The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

by Vicente Blasco Ibanez

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Critical Evaluation

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Vicente Blasco Ibáñez is among the most widely read Spanish novelists, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is one of his most popular works. The 1921 Rudolph Valentino film and a 1962 World War II adaptation starring Glenn Ford further popularized the book. Its multicultural perspective, its warnings about the dangers of racism and of twisting logic to defend the indefensible, its prescience about World War II and the causes of modern conflagrations, and its antiwar sentiments based on realistic portraits of the horrors of war make The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse relevant to ages beyond its own. Its underlying picaresque conventions, roguish young hero, and competent, yet somehow innocent, older hero lend it charm and interest, and its character studies of the way in which war transforms individuals and instills a spirit of self-sacrifice and fortitude are psychologically convincing.

The book’s title is derived from the biblical book Revelation, which describes the four scourges that will afflict humanity at the end of time: Disease, War, Famine, and Death. Part 1 of the novel treats the life of the Desnoyers family before the onset of World War I; it ends with the Russian Tchernoff, the French-Argentine Julio Desnoyers, and the Spaniard Argensola discussing the suicide of a German woman and seeing her death as the beginning of the end. Drawing on memories of the famous engravings by Albrecht Dürer, they envision an apocalyptic beast, a blind force of evil, rising from the depths of the sea and threatening to engulf all humanity, with the four horsemen that signal its arrival brutally sweeping the earth ahead of it and bringing agony in “their merciless gallop of destruction.”

In parts 2 and 3, Blasco Ibáñez demonstrates the fulfillment of that prophecy as war sweeps across Europe. Part 2 is a graphic and memorable portrait of the Battle of the Marne and of German brutality, which is given added force from the description of the aging Marcelo Desnoyers’s incredulity at what he is witnessing. The details of slaughter, inhumanity, and torture are convincingly realistic, yet the point of view adds a touch of the surreal. Part 3 provides a closer look at twentieth century trench warfare, with its intricate maze of trenches, the horror of the mud and the rats, the insidiousness of the gases blown across from enemy lines, and the buzzing of bullets overhead. Again the description is intensified by the drama of a determined father braving the nightmare for a brief glimpse of his beloved son.

Blasco Ibáñez had been a political activist ever since his university years, and he endured imprisonment and exile for his outspoken political statements. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is in keeping with this spirit of protest. The novel is a condemnation, not only of the World War I German military establishment and its barbaric methods of conducting warfare but also of the German people’s inflated sense of superiority and the intellectuals and artists who perpetuated that myth of superiority and right to power. The novel was condemned as a heavy-handed tract by critics who disapproved of Blasco Ibáñez’s life and politics and envied his financial success, but the work also reflects a deeply felt revulsion for war and a frighteningly accurate prophecy of the horrors of Nazism.

Blasco Ibáñez sets up a compelling contrast between the inhumanity of the war machine that leaves chaos, destruction, and despair in its wake and the constructive fervor of the lively, impassioned Spaniard Madariaga, who helps transform the Argentine pampas into thriving ranch land and whose prodigious reproductive powers reflect a love of life. Blasco Ibáñez also establishes the contrast between war and the civilized, cultured life of Paris, where artists and lovers thrive and where conflicts of opinions lead only to good-natured arguments over a bottle of wine. Against these life-affirming regions and peoples, the scenes of conquest and destruction seem completely senseless. Blasco Ibáñez has been praised for the realism of his portraits of war, but it is his portrait of peace that makes his images of war so horrifying.

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