Though marked by great diversity, Ramón José Sender’s vast novelistic production over five decades reveals a remarkable unity of vision. In substance, one finds that there are continuing, basic Senderian concepts and themes, found in large measure in his first novel, Pro Patria, as well as in his posthumously published works. In them all, one finds the author’s deep concern with social justice, with the struggle of the individual for self-realization, for love, and for an ideal that gives transcendent value to life. Sender’s writings serve as a vehicle for ceaselessly probing certain immutable problems of existence: the question of death or human mortality; the enigma of evil in the individual and in the world at large; the possibility of an ultimate basis for moral judgments; and the function of the mysterious and the nonrational in life. Ordinary realism is in a Senderian novel only the starting point or the springboard for reaching out for transcendent meaning, for discovery of the marvelous and the mysterious, for brief flights of poetic fantasy, and for a constant metaphysical-religious-lyric questioning of the ultimate nature of reality. Sender’s novels usually move on three distinct levels: the realistic, the poetic, and the philosophical-religious.
Though neither an orthodox believer in God nor an atheist, Sender reveals in his novels a deep faith in and reverence toward humanity; in The Sphere, he elaborates his belief that the essential part of humanity is imperishable, believing (along with Benedict de Spinoza) that “man is an integral part of the infinite intellect of God.” An offense to humanity thus becomes an offense to God. Humanity, both its individual persons and in the abstract, is squarely in the center of Sender’s novelistic universe. Though his short stories, theatrical pieces, essays, and poetry have received very little critical attention, they all exhibit the same basic view of humans and explore the same fundamental questions to be found in his novels.
Sender’s style is that of the author speaking directly and personally to the reader in simple, clear, unaffected language, even when passages of the harshest realism are interrupted with flights of lyric fantasy or dialectical probing of philosophical-religious problems (from which inconclusive and eclectic syntheses are derived; Sender is never dogmatic except to reiterate the impossibility of humanity arriving at absolute truth—at least in this life). In a taped interview at the University of Southern California on June 7, 1966, Sender named four Spanish authors as having greatly influenced him: Fernando de Rojas, Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, Ramón María del Valle-Inclán, and Pío Baroja. Sender, like Baroja, is a writer of substance, always with something worthwhile to say, and openly disdainful of mere style; he also is preoccupied with social, moral, and metaphysical problems.
The influence of Valle-Inclán can be seen in Sender’s occasional juxtaposition of the grotesque and the lyrically innocent and in the use of tragicomedy. His bitter social satire, his tendency to caricature and his austere humor (never far removed from sadness) may owe something to Quevedo, the seventeenth century writer of Los sueños (1627; The Visions, 1640) and the celebrated picaresque novel, Historia de la vida del buscón (1626; The Life and Adventures of Buscon, 1657). Sender’s peculiar fusion of realistic and nonrealistic elements (fantasy, dreams, hallucinations, the mysterious, the marvelous, the magical, and so on) recalls not only the two levels of realism and fantasy in La Celestina (1499; The Rogue, 1634) of Rojas but also those in the greatest Spanish novel of all, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615).
Francisco Carrasquer calls Sender’s first novel, Pro Patria, a “provisional anticipatory synthesis of all of Sender’s work” and adds that it is such a great novel “that one cannot understand how a first work like it did not definitely consecrate its author.” Peñuelas also calls it a “great novel,” and he told Sender, “You have a few novels the equal of Imán [Pro Patria], but none better.” Until recently, critics have tended to regard the work as simply a realistic account of the Moroccan War much in the style of Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (1929, 1968; All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929, 1969), published one year earlier in Germany. Pro Patria’s fantastic, poetic, philosophical, and symbolic dimensions were long overlooked, but masterful studies of the work by both Carrasquer and Peñuelas have helped to correct this misapprehension.
Pro Patria tells the story of the Spanish military campaign to suppress the rebellion of the Moorish leader Abd-el-Krim in 1921 in Spanish Morocco. The story is told from the perspective of Viance, a Spanish private who attracts misfortune (hence the book’s Spanish title, Imán, meaning “magnet”), alternating with that of a Spanish journalist, Antonio, and that of an omniscient narrator.
Harsh realism is especially evident in the first of the book’s three major divisions, “The Camp—The Relief.” In the tone and atmosphere set here for the rest of thenarrative, there is an implied denunciation of the utter stupidity and uselessness of war, perhaps not only of the specific Spanish campaign but also of war in general—whether the novel is a pacifist work is subject to debate.
In the second division, “Annual—The Catastrophe,” the suffering of Viance from hunger, thirst, and exhaustion reaches the limits of human endurance while the Spanish forces are routed. Through it all, however, Viance, though a common soldier (and symbolic of the Spanish masses), engages in some metaphysical-lyric probing of the meaning of his experience and of human life. Lying in the stinking belly of a horse, hiding from the Moors, he senses “that his own matter is alike to that which encircles him, that there is only one kind of matter, and that all of it is animated by the same blind impulses, obedient to the same law.” One dark night inclines Viance “to believe in some kind of justice[in] A kind of bright and translucent justice implicit in all things.”
In the third and last division, “Escape—War—Discharge—The Peace of the Dead,” Viance escapes from his Moorish captors and returns to the Spanish forces, only to receive inhuman treatment from them and finally to be discharged, a bitter, disillusioned man contemplating suicide. The book’s social protest arises from the action itself; Viance’s officers treat him as the upper classes have for centuries in Spain treated the lower classes. Because Sender’s military service in Morocco occurred two years or more after the crushing defeat of the Spaniards at Annual, the events recorded are not autobiographical but are rather a composite of what the young author heard from others combined with his own vivid...
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