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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 386

Camilo José Cela’s 1950 novel is set in Spain in the early years of the Franco regime, when the country is mired in poverty just after the Civil War. Martín Marco, the protagonist, is a disillusioned, dissipated freelance writer who cannot earn a living because of the general poverty and his past support for the Republicans. Although he has not abandoned his liberal thinking and concern for the class struggle, Martín has largely shelved politics in favor of survival. He lives mostly by frequenting Madrid’s bars and brothels and freeloading off his friends and family, even staying rent-free with his friend Pablo.

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The novel follows Martín for a few days as he wanders through the city. Ejected from a cafe one night for not paying his bill, he traverses the city seeking friends who can lend him money and then drinks it away. Among the characters he encounters are his sister, Filo, at whose home he stops to eat; his friend Pablo who is equally obsessed with news; and an old friend La Uruguaya, who is with a client. After having a drink with them, the police stop him in the red light district but find his papers sufficiently in order and so do not detain him. He spends the night in a brothel with a different prostitute/friend.

The next day, Martín’s meanderings resume as he contemplates finding work. In sequence, he runs into two more friends, Ventura and Nat, both of whom lend him money. Planning to buy Nati a gift, he heads for a bookstore but gets delayed having a drink in the café out of which he had been thrown yesterday. There he spends some of the money on drink and loses the rest.

The story picks up several days later, with Martin leaving Pablo’s house and heading for the cemetery to visit his mother’s grave. His friends go looking for him, as they became concerned after finding a newspaper article that he seems to have written and which could put him in trouble with the censors. They are torn about hiding him in Madrid or sending him to what they hope is safety in Barcelona. Martin, who seems oblivious to the threat, plans to look in the newspaper at the employment wanted ads.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

One cold December afternoon in 1943, four years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, the waiter in Doña Rosa’s café, La Delicia, throws out a pale, feeble, poorly dressed man who is unable to pay his tab. The waiter disobeys Doña Rosa’s orders, however, to beat the man as a lesson for his impudence. The wretch is Martín Marco, a freelance writer down on his luck. After having offered to leave a book in payment, Martín continues on his customary nightly wandering though Madrid. Everyday existence is hardscrabble and bleak for the people of Spain ever since the Fascist dictator, Generalísimo Francisco Franco, assumed power after a bloody three-year conflict that ravaged the country and left its citizenry deeply divided. Stopping before a show window of toilet fittings, Martín reflects on the gross class disparities of his day. He idealistically ponders the unlikely possibility of a socialist utopia. Tired, cold, and hungry, and with his brain in turmoil, Martín purchases a few chestnuts with his remaining pocket money. He proceeds to the apartment of his poor but sympathetic sister, Filo. Since her husband, Roberto González, has yet to arrive, Martín is sure to be able to eat at least one fried egg that she will lovingly prepare for him. The two discuss Martín’s good fortune in arriving while González is still at work, for the brothers-in-law have long disliked each other. Hurrying out to avoid encountering the man he always refers to as “that beast,” Martín meets his friend Paco, and they exchange reading material.

Later that night, Martín bumps into an old acquaintance, La Uruguaya, a prostitute in the company of a free-spending client. He accepts their invitation to have a drink reluctantly, for he finds the woman vaguely repugnant. Subsequently, he continues on his way through Madrid. Passing through one of the city’s red-light districts, Martín meets police patrolling the area. He appears disoriented when they demand that he produce his papers. Fearful without exactly knowing why, Martín, now rambling and barely coherent, identifies himself as a sometime author of newspaper articles; the authorities are satisfied. He ends up spending the night in a brothel run by Doña Jesusa, a friend of his deceased mother. He spends the night with the prostitute Purita, who kindly offers to buy him breakfast the following morning.

The next afternoon, Martín, broke as usual, encounters another friend, Ventura Aguado, from whom he sheepishly borrows money so that he can treat Ventura to a coffee. Leaving the café, Martín meets a former schoolmate and girlfriend, who is, like him, a Republican sympathizer. Nati Robles once thought that the study of politics and the philosophy of law would be all she needed to be happy. Martín notes how much better dressed Nati appears than she was as a university suffragist. He somewhat nervously accepts her invitation to a drink. In a serendipitous gesture, Nati presents Martín with fifty pesetas so that he can treat her as well as buy her a gift. On his way to a secondhand bookshop where he intends to purchase a print for Nati, Martín stops for a drink at Doña Rosa’s café, from which he was unceremoniously removed the previous day. There, Martín pays his outstanding debt and tips the waiter generously before commenting insultingly on the poor quality of the establishment. When he finally reaches the shop, he is chagrined to discover that his only remaining twenty-five pesetas fell out of his pocket when he used the café’s lavatory.

A few days later, Martín borrows a black tie from Pablo Alonso, a friend who was good-heartedly providing him with free lodging. Martín then sets off to visit his mother’s grave, again making little sense and muttering vague pronouncements about the means of production and distribution. An unspecified something that appears in that day’s newspaper—either an article Martín wrote or a belated denunciation of his political sympathies—frightens his friends, and they organize an all-out search for Martín before the authorities should find him. While they discuss plans for hiding the unbalanced Martín or packing him off to Barcelona long enough for the affair to blow over, Martín remains oblivious to his troubles. Trying to save the very same newspaper that threatens to be his undoing, he vows to read the want ads and find himself a respectable job working for the government or in a bank.

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