are frequently killed by axing, Cela is symbolically reiterating the decapitation deaths of Marta, and Dolores' first son, while ingeniously playing on number symbolism. The decapitated Marta died at the age of 23; Dolores' first son was decapitated by a 32 car railroad train; 32 is an anagram of 23, both numbers serving as symbols of decapitation. The sum of the two digits of each number is 5, the age of Marcelo Jr., whose death is linked to decapitation through the chicken image.

Anselmo's description, containing cannibalistic overtones, of how the cadaver of Marcelo Jr. was discovered is a totally repugnant blend of grim humor and tremendista imagery:

El cadáver fué a aparecer preso en la reja del molino, al lado de una gallina muerta que llevaría allí vaya usted a saber los días, y a quien nadie hubiera encontrado jamás, si no se hubiera ahogado el niño del portugués; la gallina se hubiera ido medio consumiendo, medio disolviendo, lentamente, y a la dueña siempre le habría quedado la sospecha de que se la había robado cualquier vecina, o aquel caminante de la barba y el morral que se llevaba la culpa de todo. …

Si el molino no hubiera tenido reja, al niño no lo habría encontrado nadie. ¡Quién sabe si se hubiera molido, poquito a poco; si se hubiera convertido en polvo fino como si fuese maíz, y nos lo hubiéramos comido entre todos!

(pp. 54-55)

The reader, shocked and horrified, finishes the story convinced that Marcelo and Dolores are puppet figures whose destinies, inseparably linked to water and decapitation tragedies before and after their marriage, are controlled by the capricious whims of malevolent fate,11 symbolically represented by the bearded traveler with the knapsack “que se llevaba la culpa de todo.”


  1. “Caracterización y valor del ‘tremendismo’ en la novela contemporánea,” Hispania, XXXIX (March, 1956), 49.

  2. Segunda ed. (Madrid, 1953). All textual citations are taken from this edition.

  3. For details on St. Elmo and Justin Martyr, see Ferrando Roig, Iconografía de los santos (Barcelona, 1950).

  4. Green, the color of the sea, is also the color of vegetation signifying the triumph of Spring, or life over death. See J. A. Pérez-Rioja, Diccionario de símbolos y mitos (Madrid: Tecnos, sin año). Through inverse color symbolism, green is the color of death in “Marcelo Brito.”

  5. Cela conceals his own first name in the initial letters of “José Martínez Calvet,” which form “Jomcal,” orthographically equivalent to “Iomcal,” an anagram of “Camilo.” The first name “José” is the author's middle name, and in “Calvet” may be seen the anagram “Cela.”

  6. See Brewster's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 9th ed. (London, 1965).

  7. Gutierre Tibón, Diccionario etimológico comparado de nombres propios de persona (México, 1956).

  8. The train preceding the one which killed Dolores' son was supposed to have a green lantern hanging on the back of the last car to indicate another train was coming. The green lantern was either missing or extinguished, Ed. cit., p. 51. Also see n. 4.

  9. Pérez-Rioja.

  10. Britomartis was caught in the nets of some fishermen (See n. 9). The grating of the water mill on which the body of Marcelo Jr. was snagged is an analogous image.

  11. At the beginning of the story, the role of fate is suggested by the detail that Marcelo Brito was a “cantor de fados.” Both fados and “fate” derive from Lat. fatum.

Kenneth G. Eller (essay date September 1989)

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SOURCE: Eller, Kenneth G. “Cela's ‘Anti-Novelette’: Café de artistas.Hispanofila 97 (September 1989): 23-31.

[In the following essay, Eller regards Café de artistas as an “anti-novelette” and argues that the narrative technique, thematic concerns, and structure of this short novel complement each other.]

When Camilo José Cela was beginning his literary career in the early forties right after the Spanish Civil War, creative activity in Spain was in a paralyzed state. Oppressed by extensive governmental censorship, the few novelists who had not already left the country had little incentive and virtually no inspiration to produce anything of merit. Castellet described the situation as “átono” and “vulgar” (125). Reacting against these stagnant conditions, Cela soon began to reject the traditional styles and techniques utilized by his predecessors.1 His novels became increasingly experimental in form. In Foster's view Cela was attempting to rearrange reality in order to portray human behavior and experience in a more meaningful, innovative manner (80). Recognized today as Spain's most successful contemporary novelist, he has been given the credit for having revitalized and modernized the Spanish novel (Foster 13).

As early as his second novel, Pabellón de reposo (Rest Home) (1943), Cela's experimentation with novelistic technique becomes evident when he gives his characters numbers instead of names and develops a structural pattern which is rigidly symmetrical to the “nth” degree.2 In his fourth novel, La colmena (The Teaming Hive) (1951), he takes an entirely different approach. In an almost deliberately haphazard fashion he presents the low life of Madrid through a series of loosely connected vignettes. He deals with over 300 characters as they are “without any logical connection to a principal narrative thread” (Schwartz 40). Plot eliminated, the presentation is superficial and fragmentary. The next novel, Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo (Mrs. Caldwell Speaks With Her Son) (1953), is probably the most unorthodox of all to that point in his career. McPheeters claims “the work is about as much an anti-novel as has yet been conceived in Spain” (103). The work contains 212 selections, each about a page in length, which could be read in any order. The disjointed, fragmentary technique, however, is well suited to the novel's subject matter which revolves around the disconnected, illogical thoughts of a mentally unbalanced woman who becomes insane. In one instance, to demonstrate her increasing madness, a sentence is repeated twenty-four times, changing the order of words.

The novelette, Café de artistas, was published about the same time as Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo.3 Cela felt the everyday goings-on in an urban café were representative of the soul of Spain itself and underscored his attraction to cafés in the 1965 edition of the novelette by quoting his countryman, Santiago Ramón y Cajal: “When I am in the café, I feel more Spanish than ever.”4 The topic of daily life in a café with its “tertulia” is typically Spanish and is reminiscent of an “artículo,” “cuadro de costumbres,” or novel of a nineteenth century Realist, “costumbrista,” or even Naturalist writer. But an investigation of this short novel reveals that it has little in common with those past literary efforts by his compatriots. In writing Café de artistas Cela tried as hard as he could to defy and reject conventional writing methods, creating a work whose stylistic features as well as view of reality were innovative if somewhat shocking.5 If the 1953 novel Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo is Cela's anti-novel, the 1953 novelette Café de artistas is his anti-novelette. But the techniques used within this shorter form, instead of being random insertions of the author's fancy, actually accommodate the themes and motifs he wants to convey. The themes, the structure, and the style, I believe, complement each other in a skillful synthesis.

From the standpoint of its formal structure the work appears to have been organized traditionally through the use of chapters. Between chapters Cela makes indefinite lapses of time and changes the focus from one character to another—a rather standard technique. But he makes similar changes quite often within the chapters themselves which indicates that the chapters are arbitrary divisions. All the other basic techniques used in the work fall outside the limitations of established practices. A plot or story line is non-existent. Except for the mental and physical decline and subsequent death of the old man, Don Mamed, no evolution or development whatsoever of the characters can be seen. The classical or conventional pattern of exposition, crisis, and dénouement are likewise missing. The work, in addition, has no beginning or ending, the characters are not formally introduced, and we never do find out what happens to most of them at the end of the narrative. Cela discards these traditional techniques in all probability because they are irrelevant to his purpose. He is trying in a relatively few pages to make a caricature-like impression of what life is like on a daily basis for a group of unsuccessful, stupid writers and artists. Existence for them is monotonous, uneventful, and without direction. Their lives therefore do not fit into the scheme of a well-defined plot. The characters are, more than anything else, representative of a large similar group of people, rather than unique individuals whose complete history needs to be divulged.6 The impression of monotony and disorder in the characters' lives is enhanced by the lack of chronological references. The only specific allusion to time—the exact moment when worms start to eat the flesh of the recently buried Don Mamed—seems irrelevant and superfluous. Such pinpointing of time, more than anything else, is the author's way of making fun of those works where a careful chronology has been observed.

Cela furthermore does away with transitional passages, refusing to offer explanations to the reader. We are seldom told who is talking to whom. Occasionally a character carries on a conversation with himself or imagines a conversation. This is sometimes explained after the dialogue is presented. At other times the reader has to speculate on who said what to whom. The technique, however, adroitly makes an impression of the stark and cold reality of the café and the lack of close communication between the patrons. The main character, often identified as the “young man from the provinces,” is an outsider who receives little respect, attention or warmth from the others. When he talks, few listen. The general lack of authorial directions undoubtedly forces the reader to participate in the creative process by using his imagination to complete the narrative. Other techniques the author employs also make the narrative difficult to follow and at times we are left with the feeling that Cela is attempting deliberately to confuse us.7 In the first chapter, for example, he refers to the main character simply as “the young man from the provinces.” Then, at the beginning of the second chapter, the author acts like he has completely forgotten what he has written in the first chapter, because he focuses on other characters and waits to the end of the chapter to mention briefly and incidentally the character he has drawn in the first chapter, the “young man from the provinces.” In the following chapters he proceeds to assign to the young man from the provinces numerous different names without telling us right away that he is referring to the same person. The young man is alternately called Julito, Cándido, Enrique, and Esteban. In the final brief chapter Cela calls him consecutively all of these names with no further comment. Although this technique is bewildering, it serves to underscore the young man's identity crisis. Not having found his professional niche yet, he imagines at times he is a poet, at others a painter, and on another occasion an eloquent speaker.

Cela sometimes takes himself down to the same mentally deficient level as his characters, a technique which rebels against the tradition in which the narrator is a superior as well as omniscient being. The novelist will begin a series of short sentences with the same word and then make all the sentences structurally identical. Or, he will make an excessively obvious, unnecessary observation. The sentence “There are several kinds of painters: tall and thin painters, short and tall painters, and thin and short painters” (636) is more apt to come from a moron. Several times Cela writes as if he had suffered a mental lapse, abruptly changing to a topic which appears irrelevant to what he was just narrating. In chapter VII, he disorients the reader by inserting numerous paragraphs about shoe shine boys. Later we find out that a shoe shine boy apparently had been in the café selling cigarettes, although this is not really clarified and, even if it were, has hardly anything to do with the rest of the narrative. But this unusual style of writing matches the low mentality of the characters presented.

The reader may be further disoriented by the use of statements which seem to be puns or have a double meaning, but which are totally incongruous and meaningless. A good example is “The young man from the provinces was at a loss for words just like mayonnaise is when the lady of the house goes into the kitchen” (628).

Humor frequently results when the novelist juxtaposes ill-suited or unlike elements. The pathetically senile Don Mamed is initially portrayed as a “trembling old man with clicking false teeth who suffers incontinence and has a daughter who is a nun” (626). The unexpected reference to his daughter, which does not fit in with the other items described, produces an absurdity which is humorous. The incongruity of these unorthodox techniques serves to reinforce and reiterate one of the central themes of the work emphasizing that all of existence is essentially incomprehensible, monotonous, stupid, and absurd. Cela further strengthens this theme by repeating many times in the closing pages the phrase “¡Qué estúpida tristeza!”

Cela's scorn of past literary techniques is additionally expressed through parody. One of his characters tries to write a novel following a rigid, classical format, making sure to develop a story with an “exposition, climax, and dénouement” (630). His novel, excessively exaggerating human passions and emotions, is full of suspense, melodrama, and unlikely circumstances. Out-of-date and lacking in modern sophistication, the novel seems ridiculous—a parody of a nineteenth century romantic tale.

Cela also eliminates or distorts the principal motifs of traditional novels which usually were centered on interpersonal relationships, such as those between family members and lovers.8 The timid young man from the provinces is in love with an evil-smelling, obese, partially bald woman old enough to be his mother or grandmother. Romance, instead of being beautiful and natural with the woman or man idealized, becomes pathetic and perverted.

In diametrical opposition to the Realist school of the nineteenth century, Cela makes the majority of his characters less than credible as human beings. The brief, sketchy physical portraits of the characters are nothing more, nothing less than grotesque caricatures. The young man from the provinces, for example, has eyes which operate independently of each other and go in separate directions, but usually settle in an extreme cross-eyed position. All the customers in the café are said to have a gigantic Adam's apple and several women hide their baldness with a mahogany-colored wig. One character has six fingers; another resembles a mole-rat. The personality of several of the characters likewise defies credibility. The young man from the provinces is mostly depicted as a stupid idiot who aspires to be a writer but who has only attempted to write for street dogs and very small children. The eloquent, sophisticated speech he later writes is completely out of character. Cela's contempt for traditional characterization is also seen in some of the preposterous and sometimes obscene names he gives several characters. Two good examples are “Cándido Calzado Bustos” (Innocent Busts Wearing Shoes) and “Don Mamed.” The similarity of the latter to “mamar” (to suck) is probably intentional and gives the name a vulgar ring.9

The view of reality is further limited by the inclusion of a few surrealistic-like devices. During a moment of silence in the café, it is reported that “the serious angel of silence is moving about …” (625). In another instance, the young man from the provinces swears that his girlfriend starts to exhale smoke through her nostrils even before she lights up a cigarette (628). Towards the end of the work Cela whimsically uses the plural form when referring to the main male character and his female friend. Then all of a sudden and without explanation he returns to the singular. Perhaps this is done to create the effect that these two characters are representing major types frequently found in cafés. The severe criticism of writers and their works is thereby made more indirectly and appears less personal.

Unlike the typical novels of the past, no attempt is made to create a representative cross-section of society. To the contrary, the vision of existence and the treatment of individuals is highly selective. The characters' essentials and peculiarities are captured in only a few lives. When a character reappears, he is identified rapidly and succinctly. Cumbersome, wordy descriptions and unnecessary repetitions are thereby eliminated from the text. Schwartz observes that this rather fragmentary technique helps create the illusion of spontaneity (38). The few physical descriptions often serve to dehumanize maliciously several characters. Bird imagery is common. The main female character is called a pouting pigeon, her chest is compared to that of a turkey, and the bar patrons act like a flock of doves making an annoying noise. But the use of bird imagery is taken to the point of being outrageous. After observing that the senile Don Mamed looks like a fried bird, the author then says that the sight of the old man whets his appetite, giving him the urge to eat him, head and all!

Cela's description of Don Mamed's jokes is most original. Instead of simply saying that his jokes stink, he compares them to things they smell like. He doesn't mention just one or two things, but goes on to list nine altogether, markedly deviating from the usual technique of making descriptions.

Descriptions of the environment, traditionally used to set a scene, are likewise unconventional. What little description there is is made incongruous and ridiculous on purpose, as illustrated in this passage: “In the café one chews a dense and manual air, a type of air made out of the same sticky and stretchable material as one's bladder” (636).

Descriptive symbolism is also twisted in the novelette. The work begins with a description of the revolving door of the café. The door, Cela claims, is a beautiful simile and an important metaphor. Rather than explain why this is so, he makes several asinine observations. The revolving door rationally could symbolize the lack of direction and the sense of futility of all the characters in the narrative. But Cela does not mention this at all, pointing out, instead, that more than one person can fit into each partition of the revolving door, if the entering individuals are “skinny and spiritual” (623). The incongruity continues as he compares the door's partitions to pieces of cheese which are supposed to be good for lactating mothers. These introductory paragraphs are then repeated word for word in the work's last chapter. Although Cela acts like he doesn't know what the symbolism of the revolving door is, it becomes evident through this repetition that the door symbolizes the daily, frustrating routine of a group of floundering, untalented and unintelligent artists whose existence is going in circles—like the revolving door itself.10

Shortly after the paragraph concerning the revolving door, the underlying theme stressing the emptiness of existence is re-introduced with the depressing, blunt, but unexplained statement: “Women get fat, but it doesn't matter. Women write their prose and their poetry, but that doesn't matter either” (623).

The fact that Cela was writing during a period of severe censorship in Spain greatly affected the content and form of his works.11 Whenever he can, he seems to test the censor to see what he can get away with. According to McPheeters, this was Cela's way of “fighting the benighted censorship of his country” (43). Unlike most previous writers, with maybe the exception of Valle-Inclán, Cela will include something distasteful, offensive, and embarrassing. His disrespect for the reader's sensitivity and his lack of any sense of decorum appear to be one of his trademarks. In Café de artistas references are made to toilet paper, indigestion and gas, diarrhea, constipation, incontinence, hemorrhoids, and acne. Religion is irreverently mocked when it is observed that the main female character keeps the treasured rosary of her first communion in a box of suppositories. Such impropriety occurs blatantly and tersely with the intention of shocking the reader. The almost constant reference to taboo subjects—subjects not discussed in polite Spanish society of the mid-fifties—makes the novelette coarse and primitive as well as outrageously humorous. This is one way Cela modernizes Spanish literature, making it thematically more like the literature of other European countries, particularly France. By alluding all the time to offensive matters, Cela manages to protest the undesirable social conditions and the filth and squalor of his country.12 Even though he wrote Café de artistas more than a decade after the end of the Civil War, he felt that nothing had changed for the better for his countrymen.13

Such a dim outlook is not dissimilar to that of the picaresque writer who, like Cela, twisted and deformed reality, exhibited a crude, critical sense of humor, and saw little or no beauty in a cruel, cynical world. Considering its content only, Café de artistas might well be seen as traditional, within the realm of the picaresque. While the work does represent a reaction against the conventional manner of writing of the Realist school, Cela, like the Realists, recreated a segment of contemporary society, although his view seems excessively narrow.

Despite Café de artistas's multitude of apparent incongruous elements, the lack of a plot, and Cela's unwillingness to offer explanations, a sense of unity and consistency, greatly facilitated by the brevity of the narrative, is maintained throughout. The relatively few characters are all successfully integrated at the café, the main focal point of the novelette. The author's intention to ridicule writers and their artistic endeavors permeates every page, yet his criticism is carefully balanced between humor and an unremitting, depressing pessimism. His continuous use of unorthodox techniques is in itself a device further supporting his principal critical motif, making his criticism more indirect and less personal and therefore less prone to censors' objections. Having given this “anti-novelette” rather close scrutiny, I can only conclude that it is an ironic masterpiece. On the surface it may seem intentionally devoid of any artistic merit, but the exact opposite is true, because the techniques used have been linked with the themes and motifs conveyed.14


  1. Cela's first novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942), and his third novel, Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes (1944), are substantially picaresque in content and critics have generally characterized them as “traditional” in form. For a discussion of the traditional aspects of these novels, see D. W. McPheeter's book Camilo José Cela and David W. Foster's book Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela.

  2. The novel is divided into two parts. Each part has seven chapters which correspond to the seven main characters. The principal characters alternate in order of appearance according to sex: male, female, male. If a character has an interior monologue in Part I, he has a corresponding monologue in Part II. The second part of the novel relates the deaths of the seven main characters in the same order in which they have appeared in the first part.

  3. Café de artistas first appeared in a periodical called La novela del sábado (Saturday's Novel) and was later collected with other novelettes in 1956 under the general title of El molino de viento y otras novelas cortas (The Windmill and Other Short Novels). Eugenio de Nora views this collection as a “representación deliberadamente caricaturesca del poblacho español … donde todo es grotesco, ridículo y mezquino, cuando no estúpida y ciegamente cruel” (129).

  4. Cela's short story El café de Luisito (Obras Completas, 3: 124-26) and a good portion of his novelistic masterpiece La colmena also concentrate on people in cafés and bars.

  5. In a footnote to the 1965 edition Cela reveals that his editor wanted to reject Café de artistas precisely because it lacked the three traditional elements of a story. Only when he promised to write in a more traditional manner in the future did his editor accept the article. Cela goes on to say, with tongue-in-cheek, that he has always been very respectful of the aesthetic ideas of his editors. He also admits that he promised his editor he would “improve” his technique just so he would be paid the 3,000 pesetas for publishing the novelette (3: 622).

  6. Foster believes Cela wants to examine man on the universal, rather than the individual level. The novelist identifies individuals, but is always careful to avoid extensive characterization and personality development (152).

  7. Most critics recognize that these confusing techniques make Cela's works “modern,” more similar to works produced elsewhere in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. “El escritor moderno disimula, y su texto exige a menudo la disección para entregarnos su sentido” (Paul Ilie 32).

  8. Paul Ilie has discovered that close relationships between two or more individuals cannot be found as a central theme in any of Cela's novels (232).

  9. The senile Don Mamed is probably the only character true to life. His not-so-funny jokes and boring anecdotes and his mental confusion and subsequent total decline are revealed quite realistically in the dialogues. When the friendly, well-meaning old man is cruelly mistreated and insulted by an insensitive, intolerant younger man, we feel sorry for him. But the other characters are too far removed from reality for us to care about them and their fate.

  10. The use of inanimate objects to symbolize or synthesize human situations can be seen in Cela's other works. See Matías Montes Huidobro's study.

  11. Cela tried for four years to get La colmena published in Spain, but no one would touch it. Finally he got it published with certain modifications in Buenos Aires in 1951. See David Henn's discussion of Cela's censorship problems (8, 9).

  12. Noting the amount of humor in Cela, McPheeters refuses to place the novelist's works into the “social protest” category, which, he claims, takes itself too seriously (99).

  13. In his 1962 note to the fourth edition of his novel La colmena, he asserts that life for his countrymen is still the same even two decades after the Civil War (Obras completas 7: 961).

  14. Years after writing Café de artistas Cela continued to reject conventional literary patterns. For example, his novel Garito de hospicianos, written in 1963, lacks plot and character development and has been aptly described as a “series of unnumbered titled sketches of human beings and situations which have neither interconnection nor interdependency” (Foster's article 247).

Works Cited

Castellet, J. M. “La obra narrativa de C. J. Cela.” Revista Hispánica Moderna 28 (1962): 107-50.

Cela, Camilo José. Café de artistas. Vol. 3 of the Obras completas. Barcelona: Destino, 1965, 623-77.

Foster, David W. “Cela's Changing Concept of the Novel.” Hispania 49 (1966): 244-49.

———. Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela. Columbia, Missouri: U. of Missouri, 1967.

Henn, David. C. J. Cela, “La Colmena.” Madrid: Grant and Cutler, 1974.

Huidobro, Matías Montes. “Dinámica de la correlación existencial en La familia de Pascual Duarte. Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 16 (1982): 213-22.

Ilie, Paul. La novelistica de Cela. Madrid: Gredos, 1963.

McPheeter, D. W. Camilo José Cela. New York: Twayne, 1969.

de Nora, Eugenio. La novela española contemporánea. 2 vols. Madrid: Gredos, 1962. 2/2: 111-30.

Schwartz, Ronald. Spain's New Wave Novelists 1950-1974. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1976.

Thomas R. Franz (essay date October 1992)

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SOURCE: Franz, Thomas R. “Cela's La familia del héroe.Revista de Estudios Hispánicos 26, no. 3 (October 1992): 435-51.

[In the following essay, Franz finds parallels between La familia del héroe and Pío Baroja's La feria de los discretos.]

In a recent interview (“Camilo José Cela: ‘Español del Año’” 5) upon the occasion of his winning the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature, Camilo José Cela stated that he would cede his award to only one other Spanish novelist, Pío Baroja. That a Spanish writer of Cela's or subsequent generations should admire Baroja is not surprising (Cela Conde, Cela 22, 41, 82, 92), but that Cela should single him out over early twentieth-century novelists whose technical wizardry more nearly approximates portions of his own protean technique gives us pause to reflect on the possible reasons. Cela knew Baroja well (Sánchez Dragó 18; Cela Conde, “Crónicas” 29), and criticism has from time to time chosen to associate some structural elements of La colmena (Foster 63) with several novels of Baroja; but these are slim explanations for the strength of Cela's statement. One might, therefore, cast about for other ties observable from the perspective of using Baroja's novels as a theoretical model. One might note the rich use of dialogue punctuated by narrator and even authorial intrusions, double-voicing, the insertion of expository documents, the use of multiple narrative perspectives—which many critics (Foster, Spires, Ciplijauskaité, Ouimette, Eller, and others) have noted in either Baroja or Cela or both.1 There is also the matter of the important role given the raconteur (Ciplijauskaité 20-21) in Baroja novels like La feria de los discretos (1905) and La caverna del humorismo (1919), and in Cela's works like Tobogán de hambrientos (1962), La familia del héroe (1965), San Camilo (1969), and Mazurca para dos muertos (1983).

One intriguing aspect of this sometimes prominent and other times almost translucent raconteur is that Baroja and Cela expose him to numerous interruptions during the spinning out of his discourse, thus authorizing him to lecture his listeners (narrates or internal “readers”) as well as the real readers about the unorthodox esthetic behind his telling (or “writing”) of a good tale (or “narrative”). Other important similarities are the vulgarity and suspected unreliability of the raconteur, the constant branching of his story as more characters are introduced, and the stylistic features of the raconteur's speech. In Baroja and Cela there seems to be an implicit denial of Propp's insistence that the telling of tales involves very different processes than the writing of books. On the contrary, and in contradiction of Bakhtin's insistence (3-40) that different genres involve radically different degrees of inclusiveness and closure, both writers appear to affirm that the processes involved in spinning out a good “yarn” are the same ones required to produce an epic, a dramatization, or a novel. To illustrate these points and to show how Cela's fiction must be read with the manifest features of Baroja's poetics in mind, I am going to examine two all-too-neglected but technically and stylistically fascinating works, Baroja's La feria de los discretos and Cela's La familia del héroe.

In chapters 6-10 of La feria de los discretos, Gil Sabadía, an alcoholic archeologist, spins out a lengthy tale in which he recounts the strange pre-history of Quintín García Roelas to a young man who, unknown to the storyteller, is none other than Quintín himself. As if to underline the mysterious and metaliterary importance that this tale will have in creating the behavioral models (greed, haste, lust, willfulness) to be replicated in all of his young listener's future behavior, Gil takes the intrigued Quintín to the out-of-the-way house of a Celestina-like character named Patrocinio de Mata. It is at this well-removed site that Gil, like the necromancer in Juan Manuel's enxemplo IX (“Don Illán”), will reveal the secrets of his wizardry with words. There, over endless bottles of wine, he tells Quintín a scandalous tale beginning at the start of the nineteenth century and terminating around the Revolution of 1868, a span of some 60 years. The story proper commences in chapter 7, where a genealogy is traced among a series of marginated types who culminate for the moment in El Mojoso (a disreputable innkeeper), his conniving wife, and two daughters. One evening a visitor comes to their inn giving every appearance of fleeing the law; and the younger daughter, Fuensanta, serves him dinner. Though the story has hardly begun, the dumbfounded Quintín feels a need to interrupt Gil to marvel at the woman's name, since it clearly sounds like an idealization out of a pseudo-Medieval ballad. Gil, visibly irritated at the questioning of a name that he states is common in the region, begs leave to continue his tale (69; ch. 7). Fuensanta spends a very long time in the young man's room this night, and on the following morning he leaves for unknown parts. The history begins to sound increasingly “literary.” Once more (70) Quintín interrupts the narration with a question about the identity of the young man, and Gil chastises him for his impatience, while anxiously questioning his listener as to whether he truly admires his “manera de contar.” Quintín's attention, as well as the reader's, is thus squarely placed on the technique of the story as much as on its purported mimesis of reality. A few days later El Mojoso meets up with a police patrol searching for the young man who had spent the night and entertained Fuensanta. According to one of the searchers, the young man is the son of a marquis and is guilty of killing a man in Córdoba. When the police and El Mojoso arrive back at the inn, the young stranger has returned and once more has taken the innkeeper's daughter to bed. Although the dexterous tenorio temporarily escapes the gendarmes amid the parents' cries of dishonor, his pursuers gun him down within days. The parents of the ingenuous Fuensanta turn her out of the house, and months later news circulates that she has given birth to a son. At this juncture (76; ch. 8) Quintín interrupts the narrator, shouting objections to El Mojoso's shunning of his daughter. While annoyed at the interruption, Gil is visibly pleased at the ability of his storytelling to pull Quintín into the act as accomplice. This recognition of his success produces the important exchange that follows:

—Veo que se apasiona usted—dijo riendo don Gil—. ¿Le interesa a usted la historia?



—Ya lo creo.

—Entonces llame usted a la señora Patrocinio y que traiga más botellas de vino, porque tengo la garganta seca.


But when Quintín calls for more wine, Señora Patrocinio is nowhere to be found and Gil, personally taking up the clamor, expresses in an aside to Quintín the belief that the old crone has gone off to practice her sidelight of witchcraft. Finally the old woman returns, and Gil impresses upon her the importance of bringing two more bottles of wine before his story can recommence at the start of chapter 9.

Fuensanta meanwhile has sought refuge at the shop of a kindly old silversmith incredibly named Andrés Salvador. Recognizing how this name perfectly summarizes the dramatic function of the character at the same time that the appellation Fuensanta evokes the legend-like innocence of the innkeeper's daughter, the reader is forewarned that Gil's story is highly—or even entirely—embellished. Indeed, Patt has commented that many of the episode's details “make the association with serialized novels inevitable and give the reader an uneasy feeling that he has inadvertently stumbled into a theatre specializing in plays of the Romantic era” (98). Taking her cue from Bakhtin's concepts of “heteroglossia” and “dialogizing,” Ciplijauskaité (20-25) goes much deeper: Baroja is parodying the feuilleton and its reader, while working this mockery into the “carnival” of narrative voices—some serious, some not—that inevitably fuse in the novelistic genre. The circumspect silversmith agrees to take in the girl, and months later the good-natured man bids Fuensanta bring her natural child to live with them. Three years pass and Fuensanta marries a greedy tradesman stereotypically called El Pende, and with the narration of this detail Gil for the first time informs his listener that the child of Fuensanta answered to the name of Quintín. This parody of anagnorisis completed, Gil has El Pende devise the scheme of confronting the Marqués de Tavera with the existence of his natural grandson. The marquis, while not willing to dote on the boy, nevertheless agrees to pay his support. (Ultimately he will send him for schooling to England.) At this point Gil abruptly brings his narration to a halt and, when the frustrated Quintín wants to know why, the archeologist complains that they are once more out of wine. There then ensues a bitter argument about whether men should continue drinking Montilla or should begin to heedlessly mix their wines. Gil underlines his categorical refusal to continue the story before his thirst has been “properly” satisfied by more of Señora Patrocinio's best wine. There are probably several ways to interpret the recurring motif of this refusal to go on speaking unless very specific conditions are met. The most provocative and useful way of interpreting it in the metafictional atmosphere established by Baroja is as a suggestion that the narrator (or writer) must be comfortable with his method if his muse is to continue responding.

Chapter 10 concludes the lengthy series of events framed by the raconteur. It is only at this point that we encounter a description of the imposed-upon, ironically named Señora Patrocinio. It is as grotesque a description as any found in a Baroja novel or, for that matter, any work of Cela's. Then, as the raconteur pauses to list in Balzacian detail all of the various items purchasable in the shop run by El Pende, Señora Patrocinio becomes bored with the narrative breakdown and calls on Gil to be less pedantic (84). After Gil warns her to keep quiet, Quintín fruitlessly takes up her cause, Gil responding by tenaciously insisting not only on his freedom to please, but also on his right to confound his listener with what we today would call a “writerly” presentation. Getting his own way one more time, the now completely inebriated Gil recommences the story but provokes a final interruption from Señora Patrocinio by getting lost in a plethora of expository details rather than advancing the narrative vein. Gil again stands resolute: his art demands its right to assemble as many types of discourse as one can conceive of existing. Not only does he have an absolute right to assemble and “dialogize” discourse—a privilege always defended by Baroja (Uribe Echevarría 58)—but he demands the right to begin an entirely new narrative within the space of the same artistic frame (89). Señora Patrocinio vociferates objections, but Gil goes right on drinking and spinning out his new tale. As Bakhtin (20-38) makes clear in his discussion of the unique openness of the novel, the possibilities for expansion of the raconteur's story are limitless.

Cela's La familia del héroe consists of nine chapters during the course of which the sixty-year-old grandson of the “hero” of a nineteenth century barracks revolt tells the progressively branching story of the hero's descendants. In each of the nine chapters the raconteur, Don Evangelino Gadoupa Faquitrós, narrates a number of scandalous anecdotes involving a different grouping of grotesque relatives. The vignettes begin in the latter third of the nineteenth century and run to about 1920, as in Baroja's La feria, a period of some sixty years. The setting that frames the entire novella is a tertulia in the El Rosicler café, and each of the nine chapters except the first and the final ones concludes with the raconteur ordering the waiter to serve him another vermouth. Throughout the progression of anecdotes the various bizarre contertulios interrupt the flow of the grandson's tales, and he—in Baroja-like manner—is obliged to lecture them on the underlying principles of narrative creation and listener (reader) re-creation. In the process, Cela's novella absorbs and modifies aspects of Baroja's overall manner of elaborating and calling conscious attention to his narrative act.

At the beginning of Chapter 2 (25) Don Evangelino simply demands his refill of vermouth in a straightforward way, and the waiter replies that it will immediately be served. However, starting with Chapter 3 his consumption of alcohol causes his requests to be progressively more demanding and complex:

—Mozo, tráigame otro vermú con sifón.

—Será servido, caballero.

—Y un purito farias que no esté demasiado seco.

—Será servido caballero.


In the middle of the second biographical sketch of the chapter, Don Evangelino is interrupted by two of the contertulios who begin to comment on the merits of this raconteur whom the priest Taboada has brought to entertain them at their tertulia:

—¿Qué? ¿Qué le parece a usted el amigo que se ha sacado de la manga el cura Taboada? ¿Verdad, usted, que es un hombre de pro y muy representativo?

El nieto de Don Samuel le cortó la respuesta a Don Bartolomé con un gesto muy de hombre de mundo y de vuelta ya de sus pompas y vanidades.


The brief exchange reveals two important perspectives which will be reinforced and expanded throughout the novella. First and most important, it was already clear from other comments of the foul-mouthed and most ironically named Don Evangelino that he is not “un hombre de pro y muy representativo.” It is rather that the details of corruption, sexual extravagance, and behavioral freedom that fill out his vignettes so liberate the contertulios from the weight of their own routine lives that they imagine themselves possessors of healthy egos like that of Don Evangelino. Second, the moral character of the author of the stories should properly have no bearing on the listener's (reader's) reception of their content. It is for this reason that Don Evangelino refuses to grace this particular interruption with a reply. This is not true in the case of the following intrusion, when the priest breaks in to comment on the millinery business of the grandson's relative, Doña Vicenta:

—Doña Vicenta conocía el paño y sabía con quien se jugaba los cuartos.

—Pues, mire usted, yo no le digo ni que sí ni que no: yo me limito a contarles a ustedes las cosas, tal como fueron.

—No se pique, hombre, no se pique. …

El nieto de don Samuel, aunque no tenía malas pulgas, era algo chinche y quisquilloso.

—Yo les cuento las cosas sin adornos y sin poner nada de mi cosecha.


Although it is clear from this fragment—in which the priest, the raconteur, and the external narrator intervene—that neither the other contertulios nor the conservative outer narrator approve of his unmeditated presentation of characters, Don Evangelino, like any author of modern narratives, refuses to make expository judgments on the behavior that his characters bring into play. A minimum of “writerly” ambiguity is necessary for narrative art to be a creative two-way act.

The raconteur is more “readerly” in chapters 4 and 5, where the response of the listeners (readers) provides needed correction and openness to the growing hermeticism of his one-sided account. When a contertulio asks Don Evangelino whether his exaggerated statements about a character's reclusive habits were to be taken literally, the raconteur takes the statements back and removes the categorical closed-endedness from the narrative (42; ch. 4). This recognition of the need to take the listeners (readers) into account in the planning of his narrative strategies is reinforced by Don Evangelino's stopping to ask his listeners whether he is boring them with so much chatter about his family (45-46; ch. 5), a question that recalls Gil's similar inquiries about the success or failure of his narrative in chapter 7 of Baroja's La feria. In a misguided step, Don Evangelino offers to alleviate their presumed boredom by taking them whoring later on in the evening, provided that they give him more time to improve his narrative. At this precise point in the novella, Cela has the external narrator, who is passing on Don Evangelino's narration to us with rather traditional comments of his own, stop to give us our first detailed description of the raconteur. Not only is the outer narrator here echoing Don Evangelino's recognition about an author's necessary cooperation with the needs of his reader, but the belated presentation of the description parallels Baroja's tardy and almost reluctant description of the grotesque but important interlocutor-foil, Señora Patrocinio, in La feria de los discretos. The sketch of Don Evangelino is no less grotesque and adds fuel to our growing suspicion that such a buffoon must be inventing rather than simply relating (as he himself insists) the tales that he is offering to his audience. The raconteur's final note in this chapter is again one of a “readerly” gesture to his public. While testily demanding another vermouth, he also fumes about the waiter's inability to supply him with a decent pencil with which to illustrate an architectural description that he finds difficult to communicate in words. His stubborn insistence on obtaining a “proper” pencil, not just a haphazardly sharpened instrument, recalls Gil's insistence on having the “correct” wine rather than merely a good one in Chapter 9 of La feria. Don Evangelino terms his projected drawing (it actually appears printed in the following chapter) a croquis (54), the same term Baroja used to label many of the merged journalism-style snippets supposedly written by the character Larrañaga that serve as epigraphs to the chapters of his trilogy Agonías de nuestro tiempo (1926-1927), and—combined with the many character illustrations by Lorenzo Goñi that form an integral part of La familia del héroe—the phenomenon serves to underline the way in which Cela's “dialogic” text (Bakhtin 259-369) is capable of merging not only material from various discourses but also material which transcends the linguistic. Cela himself has tacitly corroborated this brand of poetics by stating many times that “la novela es algo todavía por definir. La novela es un género proteico donde todo cabe …” (Friedrich 20).

Whereas in chapters 4 and 5 the raconteur makes appeals to the responsiveness of his listeners, in chapters 6 and 7 he finds it necessary to reverse the process, which has now gone out of control. When the priest once more interrupts with a carbon copy of the challenge to narrative closure that he had issued back in chapter 4 (42), he is sternly told that this time closure is absolute (58; ch. 6). The listener (reader) may have his rights to co-create the narrative, but only in accord with the textual strategies that the tale teller (writer) has embedded within it. In fact, the raconteur and his narrative strategies ultimately become subject to even more compelling influences, the autonomous dynamism and inner logic of the text and the sum of cultural intertexts coming to bear on the raconteur's subject. Therefore, when the pastry cook objects that the narrative is moving in chaotic and immoral directions, Don Evangelino can only reply:

—Caballero: no es mía la culpa de que la historia discurra por cauces tan arbitrarios e incluso nefandos. A ruegos de nuestro común amigo el cura Taboada, les estoy contando a ustedes la historia de mi familia. El conjunto de las historias de todas las familias españolas, es la historia de Espafia, la historia de la patria de nuestros mayores. La objectividad más absoluta es el mejor adorno del historiador.

(70; ch. 7)

There are many additional incidents that could be adduced to illustrate how La familia del héroe partakes of the same technical, stylistic, esthetic, and attitudinal arsenal as does the art of Baroja in La feria de los discretos. Two of the final incidents in Cela's novella are particularly noteworthy. In chapter 8 (81-82) Don Evangelino almost loses his sanity calling in vain for another vermouth, this inconvenience being due to the formerly attentive waiter's preoccupation with personal pursuits. This incident recalls the temporary inattentiveness of Señora Patrocinio to the demands for more wine in chapter 8 of La feria. Both the waiter and Señora Patrocinio have, in point of fact, lost interest in their raconteur's stories on account of the storytellers' progressive drunken incoherence. There is a deliberate warning about communication encoded into both of the self-reflexive works of fiction: narrative heteroglossia inevitably finds its limits in the finite mental capacity of a particular audience. This brings us to a second similarity in metafictional perspective: both Baroja's and Cela's texts acknowledge that if the finite listener (reader) did not impose limits on the tale teller's heteroglossia, the former could go on complicating his strategies and practices forever. The floods of alcohol consumed by both narrators and listeners in these two works can be seen as symbols of the bountiful inspiration theoretically awaiting the peerless artist and the consummate reader who in life only rarely appear. Baroja's Quintín acknowledges his raconteur's phenomenal capacity for absorption when he exclaims, “—Pero usted es un tonel, querido don Gil” (76; ch. 7); and Cela's external narrator suggests the same capacity in his raconteur when he remarks that “El nieto de don Samuel aguantaba más vermú que nadie” (45; ch. 5). This is why Baroja's sequence of chapters ends with Quintín and Señora Patrocinio horrified that Gil is going to continue branching his story indefinitely. This is also why the constrained contertulios in Cela's cafe, in the final action of the novella, cannot accompany Don Evangelino to the bordello, where he has gone not only to fornicate, but, as the external narrator underlines, “a seguir hablando” (86).

All of the foregoing leads to the conclusion that in various ways Cela's text makes contemporizing “corrections” on that of Baroja. First and foremost, it makes narratological concerns a proportionally larger part of the work and, thereby, greatly advances Baroja's flight from Balzacian mimesis. Secondly, the Cela text intensifies Baroja's concentrations of grotesque appearances and highly individualistic behavior, further deforming the inadequate literary paradigm of human actions bequeathed by much of Realist tradition, thus correcting that paradigm to show that not only are random encounters bound to cause outbreaks of ugliness and evil—as some Naturalist might have it—but that clumsiness, stupidity, and evil are present in every human animal and must be rendered prominent in every fictionalization of the species. To the extent that Cela both accomplishes this correction and metafictionally draws attention to this accomplishment, he advances the selective New Realism of a Galdós or a Baroja into and beyond the grotesque portraiture of a Valle-Inclán or a Faulkner. Indeed, without the latter's accomplishments and the heightened perspectives that they offer, it is problematic whether Cela could have achieved his sharing of vision with the carnivalesque atmosphere of Baroja's La feria de los discretos. But it is Baroja's own text that suggests the very possibility of Cela's reshaping it in the light of subsequent esthetic and technical drift. In Baroja's novel the raconteur corrects his interlocutors' old-fashioned notions of literary discourse in precisely the way that Cela's text will correct Baroja's: by carrying out a dialogue with it. Just as La familia del héroe's Don Evangelino and company alternately dispute and compromise on the proper roles for reader and writer in their co-creation of a fictional experience—as Gil and his audience had similarly done in Baroja's La feria—so Cela's text will alternately reject and embrace Baroja's perspectives. From La feria's Quintín and Gil, Cela's text extracts the role of Don Evangelino as an outsider whose discourse simultaneously betrays both an acceptance and an abhorrence of the mores of his listeners. From Baroja's interlocutors, the Cela text intuits the perspective that a listener (or reader) has legitimate concomitant demands which balance the more obvious demands that a storyteller makes on his or her audience.

Cela's novella also superimposes upon Baroja's (and Zola's and Galdós's) narrative art a common grounding of character action in a behavioral paradigm provided by past generations. In La feria this paradigm is suggested by the discussion of palimpsests early in the novel:

Guardan los arqueólogos como oro en paño curiosos documentos, escritos dos veces, a los que llaman palimpsestos. Son pergaminos en los cuales en épocas remotas se borró la primera escritura, substituyéndola por otra. En tiempos recientes, investigadores tenaces supieron descubrir los borrosos signos, descifrarlos y leerlos.

La idea de esos extraños documentos vino a la memoria de Quintín al pensar en su vida.

(La feria 26; ch. 3)

The novel subsequently reveals its own structure to be one of overlaid searches: first, Quintín's search for his own mysterious origins; second, Gil's supplementation of the data that Quintín has been able to unearth; and finally, the reader's discovery that the processes culminating in the birth and disturbing self-discovery of Quintín will continue to determine the course of his tragic existence. At the end of the novel Quintín returns to the one true woman in his life only to find out that the perfidy with which he has duplicated his own parents' egotistical impulses has disqualified him from ever winning her love. Not only does his life constitute a palimpsest with that of his parents, but with that of their parents and their parents' parents as well.

Cela's text incorporates the same paradigm but very significantly substitutes the memoir of the raconteur for the Barojian-Zolaesque-Galdosian palimpsest of the protagonist. The raconteur progressively reveals the libidinous lives of his antecedents as the model for his own equally degenerate ways, a relationship suggested in the novella's first chapter, when a contertulio expresses his hope that Don Evangelino will prove to be as unbridled and entertaining as his grandfather and father had been (19). By shifting focus from the external narrator's diachronic view of the protagonist to the raconteur's disordered reflections of absent, secondary characters—a possibility suggested by Gil's greater narrative skill when compared to that of the more traditional outer narrator in Baroja's novel—Cela's text significantly de-centers the narrative and, more forcefully than Baroja, declares orderly schematics to be only one part of the equation for a successful work of fiction. The readerly patterning of Cela's work into nine tales and an almost equidistant series of interruptions is an important part of this formula; but the writerly recognition of life's amorality and disorder, together with its acknowledgement that a narrative perspective always constitutes an arbitrary centering of attention on an inherently marginated individual (since none is inherently privileged), is of equal or greater importance. Yet even this perspective is present to a degree in Baroja's novel, when Quintín returns from a public school education in England only to view his country cynically and lovingly with the eyes of a semi-outsider.

Every text, according to the notion of the intertext put forth by Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others, “is the absorption and transformation of other texts” (Culler 139). Moreover, it constitutes a critical and metalinguistic act in which an author recalls “previous or contemporary texts, affirming some and denying others in order to assert his or her own right to speak” (Morgan 259). La familia del héroe and La feria de los discretos constitute just such an intertext. Cela's novella demonstrates a clear affinity for many of La feria's operations. These include an “exaggerated” realism (deformation), the device of the raconteur and his debates with his listeners about the techniques of narrative art, the paradigmatic effects of a family and its psychological patterns upon an individual, the necessity of fictional improvisation in the successful presentation of historical verities, and the need for plurivalency and open-endedness in the semiotics and structures employed. However, coming sixty years after Baroja's novel, Cela's work takes these perspectives far more for granted and consequently utilizes them far more ruthlessly than Baroja's work. It also disregards important facets of Baroja's writing—its parody of feuilletonesque plot inherent in Quintín's extravagant “life,” its scandalous exposé of Cordovan aristocracy—because they are no longer a sufficiently important part of the social and artistic focus for Cela to make a vital intertext out of them. In its picking and choosing from among Baroja's metafictional and metacritical dialogues with his own contemporaries and antecedents, Cela's text engages in the same dialogizing and heteroglossia as Baroja's, but it does so according to the coordinates of a different age. It is with these latter coordinates that Cela and we now unavoidably read the earlier text of Baroja.

Seeing the intertextuality of La feria and La familia del héroe, we tend to view the earlier novel's secondary characters in the light of the grotesque bestiary present in Cela's novella, though only a few of Baroja's characters actually exceed the costumbristic “typing” of the feuilleton. This offers the possibility of letting us see Baroja's human portraits as they might have appeared had not the strictures of mimesis and the stereotypes of serialized writing been so tenacious as they generally were at the turn of the century. The intertextuality of the two works also forces us to focus intently upon Gil's art of storytelling, in spite of the fact that Gil is only a small part of the narrative voicing in Baroja's novel. Such a focus, because it highlights and theorizes upon aspects of Baroja's own style, draws attention to the considerable stylistic achievements that have for too long gone unappreciated in the fiction of Baroja. Finally and most importantly, the open ending of Cela's novella, where Don Evangelino—paralleling Gil's own rhapsodizing in La feria—runs off to the bordello to continue his spinning out of episodes, permits us to see the final scene of La feria not merely as a cruel irony—the nightingale singing and the romantic moon shining down on the womanless Quintín—but as a possibility for both the external narrator and Quintín himself to improvise still another chapter so long as the vital coordinates of their tales are still alive. In other words, not only does the raconteur, Gil Sabadía, threaten to go on spinning out his tale about Quintín forever, but the novel La feria de los discretos actually does so, leading to a new reading in which an internal character, eight years prior to Niebla's Víctor Goti, is responsible for the fiction in which he himself appears.2

Nearly twenty years ago I published a study in which I dealt with La familia del héroe in terms of the subjective fixation upon facts being championed by proponents of the French nouveau roman, which clearly enjoyed an intertextual relationship (Foster 119-47) with nearly all of Cela's fiction of the 1960s.3 I still see Cela's novels of the sixties in this way. However, my widening of critical horizons due to the insights of new and rediscovered literary theory, my greater familiarity with Baroja, and my witnessing of Cela's homage to his fellow countryman make me realize now that Cela's art not only shares an equal intertext with Baroja, but gains in breadth and clarity by being read in the light of Baroja's truly impressive and still largely unrecognized stylistic and other technical achievements. In similar fashion, Baroja's art gains a decidedly more modern focus by having its revolutionary dimensions highlighted by their perception in the light of Cela's achievements. It is both of these viewpoints that I have hoped to promote in this essay.


  1. David W. Foster, Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela 72, 134-35; Biruté Ciplijauskaité, “La novela como una feria de los discretos” 16-25; Victor Ouimette, “La aspiración ética de Pío Baroja” 63; Kenneth G. Eller, “Cela's ‘Anti-Novelette’ Café de artistas” 25; Robert C. Spires, La novela española de posquerra 98-107ff and Transparent Simulacra 2-13.

  2. This is very different from what Galdós accomplishes in El amigo Manso (1882), where the protagonist creates the story of his own painful transition from fictive to quasi-autonomous being. Baroja and Cela fail to develop the existential dimension highlighted by the Galdós-Unamuno intertext (Gullón 57-102), but they—along with Unamuno—surpass Don Benito in their ability to portray a fictional “author” who re-invents and nearly reifies himself in the process of inventing a story about others.

  3. Thomas R. Franz, “Cela's La familia del héroe, the nouveau roman, and the Creative Act” 375-77. While this previous study offers a different approach to the matter of the raconteur's unreliability, the listener intrusions into the raconteur's tales, and the relationship between the listener/reader and the outrageous “facts” presented by the raconteur, when one views my initial perspective against my reliance in this study upon paradigms fostered by Baroja, one finds that both approaches to Cela's novella function well. If they do not entirely merge, they intersect neatly without contradiction, much like the simultaneous “full face” and “profile” views in many portraits by Picasso. After 1969 Cela's fiction takes on many additional profiles: those of the Spanish American “boom”; of harbingers of the Spanish present, like Juan Goytisolo, Marsé, and Caballero Bonald; of the literary theorists who have achieved such acclaim and metaliterary echo within most of the best Spanish fiction being published today. This inclusion of many perspectives produces a Bakhtinian “dialogizing” which adds an astonishing degree of complexity and potential meaning to any recent Cela fiction.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Baroja, Pío. La feria de los discretos. 2nd ed. Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1945.

“Camilo José Cela, ‘Español del Año’.” ABC [Madrid] (20 Dec. 1989): 5.

Cela, Camilo José. La familia del héroe o discurso histórico de los últimos restos (ejercicios para una sola mano). Madrid: Alfaguara, 1965.

Cela Conde, Camilo José. Cela, mi padre. 5th ed. Madrid: Temas de Hoy, 1989.

———. “Crónicas de la frustración.” Prólogo 5 (1989): 29.

Ciplijauskaité, Biruté. “La novela como una feria de los discretos.” Lasagabaster 15-25.

Culler, Jonathan. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Culture. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

Eller, Kenneth G. “Cela's ‘Anti-Novelette’ Café de artistas.Hispanófila 97 (1989): 23-31.

Foster, David W. Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela. U of Missouri Studies 43. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1967.

Franz, Thomas R. “Cela's La familia del héroe, the nouveau roman, and the Creative Act” MLN 88 (1973): 375-77.

Friedrich, Michael. Fragment of interview with Camilo José Cela. Prólogo 5 (1989): 20.

Gullón, Ricardo. Técnicas de Galdós. Madrid: Taurus, 1970.

Lasagabaster, Jesús María, ed. Pío Baroja: Actas de las III Jornadas Internacionales de Literatura (San Sebastián. 11-15 de abril de 1988). San Sebastián: Mundaiz, 1989.

Morgan, Thaïs. “The Space of Intertextuality.” Ed. Patrick O'Donnell and Robert Con Davis. Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989. 239-79.

Ouimette, Victor. “La aspiración ética de Pío Baroja.” Lasagabaster 63-79.

Patt Beattice P. Pío Baroja. Twayne World Authors Series 146. New York: Twayne, 1971.

Sánchez Dragó, Fernando. Fragment of interview with Camilo José Cela. Prólogo 5 (1989): 18-19.

Spires, Robert C. La novela española de posguerra: creación artística y experiencia personal. Madrid: Cupsa, 1978.

———. Transparent Simulacra: Spanish Fiction, 1902-1926. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1988.

Uribe, Echevarría, Juan. Pío Baroja: técnica, estilo, personajes. Santiago de Chile: Universitaria, 1969.

Additional coverage of Cela's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Bestsellers, Vol. 90:2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24R, 206; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 21, 32, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 13, 59, 122; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1989; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; European Writers, Vol. 13; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3.




Cela, Camilo José (Vol. 122)