Camilo José Cela 1916–
Spanish novelist, poet, dramatist, travel writer, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Cela's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4, 13, and 59.
Camilo José Cela is considered to be among the most important voices in Spanish letters since the Spanish Civil War. His work ranges from the psychological to the surreal, often mirroring the tragedy Spain has experienced with harsh realism and violence. Cela's prose style is experimental, frequently employing elements of fragmentation, repetition, and interior monologue within a shifting narrative perspective. Critics laud Cela's prose for its powerful characterization and effective dialogue.
Cela was born on May 11, 1916, in Iria-Flavia in the province of Galicia, Spain. When he was 9, his family moved to Madrid where he attended various Catholic schools. In 1934, Cela began studying medicine, but he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and began an extended stay at a sanatorium during which he read extensively in Spanish literature. His illness initially prevented him from fighting in the Spanish Civil War, but in 1937 he was accepted into the Franco Nationalist army. He fought until he was wounded in 1938. Following the war, Cela held a variety of odd jobs, including movie actor, an apprentice bullfighter, and an advice columnist for a women's magazine. It was also during this time that Cela contributed to various fascist publications—and event which aroused suspicions about connections to the fascist party. In 1942, Cela published his first novel La familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte, 1942). The novel upset General Francisco Franco's censors and helped quell some of the rumors concerning Cela's conservatism. Cela married in 1944 and had a son, Camilo, Jr., in 1946. He continued to write novels and several travel journals. In 1957, Cela was inducted into the Spanish Royal Academy, which he proceeded to offend by publishing Diccionario secreto (1968–70), a scholarly collection of obscene definitions left out of the Royal Academy's dictionary. In 1989, Cela won the Nobel Prize for literature.
In Cela's first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, the title character, convicted of murder, composes his memoirs while awaiting his execution. A victim as well as a criminal, Pascual describes his squalid upbringing by an abusive, bitter mother whose other children turned to prostitution or proved mentally incompetent. Pascual also recounts his descent into violence, beginning with the death penalty for yet another homicide. Pascual refuses to blame society for his downfall and instead attributes his actions to fate and his own innate sinfulness. For Pabellón de reposo (Rest Home; 1943) Cela drew upon his own experience to examine the private anguish of tuberculosis patients confined to a sanatorium. Set in working-class Madrid immediately following World War II, La colmena (The Hive; 1951) chronicles three days in the lives of approximately 300 people who frequent a seedy café. The Hive has a highly experimental structure including techniques such as simultaneity of action, fragmentation, lack of chronological sequence, and a large number of characters. Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo (Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son; 1953) contains more than 200 short, unrelated chapters constructed around the rambling letters of an elderly Englishwoman to her dead son that reveal her incestuous love for him. In San Camilo, 1936: Visperas, festividad y octava de San Camilo del ano 1936 en Madrid (1969), Cela utilizes a stream-of-consciousness narrative style to examine the events leading up to the Spanish Civil War through the perspective of a young student. In addition to his novels, Cela also has written several travel sketches, including Viaje a la Alcarria (Journey to Alcarria; 1948), that recount his foot treks through Spain.
Critics credit Cela with ushering in a new literary movement in Spain with The Family of Pascual Duarte. The movement, called "tremendismo," is characterized by an emphatic realism, the use of experimental techniques, and a new philosophical outlook. Some critics assert that tremendismo is not as much a literary movement as a trend. Other reviewers point out similarities between aspects of tremendismo and existentialism, but many dismiss it as a superficial connection. One of the overriding observations by critics is the tremendous pessimism in Cela's fiction. Robert Kirsner writes, "The course of Cela's writings has followed a determined path of misfortune, morbidity and mordacity." He further explains that "Cela's propensity toward the sordid and the shocking expresses a desire to experience all aspects of human existence." Some reviewers feel that Cela's writing declined throughout his career, and some complain that he did not deserve the Nobel Prize in 1989. Francis Donahue observes that "[o]ver 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." Cela's technical virtuosity, especially his unique approach to each project, is much discussed in criticism of his work. Sarah Kerr says, "… Cela, far from plagiarizing his own early success, has shown extraordinary technical resolve, creating a different shape and narrative technique and language for each project." Often, however, focus on the technical aspects of Cela's writing has prompted critics to neglect in-depth discussions concerning the themes of his novels. J. S. Bernstein asserts. "Too often, it seems to me, Cela's critics view him as an imperturbable virtuoso, a sort of literary prestidigitator whose remarkable successes are gained with no investment of self, and at little expenditure of talent and energy."