Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr

by Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 554

Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr, written by Miguel de Unamuno in 1930, is a “nivola.” "Nivola" is Unamuno’s own made-up term meant to contrast with the realistic “novelas" written by his contemporaries.

Unamuno tells the story of Don Manuel in the fictional town of Valverde de Lucerna. The town is located at the foot of a tall mountain and the edge of a beautiful lake, which is rumored to hide the ruins of an ancient city.

The story is narrated by Angela Carballino. She is one of the townspeople, and she looks back on what she knows of Don Manuel as he is being considered for sainthood by the Bishop of Renada for his good works. Angela has been largely without a father figure in her life, and thus considers Don Manuel to be her father of a spiritual nature. Angela tells the bishop facts about Don Manuel’s service to the people of Valverde de Lucerna but withholds information about his lack of faith in eternal life. From Angela’s depiction, Don Manuel is painted as a true public servant: he helps children in the school, helps the poor inhabitants of the town, and helps people come to terms with their own deaths. He is a healer, with some ailing people cured merely by being in his presence. He also encourages people to live their best lives while they are alive—in Don Manuel’s eyes, enjoying Earthly life should be a priority. We later discover this is because Don Manuel struggles to fully believe in an afterlife or salvation. He encourages the villagers to avoid idleness: he consistently condemns both idle thought or inaction. Angela later comes to realize that Don Manuel kept himself so busy to avoid thinking about his own crisis of faith. Helping others became a method of escape that served many people well.

Angela’s brother, Lazaro, returns to the small Spanish town from the New World. He is impressed by the priest’s acts of compassion but lacks faith in the spiritual message. When the mother of Angela and Lazaro is on her deathbed, she makes her son promise to pray for her, and he agrees. After time spent in the company of Don Manuel, Lazaro eventually takes Communion. The people of the town assume he is now a believer. However, he has adopted the priest’s view of the need for religion despite not believing in the resurrection. Lazaro and Don Manuel are in each other’s confidence. The priest even shares that he has lost his faith, yet still believes in the need for religion even if he feels he is floundering with regard to his purpose.

Shortly after taking Communion, Lazaro confesses to his sister about his and Don Manuel’s lack of faith. She is upset and at first in denial over this revelation. Don Manuel then begins a descent into weakness and depression, struggling with the burden of teaching that which he does not believe. His public death in the center of town has Christlike undertones. Lazaro takes up his role in the community, and his sister, Angela, moves away. She maintains an optimistic view that both the priest and her brother were potentially agents of God’s will all along because their system of disbelief still led them to do good works.

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