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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Camilo José Cela uses the metaphor of the “beehive” for the fast-paced buzzing atmosphere of the city neighborhood where he sets his novel, with particular emphasis on the social locations such as cafes, bars, and brothels where the “drones” congregate, as well as the streets themselves. Although the young writer Martín Marco eventually emerges as the protagonist, the author thoroughly builds up the hive conceit.

The morning unfolds slowly; it creeps like a caterpillar over the hearts of the men and women in the city; it beats, almost caressingly, against the newly wakened eyes, eyes which never once discover new horizons, new landscapes, new settings.

And yet, this morning, this eternally repeated morning, has its little game changing the face of the city, of that tomb, that greased pole, that hive . . .

About 300 characters appear in the novel. They spend much of their time frequenting cafes in the poor neighborhoods of Madrid. The atmosphere is sometimes vibrant but often melancholy, as the patrons are far from wealthy and often lament their personal misfortunes as well as their country’s dismal state of affairs. The author describes the subtly changing atmosphere.

There are certain evenings when the conversations between the tables die down . . . . On those evenings the heart of the café has an uneven beat, like a sick man’s, and the air seems to get thicker and grayer, though now and then a cooler breath pierces it like a flash; no one knows where it comes from but it is a breath of hope that opens, for a few seconds, a little window in each shuttered spirit.

Some of those who go there regularly are writers. Poets take a long time to produce their magnum opus, especially when hunger dulls their sense so that they find it hard to put just the right words together. One such poet goes there every day, and even passes out from hunger. The tile of his unfinished poem is “Fate.” He chose the simplest title so as not to evoke any false images before the poem even started; that way, he could leave open what those nuances might be. After his long months of labor, he may have gotten side-tracked on inessential matters:

There now exist some three hundred finished verses, a carefully laid out dummy of the future edition of the work, and a list of potential subscribers . . . . He has also chosen the type for the printer (a simple, clear, classic type one can read with ease—in a word, Bodoni) . . .

One of the regular patrons is Elvira, who is poor because she is unemployed and, in fact, has never worked at a socially respectable job, but only as a streetwalker. Her life is a tragedy well known to the other patrons; she had been orphaned by age 12.

Elvira . . . is a sentimentalist who took to a loose life so as not to starve to death. She has never learned to do any work and . . . is neither pretty nor accomplished. At home as a small girl, she knew nothing but abuse and disaster. Elvira . . . is the daughter of a dangerous fellow, Fidel Hernandez, . . . [who] killed his wife with a cobbler’s awl, sentenced to death, and garroted by . . . the public hangman.”

The café’s proprietress, Dona Rosa, sees herself as a hard-headed businesswoman, but she allows the patrons to loiter. She is sometimes kind to them but deep down despises them all, as at bottom she is a sadist. When they cannot pay, she has the waiters throw them out and then follow them outside and beat them up. She seems to enjoy both having pain inflicted on them and ordering her workers to kick those she considers deadbeats.

There are people whom it amuses to see others having a bad time; to get a close view of it they haunt the slums, they take battered old things as gifts to dying people, to consumptives huddling under a vile blanket, to anemic little children with swollen bellies and soft bones . . . Dona Rosa doesn’t even come up to that category. She prefers her emotion at home...

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