Camilo José Cela

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Cela, Camilo José 1916–

A novelist, poet, playwright, and travel writer, Cela is considered the most important voice in Spanish letters since the Civil War. His work ranges from the psychological to the surreal, often mirroring the tragedy his country 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. It is a complex prose, praised for its powerful characterization and effective dialogue. The Family of Pascual Duarte is Cela's best known work. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Saul Bellow

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It is not to be wondered that the Franco censorship disapproves of Cela's novels. Life in Madrid as he portrays it is brutal, hungry and senseless. Hypocrisy, fear and oppression are in command. Cela's political loyalties may be conservative or reactionary but his literary affiliations are of the most radical; they are with Camus and Sartre, with Moravia, with Zola and French naturalism. Only Cela has very little of the theoretician about him and has no existential, sexual or political message to deliver. It is in his directness and lack of squeamishness that he resembles Sartre and Moravia….

Cela does not ramble so much as he jumps. Now we are with the powerful Dona Rosa, who tyrannizes over her waiters and customers; now with a cafe musician; now with a mediocre nonconformist poet; then with a tender-hearted money lender; then with the bookkeeper of a black-marketeer; with old maids and prostitutes, with singers and seducers…. All of this is rather abruptly and sketchily represented, it is forceful and it is bald.

One sympathizes with Cela in his impatience with literature. Probably he is attacking his conformist contemporaries within Spain. But there is a great deal to be said for his attitude. Literature is conservative; it is "behind the times," and it does not easily cope with certain familiar modern horrors. One asks one's self how Goethe would have described a concentration camp, or how Lope de Vega would have dignified a black-marketeer. Journalists and writers of memoirs rather than imaginative writers have told us most of what we know of these and other phenomena of contemporary life. Apparently, however, these reporters do not satisfy the highest demands of the imagination. Attacking literature and writing novels, the talented Señor Cela puts himself into a rather paradoxical position.

Saul Bellow, "The Evil That Has Many Names," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1953, p. 5.

Maxwell Geismar

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Camilo José Cela, whose new book, "The Hive," is one of the first important literary documents to reach us from inside the fascist state, is suffused with anger and bitterness at society in Madrid. "They lie," he says, "who want to disguise life with the crazy mask of literature. The evil that corrodes the soul, the evil that has as many names as we choose to give it, cannot be fought with poultices of conformism or the plasters of rhetorics and poetics. My novel sets out to be no more—yet no less either—than a slice of life, told step by step, without reticences, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on."

Wonderful words—which we have not often heard in this country since the first generation of native realists in the 1900's. It is interesting, too, that our own intellectual return to realism … is such a delayed sequel to the new generation of European novelists who have had to face the historical crisis directly and intimately. And "The Hive" itself, as a study of impoverished,...

(This entire section contains 248 words.)

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frustrated lower-middle-class city people—less vicious, really, than ignoble and less ignoble maybe than starved—has undoubted power and a deliberately flat, acrid, angry style.

Cela's true position, however, is that of the aristocratic moralist who scourges the values of a corrupt and decaying urban society; the moments of warmth and affection in his narrative are few. (p. 404)

Maxwell Geismar, in The Nation (copyright 1953 The Nation Associates), November 14, 1953.

George Woodcock

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Among the native novels [to emerge from Spain since the Civil War] the most significant, both in terms of their perception of contemporary Spanish life and also in sheer literary quality, have been José Cela's—Pascual Duarte's Family, his recently published The Hive, and a little volume of travel sketches in rural Spain, Viaje a la Alcarria….

The first thing that strikes one on reading one of these recent Spanish novels is the chasm of feeling that separates them from that literary renaissance of the twenties and thirties which graced European literature with the works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, of Galdos and Barojo and Sender, of Lorca and Machado…. [While] the writers now emerging have not forgotten this departed generation, they themselves are working in an atmosphere which is inevitably dominated and changed by the Civil War and its social aftermath.

One thing unites them with their predecessors. It is what Barea (a survivor in spirit from the pre-Civil-War Spain) has called "the note of hunger."… Where the moderns differ is in the scope they give to this "note of hunger." For them it is no longer a mere hunger of the body; it is rather a starvation of the spirit such as has never before appeared as a dominant factor in Spanish writing….

In The Hive Cela deliberately presents the inconsequential moments of his hundred and sixty characters in a disjointed and episodic manner which emphasizes the atomization of city living, the breakup of a cohesive pattern of society and social feeling. His people are tragic not because they are poor, but because they have no longer the resources that in the past made poverty something a man could bear with dignity. (p. 16)

In Cela's work the contrast is clear, between the serenity he sees in the country people described in Viaje a la Alcarria, who can endure poverty and humiliation because of a view of life that makes these things less important than a man's sense of his own worth, and the rootless, shiftless people of The Hive, dissolving as individuals and as a social group in the great impersonal flux of urban living. (p. 17)

George Woodcock, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1954 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 12, 1954.

Emile Capouya

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Spain has been forcibly exporting talented elements of its population for a miliennium; the expulsion of the Arabs, then of the Jews, and in our own time of the artists and scholars opposed to fascism, represent only the most notorious examples of the endless attempt to purify the nation of its intellectual and moral vitality. And this historical observation is relevant in two ways to our appreciating The Family of Pascual Duarte. First, it helps to explain the fact that in post-Christian Western Europe, Spain is a stronghold of pre-Christian attitudes and values. Secondly, it provides the immediate context for the desperate apathy and desperate violence that are the substance of Cela's novel….

Pascual Duarte speaks of suffering and ferocity so appalling as to be almost beyond the reach of our sympathy. They stun even more than they horrify—and that, incidentally, is the ground for differing with the common judgment that Camilo José Cela's novel is a literary classic. Powerful it is without a doubt. Archetypically portentous it seems to be, but what meaning can be attached to Pascual Duarte's mindless violence and mindless repontance eludes our power of conception…. As children of the Enlightenment, we are quite firm about wanting to change the conditions that produce a Pascual Duarte. But there is that in him that suggests a condition anterior to all "conditions," and evokes in us a superstitious terror that the humanization of man may be unrealizable.

Emile Capouya, "To Die and Never Know Why," in Saturday Review (© 1964 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 23, 1964, p. 38.

Anthony Kerrigan

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In his poetry—and Cela's overall intuition, and his conditioned use of language, too, is that of a poet—Cela expresses, even more directly, his "nothingism" (and sometimes his "uglyism" as well). His principal contribution to poetry, though [The Family of Pascual Duarte] is written in prose, is a work with the hybrid title Mrs. Caldwell habla con su hijo. In this book, the author sings the infinitude of hallucinations and fancies in the mind of an incestuous mother conversing wistfully with her dead son, drowned at sea in an ocean of memories and symbols. Certainly the book is one of the more remarkable poetic documents of modern Spain. (p. xii)

[Camilo José Cela] has created a world filled with the swooning of wills, wills kowtowing to a nearly mystic nothingness at the heart of the self. His characters never go towards their destiny through the social complex, via the paths of society at all, let alone the Body of Christ or the Church. They may writhe and struggle, but they always submit to themselves in the end. They may do so outside the law, like Pascual Duarte, or alienated from sanity, like Mrs. Caldwell, or beyond morality, like his wild-Western heroine La Catira, but neither do they struggle against themselves, nor do they strive towards anything beyond themselves. They are content to accept the full measure of their selfness. In Baroja this tendency to be true to one's nature was a vindication of extreme individuality, of man against society and other men, and not merely of an instinctive egotism. In Cela, it is an almost mystical belief in the rightness of unpremeditation. (pp. xiv-xv)

Cela's nihilism is not Yeats's; there is no News for the Delphic Oracle; no Caesar in his tent "That civilization may not sink," though his own "mind moves upon silence"; no comment on the fact that now "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." In Cela, religious sentiment flags in the middle of a local pilgrimage because the children get rosin on their behinds and the old lady hoards all the Vichy water for herself on a hot day …; marriage is slightly ridiculous, and even the sacrament is absurd, not because of disbelief—but because the bride's shoes pinch…. There is no Second Coming, either, foiled or frustrated, even. Only the pícaro's everlasting war, more potent and deadly than the class war, for an individual can be more venomous than an army, and more tireless. Cela's Pascual Duarte is the most murderous pícaro in all of the picaresque in Spain, the continuing picaresque of Spain. (p. xv)

The Family of Pascual Duarte is a study in the psychology of fear, of the aggressiveness of fear. More fully: the aggressiveness of fear and timidity, and of guilt about both. Pascual is a toilless obsessive, albeit more sympathetic than most of his victims. His story is the history of a field worker to all intents withdrawn (the better to pursue his passions?) from orchard or field, from stream or woods. He smells no seasons' smells (but only carrion, a stream stinking like a troop of gypsies, and his own pants, the crotch thereof), sees no flora (the white sight of Lola's leg above the knee is the most memorable visual flash in the book), and hears—only the owl, the sound of a symbol. (pp. xvi-xvii)

All this is stark, as devoid of humanity as a rock, when it is not stage property, telling and appropriate as it may be. The strength of the work is in the bare-boned action of an annihilated will, or a will-to-annihilation. There is a master horror in the mother who had given suck biting off the useless male nipple of the son she had suckled, a son given over to the persuasion that a mother is for killing. There is a disturbing pathos in the deadened country when a hunting dog is meaninglessly killed in the throes of a killer's autonomic fixation, in the spasm of this fixation. And there is an epical violence, telluric and terrible, when a horse is killed for love-revenge, and the taste of bitter and senseless irony when the wife's betrayer is killed almost by mistake. There is enough, in short, to make Pascual Duarte a superior modern novel in (to borrow a term from painting) the "figurative" tradition.

Camilo José Cela is undoubtedly the finest writer of fiction in post-Civil War Spain. Specifically, he is doubtless the finest writer of fiction remaining in Spain. Such distinction is sufficient without needlessly comparing him with the great Spaniards of the Spanish Exodus, the gifted Spaniards in exile, who remain Spanish with astonishing and single-minded intensity but whose existential world is totally different from Cela's.

All distinctions of existential worlds and place of residence aside, Cela is certainly the writer of the most redolent Spanish today: redolent of sounding, breathing spoken Spanish.

Cela's Spain, the Spain which begins as an epoch at the beginning of the Civil War, with the disruption of tradition by the two contending sides, is not eternal Spain. Cela's Spain is not legendary. And Cela's Spain is not traditionalist. But Cela's prose—whatever his anti-heroics and antilegend—even his highly poetical later prose, is in the vein of the vernacular, the spoken speech of legendary and traditional Spain written down. However baroque the flourishes, the sound is as fresh as country speech. And it is always as rotund as the language of a Salamanca countryman, a Madrid city man, or, in short, of a Castilian gentleman-pauper with the gold toothpick in his pocket. His is the language of both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Most fortunately, its inventiveness is only as "baroque" as Sancho's, as he muddles old proverbs, and only as "sparse" as Quixote's, as the knight outlines his grandiose (truly baroque) aims. (pp. xvii-xviii)

Like Baroja and Solana—or all of Spain geographically—his center is Madrid. And he—and they—were propelled there by the peculiar centripetal force characteristic of Spain…. Camilo José Cela, the public scribe for the anti-hero from Castile, for the anti-conquistador from Extremadura on the Portuguese border, and for the Aragonese anti-saint, is at the very center of Spanish literary tradition. (p. xix)

Anthony Kerrigan, "Introduction" (introduction copyright © 1964 by Anthony Kerrigan; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co. in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), in The Family of Pascual Duarte, by Camilo José Cela, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, Atlantic-Little, Brown and Company, 1964, pp. vii-xx.

Paul West

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 661

If we add Unamuno's concern for the Nietzschean, the violent, even the demonic, to Baroja's rejection of systematic assembly, we have something close to the essence of Camilo José Cela…. Cela prefers the weird, the apparently meaningless and the amorphous. The world of his novels has been likened to that of Hieronimus Bosch and Brueghel; he sees man as a prisoner in a forbidding universe where chaos and imperfection always defeat the idealist. His first novel, La familia de Pascual Duarte (1942), exemplifies his objective technique: Pascual Duarte, epitome of the unlucky and the lowly, tells his story from the prison cell to which he has been condemned. One thing follows another; there is no distinction made according to quality. In fact the evaluating mind is quite absent—a technique that we find in the rather more outlandish novels of Robbe-Grillet. Pascual is a kind of camera: no intentions, no prophecies, no hopes. He takes things as they come in much the same way as the traditional picaro of the Spanish novel always did. Just as the main characters of La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes and Gil Blas allowed the current of life to take them where it would, so does the typical Cela character embody the qualities of the anti-hero, the man who just cannot be bothered to persist in the chase after any chimerical Good. (pp. 419-20)

Cela's second novel, La colmena, was published in Buenos Aires in 1952. Again the account of life, this time of proliferating Madrid, is amorphous, nihilistic and distorted. The dialogues are squalid exchanges between persons of whom the novelist has no expressed opinion. The novel reads like the fragmentation and recombination of several Zola documents: the scenes follow one another in meaningless succession. It is bitter honey that he crams into the combs. There is nothing here of Galdós's symmetrical, coherent, patiently expository image: instead the method is cinematic: it flickers, falters and bewilders. The whole kaleidoscope is based on one day in Madrid in 1943. There are plots but they are so intricately interwoven as to remind one of Dos Passos. There is no hero; rather, the intricacy and 'swarmingness' of life are shown to preclude heroism of any kind. But if there is no hero, there are at least objects of respect: the white-collar and manual classes, slaving away to no purpose beyond surviving to slave again tomorrow. This is a vision of disintegration, chastening to read and obviously indebted to the example of Baroja.

Cela's own view appears in the prologue to Viaje a la Alcarria (1948). He explains that he will deny himself the role of 'being meddlesome and so risking a setback for drawing conclusions philosophical, political or moral'. But his opinion of modern life is eloquent in every capricious transition. He not only takes considerable trouble with his style; he weights it heavily with popular idiom. Cela is the 'tramp' who wanders about, recording with a hard and experienced eye the landscape and other travellers in Alcarria, only about forty miles from Madrid. The absence of meditation and discussion is occasionally frustrating; it is just as tedious to read a brilliant catalogue as to wade through lengthy disquisitions that hold up the action. The main thing in this novel, however, is the traveller's frame of mind: not daring an opinion; noting the external world like a man who needs to cling to it in order to preserve a sense of his own reality. Cela is a prolific novelist. With over a score of books to his name he still pursues the bizarre and the sordid grotesque, almost as if he thinks that a heightening of the everyday will amount to an opinion expressed. It does, provided we can attune ourselves to his stylish garbling of an already garbled society. Cela is the Goya of Franco's Spain. (pp. 420-21)

Paul West, in his The Modern Novel, Volume 2: The United States and Other Countries (copyright © Paul West 1963), Hutchinson & Co. Ltd., 1965.

Joan Cain

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Readers familiar with La familia de Pascual Duarte and La colmena will find little in [Oficia de tinieblas 5] reminiscent of those works. There are no defined characters, no action, no plot development. Cela himself admits that this is not a novel; it serves more as a vehicle for expressing many ideas.

The book contains 1,194 monads, or philosophical units, three of which refer specifically to the tenebrae service of the title, a ritual which terminates at the work's conclusion. Monad 1,097 informs the reader that it is a rite from which no man can escape; in it, magic serves evil in a struggle against man.

The book contains no chapter divisions; each monad consists of a series of words without capital letters or punctuation. There is much repetition of word and thought, and often there is reference to another monad by specific number.

Cela alludes to some of our most pressing contemporary concerns: drugs, abortion, Vietnam, technology, homosexuality. In addition, he treats such themes as love death and religion. His preoccupation with sex seems excessive; even the book's cover portrays this inordinate concern. It is one which seems incongruous when one considers the book's title plus a note at the very end stating that it was written between All Souls' Day, 1971 and Holy Week, 1973.

The variety of philosophical, historical and literary allusions is striking. Quotations are given, not only in Spanish, but in several other languages. The reader will be challenged to ask himself what the work means. He should also ask himself whether it is of value in itself or merely as part of a comparative study of its well-known author's works. (p. 92)

Joan Cain, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.

Francis Donahue

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The social realist cast of the novel in the Gray Age [of Spanish Literature] was set in 1942 by twenty-six-year-old Camilo José Cela who, in his La Familia de Pascual Duarte ("The Family of Pascual Duarte"), produced Spain's first major novel of the postwar period. This novel is the supposed autobiography of a criminal awaiting execution. Crowding its pages are violence, cruelty, murder, even matricide, as the protagonist seems driven to act because of the influence of a harsh environment and his own violent nature. An account of man in his tragic human situation, La Familia de Pascual Duarte employs a vernacular prose and elicits from the reader not sympathy but a compassionate understanding.

This novel recalls the picaresque tradition in Spanish letters; once again an antihero points up obliquely the social sores of a flawed society. There is, too, a typically Spanish fondness for deformation of reality and for the monstrous, inasmuch as Cela, with his penchant for sardonic humor, bizarrely lights up the grotesque unreality of his sufferingly real characters. With his novel, Cela gave rise to a peculiarly Spanish version of social realism known as Tremendismo, a term used by one critic to describe the effect caused by Cela's work. Tremendismo pairs emphatic realism with literary techniques drawn from James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and John Dos Passos, and with a philosophical orientation vaguely related to existentialism.

In his second major novel, La Colmena ("The Hive," 1951), Cela moves to the mainstream of social realism, charting the misdirected lives of more than 160 characters as they move in and out of Doña Rosa's sleazy Madrid café. Procurers, waiters, prostitutes, homosexuals, mental defectives—all appear briefly, and are gone. There is no sequential plot, there are no heroes or heroines, but there is hunger, sex, alienation, all adding up to a depressing portrait of post-Civil War Madrid. Cela himself termed his novel "a pale reflection of the harsh, intimate, painful reality of everyday life … a slice of life told step by step, without reticence, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on." (pp. 408-09)

Francis Donahue, in Southwest Review (© 1978 by Southern Methodist University Press), Autumn, 1978.


Cela, Camilo José (Vol. 122)


Cela, Camilo José (Vol. 4)