It is now a commonplace to state that Camilo José Cela, who won the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature, is one of the foremost writers in the Spanish language. In 1942, the publication by a then-unknown writer of the violent The Family of Pascual Duarte caused a sensation. Its appearance marked the start of the contemporary Spanish novel, and critics and public were shocked by its theme and by the apparent lack of censorship in a Spain where many writers and intellectuals were dead, exiled, or still incarcerated in Franco’s prisons.
Narrated in first person, the novel purports to be the life history of an Extremaduran peasant, awaiting execution, who is mired in a black destiny of heredity and environment. The core of the novel is the question of responsibility. How much influence did Pascual Duarte have on the course of his own life? The bleak answer seems to be: none. Although Duarte states that he is recounting his life so that others may flee from his example and choose other paths, it is evident that Duarte himself believes that his life is predestined, a fate that he was born into. There are ambiguities and ironies in the text, however, that allow for many interpretations, moral and otherwise.
Duarte’s history, after all, is the truth according to Duarte. All the characters are seen through the filter of Duarte’s vision of the world. For instance, it becomes clear that Duarte is in some way responsible for the premeditated assassination of Don Jesús, the rich man of the village, but Duarte only hints at this. He wants to be viewed as only the victim of his circumstances and his actions to be viewed as the product of spontaneous and understandable rage. In addition, parts of the story are told in unchronological flashbacks so that the motivations that trigger Duarte’s responses are often vague and imprecise.
Duarte’s defense in a hostile environment is to strike out with violence. It is a measure of the brutishness of the human characters that his attacks on his nonhuman victims—his dog, for example—are more appalling than his actions against his fellow human beings. The tenuous line between bestiality and humanity is symbolized by Mario, his pathetic little brother, who lives in filth on the floor and who is treated worse than the pigs that live with him. Duarte’s violence accelerates until his hatred centers on the one person he always hated and blames for everything and who is never even given a personal name. His mother’s death is a symbol to him of freedom, and his first words after her murder are “I could breathe.”
This sense of suffocation by society and family is one of the basic themes of the novel. Its images change from the cramped shack in which Pascual lives, to the black circle of grieving women belittling and badgering him after the death of his child, to the graveyard with its high walls, and to Duarte awaiting death in another cramped box.
The shocking murder of his mother is one extreme act in a life characterized by extreme violence. The Family of Pascual Duarte is representative of tremendismo, a literary movement of the early 1940’s that described its protagonists as trapped in an encircling vise of poverty, ignorance, and oppression from which the only escape is violent rebellion. The desired effect is one of shock at the “tremendous” nature of the actions depicted and their resultant consequences.
Nevertheless, although the definition of tremendismo can serve equally well as a description of the life of Duarte, the success of the work and perhaps...
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its lack of censorship were due to its being very much within the Spanish narrative tradition. Realism has always been the hallmark of the Spanish novel. Spanish naturalistic writers never shied away from violence, and Duarte can be seen as a modern-day, although much more negative, successor to the famouspicaro of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Another tribute to the past is Cela’s use of the Spanish literary device of a neutral transcriber who just happens to have found the pages of a curious manuscript.
What is purely Cela and sets the novel apart is the intense blending of environment and atmosphere. The harshness of Extremadura (the name joins the words “extreme” and “hard” or “harsh”) becomes a character just as real as the people. The grim presence of a brutish superstitious land is in Duarte’s description of his village and hovel, of the unpaved roads that all seem to lead to the cemetery, and of the black landscape dimly seen through a dirty train window. It is significant that whenever Duarte leaves Extremadura, he is treated relatively well. He enjoys his life in Madrid and makes friends; he finds work in La Coruña. Even in prison his jailers see some good in him, and he gains early release, but he returns to Extremadura. His fate seems to be calling him back (he says so in his narrative), and it seems inevitable that it will crush him, just as the death of his mother seems inevitable. His past is always his future.