The Characters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

Only in Marks of Identity is it appropriate to speak of characters in the traditional fictional sense. In this first novel of the trilogy, the characterization of Alvaro Mendiola is developed through an approach that is primarily sociohistorical. His discontent and despair are identified as grounded in his early childhood experiences and in the facts of the cultural and historical milieu of mid-century Spain. This interpretation of Alvaro’s identity is clear in the first scene of the novel, in which he searches for the roots of his rebellion against his marks of identity in the photographs that he finds in his family album. He was born of parents whose grandparents owned a sugar plantation in Cuba worked by hundreds of black slaves, and his most vivid image of childhood is the strict prohibition against any kind of erotic expression. Thus, the conflict of the cultural stereotype of the African as the incarnation of sexual freedom and the restraints on sexual expression in Western society, reflected in Alvaro Mendiola’s political activities and in his reactions to his homeland when he returns in 1963, become the central motifs of the Exile Trilogy.

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The other characters in Marks of Identity, the university friends of Alvaro, serve primarily as stimuli to the memory process, evoking narratives of Alvaro’s life in Barcelona during the time he was a student. Not until the second novel, Count Julian, do the secondary characters gain significance. Their elaboration is grounded in the conflict of Senecan stoicism and African hedonism that is first suggested in Marks of Identity.

The secondary characters are either metaphorical portrayals of actual persons of historical significance or personified myths of the Spanish cultural tradition. The Great Figurehead, Alvaro Peranzules, whom the narrator presents at times as the perfect boy child and at times as the revered leader of the country, is a fictionalization of the Fascist Generalissimo Francisco Franco. Julian and Tariq are elaborations of the myth of the Spanish traitor and his Arab coconspirator who opened the doors of the Iberian Peninsula to the Arab invaders to avenge the rape of Julian’s daughter by the Spanish king.

The characters appear again in Juan the Landless, along with others that function as metaphorical representations of the conflict of Western asceticism and African hedonism. The great gorilla-god of the black Cuban slaves, Chango, who also appears in the form of King Kong and as a personified, phallic mosque turret in Ghardaia, is the incarnation of the myth of the enormous African penis. Father Foucauld, obsessed with unbridled, hedonistic carnality, is the counterpoint of Father Vosk, who proclaims the gospel of perfection of the flesh, of evolving to a purer state of righteousness characterized by the absence of the need to defecate.

Throughout the narrative, the identity of Alvaro Mendiola merges at times with the identity of each of these symbolic characters. Alvaro becomes the Great Figurehead, or Tariq, or Julian, thus acknowledging the historical and cultural origins of his marks of identity, as he moves in and out of his fantasies and hallucinations. Because the characters other than Alvaro Mendiola are employed, in Marks of Identity, primarily as means of stimulating the narrator’s memory, and in the two later novels, primarily as fantastic, irrational inventions, the narrative is dominated by the presence of one consciousness, that of Alvaro Mendiola, the narrator and creator of the perverted, obscene vision of contemporary Spanish reality.

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