Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3232
Cela, Camilo José 1916–
Cela is a Galician with Italian and English ancestors. He has written many short stories and travel books about Spain in addition to the novels for which he is well known. The Family of Pascual Duarte, according to one critic, "brought new preoccupations and language to the Spanish novel." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-22.)
Camilo José Cela, like the other members of his generation in Spain,… reacted violently against the "dehumanizing" tendencies so pronounced in the post-World War I novelists such as Ramón Pérez de Ayala, Jarnés, Unamuno and Miró. Seeking a foothold in traditional Spanish realism, [the more recent] novelists eschew intellectualized figures and abstractions, preferring to focus their attention on flesh-and-blood characters and the realities of the world which surrounds them. In spirit their works are probably closest to the late nineteenth-century realistic masters such as Galdós, Pereda, Blasco Ibáñez.
The history of the Spanish novel records few cases of such stern and merciless realism as Cela's. [This] Galician has little to say in favor of mankind. Few if any rays of sunshine penetrate his pages, in which ugliness, brutality, selfishness and the principle of "homo homini lupus" predominate. Cogent reasons exist for classifying him as a full-fledged naturalistic writer. From the very beginning of his career, Don Camilo has exhibited a predilection and a genius for portraying life, man and society at their worst.
In his first novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942), Cela adopted the form and even the archaic style of the Golden Age picaresque novel to present the autobiography of a criminal awaiting execution. Born into the most squalid and loveless of environments, Pascual is incapable of rising above his milieu. Despite a basically kind disposition, his life is a series of brutalities and killings. He kills in turn a dog which always appeared to regard him reproachfully, a horse which had thrown his wife and caused her to abort, his wife's lover and finally his hateful, nagging mother. The novel, to a large extent a succès de scandale, abounds in shocking incidents. Pascual Duarte merits comparison with some of Dostoevsky's psychopathic protagonists. It is difficult to find in Spanish literature a novel which approaches La familia de Pascual Duarte in its sustained atmosphere of impending catastrophe, its powerful portrayal of human malevolence, and in nightmarish effects.
Cela's second novel, Pabellón de reposo (1943) consists of a series of letters by supposed tuberculosis patients in a sanatorium. The young writer dips his pen in blood to portray the anguished and tortured soul-states of his protagonists, in the last stages of consumption. So realistically convincing were the letters, which first appeared in serial form in El Español, that Cela received a letter from a physician imploring him to discontinue the series, since his patients were identifying themselves with the hapless characters in Pabellón de reposo and this was retarding their progress!
In Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes (1946), the novelist presents a modern Pícaro. The new Lazarillo, of no more illustrious parentage than his sixteenth-century forerunner, successively serves a trio of wandering musician-sharpers, a hermit, a group of French acrobats and finally a witch-healer. The twentieth-century Spanish rogue is less a caricature, more a flesh-and-blood character than the Golden Age prototype.
A careful and conscientious workman, Don Camilo devoted five years to the writing of his fourth and most recent novel, La colmena, published in 1952 in Argentina. As if manipulating a powerful camera, Cela focusses upon one after another of the habitués who frequent Doña Rosa's bar, located in...
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a shabby section of Madrid.La colmena is the collective tragedy of pathetic individuals existing in a material and spiritual vacuum and devoid of any altruism of idealism. Spanish criticism has been almost unanimous in acclaiming this novel as Cela's masterpiece, both for its vigorous simplicity and for the author's artistry in evoking the atmosphere of Madrid during the final days of World War II and the years immediately following….
Don Camilo has himself supplied a number of statements which afford insight into his aims and methods. Among foreign writers he renders special tribute to Dostoevsky, while among Spaniards it is Baroja who influences him most strongly. To certain critics Cela is largely a cultivator of the novela barojiana. It is indeed true that there is much that is reminiscent of the venerable Basque novelist in his works: their episodic and rambling structure, the rich galaxies of types presented, the kaleidoscopic views of society, the strong attraction for outcasts and marginal personalities, the pessimistic view of life….
Much like Pío Baroja, he conceives of the novel as a malleable and flexible instrument for the mirroring of life's realities. The novelist is to him "the keeper of the conscience of his times and his world" whose duty it is to lash out against deceit, dishonesty and sham.
His pessimism is stubborn and unrelieved. He has not hesitated either in his novels or in his critical statements to make this clear. [He has] commented: "Life is not good; neither is man…. Upon occasion it appears that man is kind and intelligent. But let us not be deceived. He is only hiding behind hs mask."
Jacob Ornstein and James Y. Causey, "Camilo José Cela: Spain's New Novelist," in Books Abroad, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1953, pp. 136-37.
[Not] only has Cela been responsible for revitalizing the Spanish novel by giving it impetus with a series of artistically excellent works, but he has chosen as well to make his career one of a complete re-examination and reconsideration of the novel as an art form. Cela's consistent refusal to adhere to any a priori assumptions concerning the novel and his insistence on being the most unpredictable writer since the tempestuous Unamuno have not endeared him to all literary critics….
Cela's novels have often attracted more attention to their form than to their themes, and the author has stated his interest in trying out various modes of the novel. It is unnecessary to discuss why Cela is interested in experimenting with different modes of fiction. Why does any author experiment with form and technique if it is not in order to find the most convenient form of self-expression?… In trying several different theoretical orientations, Cela has sought directly to improve his skill as a novelist and indirectly to serve as bellwether for the postwar Spanish novelists. It remains to be seen how much impression Cela's work will have on novelists in general and whether his importance will be felt sufficiently outside of Spain to influence non-Spanish novelists.
From a theoretical point of view, the principal concern of Cela's novels has been the mode of the novel as a reflection of human experience. Cela's various attempts with narrative prose fiction may be seen as seeking to establish an optimum balance between the novel and the living reality it pretends to reflect. In this respect, Cela's novels may be grouped into four broad categories: (1) traditional in form (La familia de Pascual Duarte); (2) novel of psychological introspection (Pabellón de reposo); (3) novel of the social complex (Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes, La colmena, La catira, and Tobogán de hambrientos); and (4) new novel in form (Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo, Garito de hospicianos, and La familia del héroe. Tobogán also shares characteristics of this group.)…
Tobogán de hambrientos demonstrates to an abundant degree all of the tendencies and characteristics of Cela's novels as a whole. Cela continues to advance the idea that mankind can be seen only as a totality of individuals who share common desires, problems, and emotions. Tobogán de hambrientos views individuals essentially as objects to be used as raw material in a commentary upon mankind. With this novel, Cela reaches a plateau of technical achievement where successive novels threaten to become repetitions of what has already been said. Although Cela has firmly established the right of the novel to explore mankind communally from a superior point of view, it remains to be seen to what extent such a procedure can make the necessary transition from caricature to profound statements of synthesis. Tobogán de hambrientos, which has its obvious merits as a novel, unfortunately tends to be more caricature than profound synthesis in spite of the structural design employed in order to simulate narrative unity….
Although the illusion of objectivity is sought after in Cela's previous works, Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo is the first novel to work out a series of structural devices for this purpose. Cela's satisfaction with them is evident in their incorporation into the structures of both La catira and Tobogán de hambrientos.
Tobogán de hambrientos, in particular, employs many of the devices of the new novel, especially in its use of pattern and in the rejection of chronology, definable plot, and unified points of view. Cela's Garito de hospicianos is an extreme example of the rejection of the more conventional narrative or fictional aspects of the novel….
Cela's role as a novelist and his role as a man constitute a fundamental paradox that accounts for many of the technical and structural pecularities of his novels. Cela has come to believe that the function of the novel is to give the illusion of reflecting life as it is being lived, although, of course, the final result is but one novelist's personal vision. Cela's novels stand back to record the scurrying and the scuffle, both tragic and comic, of everyday life. In so doing he has expressed his belief that man is essentially unaware of the role he plays in the vast complex of human existence. Cela has stated both in his prologues and in his novelistic asides that the majority of men and women are unconscious of life above the level of their basest needs and desires…. These beliefs have been brought out particularly in La colmena and Tobogán de hambrientos, but they are valid also with reference to others of Cela's novels, for example, in the central irony of La familia de Pascual Duarte….
In believing that men are basically the same and in writing novels that utilize typical and archetypal human personalities, Cela is basically neoclassic as a philosopher and as a theoretician on the content of art. That the novel must portray what is typical about man and mankind rather than what is singular and particular has hopefully been established as a working premise for Cela as a novelist.
Yet, the structure of Cela's novels is as far removed from traditional or classic forms as is possible. Structurally and formally speaking, Cela's novels are free forms. In a sense they are singular in their very rejection of any a priori assumptions concerning the novel in the same way that Cela's characters refuse to behave in accordance with any preconceived moral or ethical notions. This is not to say that Cela's novels lack form any more than free forms lack form. They merely adjust themselves conveniently to the stresses of the situation at hand.
Basically, however, the principal condemnation of Cela as a novelist results not from his radical designs for the novel, but from his departure from the romantic-realist pattern in which the novelist is responsible for the creation of individuals who, although they may reflect the broader outlines of their society, must also exist as well-defined and unique individuals. It is the latter that Cela refuses to have his characters do. The characters of Cela's novels gather any importance they may possess as individuals solely from their identity with the larger human society to which they belong. Since Cela seems to feel that it is unnecessary to create individuals—perhaps even impossible—he can with little trouble reject the form, devices, and ends of the realist novel. A significant step toward understanding Cela's work as a novelist is made by the reader who is able to allow himself to accept for the moment the possibility and the desirability of the novelist's speaking purely on the level of human universals. The fact that those universals may be the basest—as opposed to the lofty virtues usually associated with the classic perspective in literature—is certainly of a secondary consideration.
David W. Foster, in his Forms of the Novel in the Work of Camilo José Cela (reprinted by permission of the University of Missouri Press; copyright © 1967 by the Curators of the University of Missouri), University of Missouri Press, 1967, pp. 13-160.
With The Family of Pascual Duarte (1942), the first of two major novels on which his reputation rests, Camilo José Cela catapulted himself into the first rank of Spanish writers. This thin, first novel shattered the literary vacuum left by the Civil War. In form, it purports to be the autobiography of a criminal awaiting execution in a rural prison during the war years. Pascual Duarte is termed a "sweet lamb harassed and frightened by life." But, like Lenny in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, he had hands that seem to be meant to kill. A deceptive objectivity masks the presentation of cruel and monstrous scenes, including murder and matricide. In a taut style, with emotion carefully reined, Cela evokes an atmosphere of extreme brutality, one which a nation suffering from the after-effects of a brutal civil war could readily understand and believe. It was this brutality that ushered in a neo-realist style of writing, "Tremendismo," which has been widely imitated in Spain.
Since this novel appeared the same year as Albert Camus' The Stranger, critics were quick to point out similarities between the two works. While there are some existentialist overtones in Cela's novel, his major inspiration lies closer to home—in the picaresque tradition of Spanish writing rooted in the sixteenth century, and in a peculiarly Spanish fascination for grotesque deformation of reality….
In his second major novel, The Hive (1951), Cela abandons the traditional narrative structure to follow the lead of John Dos Passos's Manhattan Transfer. Here, the Spanish novelist pries the lid off the human beehive of Madrid during the 1942–3 period, to lay bare a panoramic view of decadence, sex, and hunger, seen mainly in the cafe, the brothel, and the bar. This anti-epic of Madrid has no story-line for its 160 characters, only sketches and endless dialogue….
In these and other novels in the neo-realist tradition, Cela has gradually forged one of the most expressive Spanish prose styles since Cervantes. It is the rich vernacular of oral speech, so fresh off the tongues of the common people that one can almost detect the scent of garlic behind the words. It is a style redolent of popular slang, savory vocabulary, and a peculiarly masculine charm.
But the neo-realist is but one of three faces Cela turns to the literary world….
He also excels in the "quasi-novel," really books of travel and local-color sketches. Like many Spanish writers before him, Cela has taken to the dusty back roads of his country, on foot, toting a rucksack, in an effort to experience at first hand the scruffy reality of life in the towns, hamlets, and the open countryside. He is regularly taken for a shabby traveler, not a writer….
Cela's engaging local-color sketches have deep roots in national history. Spanish writers have long delighted in capturing the quivering vitality of real life on the wing, not recreating it in the study. In this field, known as "articulos de costumbres" Cela stands with the finest Spanish writers of all time. It is very possible that his lasting fame will rest more on these sketches than on his novels….
But Cela has still another literary face—that of the conscious artist concerned with universal problems, which he presents with little or no reference to his normal Spanish habitat. In this vein, he has produced two novels noted for their lyrical recreation of somewhat depressing themes. In Rest Pavillion (1943), the Spanish novelist, drawing partly on personal experience, evokes the atmosphere of a sanitarium for tubercular patients. Once again he abandons the story-line and substitutes a series of vignettes to give the reader a vicarious taste of the misery, suffering, nostalgia, and sense of abandonment felt by his characters in their cruel vigil, watching the hall clock in its steady rush toward a future they will never know. In this work, Cela probes deeply into man's true purpose in life and questions the materialistic values by which many live today.
His second literary novel is Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son (1953), which has recently found its way into English translation. This is a poetic diary of an incestuous mother, directed to her dead son. Turning his back again on the traditional mold for a novel, Cela employs short letters (chapters)—215 of them in less than that number of pages—to recreate the thoughts and hallucinations of his one major character. From the outset, the author indicates that Mrs. Caldwell had died in London's Royal Insane Asylum. With this as a background, the poetic and often surrealist imagery in which Mrs. Caldwell clothes her fanciful memories becomes understandable….
Although there is much fine writing in Cela's two literary novels, both are disappointing. They lack pace and offer no true development of character. Both stand as evidence that a fine prose style cannot of itself insure a rewarding novel….
Over the years, Cela's powers of novelistic invention have declined somewhat, but this has been offset by his growing mastery in the field of travel and local-color sketches. It is that faculty for transferring the still-breathing Spanish reality to the pages of his works, and his two early neorealist novels, which assure him an honored place in Spanish literature.
Francis Donahue, "The Three Faces of Camilo José Cela," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer, 1969, pp. 201-03.
Camilo José Cela appeared dramatically on the literary scene in 1942 with La familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte), which not only caused a sensation, but, more important, secured a wide foreign acceptance. It has the virtues and defects of a first novel. Even greater acclaim for La colmena (The Hive), 1951—a work of maturity and originality without the earlier shortcomings—assured his place at mid-century as one of Europe's outstanding novelists. In view of Spain's internal and international situation, his accomplishment is all the more remarkable, indicating that these books were sufficiently timely to receive immediate attention. (Preface)
La colmena [The Hive], still considered Cela's masterpiece by many, evolved in the years from 1945 to 1950…. It is important to bear in mind his developing technique of this period because critics have seriously proposed Dos Passos' Manhattan Transfer as his model for the presentation of urban life in a series of loosely connected sketches. This American novel had been translated in Spain before the war, but … Cela has been steadily elaborating his own method. The action of La colmena is concentrated, whereas that of Dos Passos' rambling novel covers twenty years and the sections are much longer. Evidently, Manhattan Transfer is cited in an effort to explain the great evolution in Cela's writing after Pascual Duarte. In La colmena Cela for the first time deals at length and effectively with everyday urban life, thereby assuring his status as Spain's foremost novelist. (p. 83)
D. W. McPheeters, in his Camilo José Cela (copyright 1969 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co.), Twayne, 1969.