Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343
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 Emmanuel of 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 Emmanuel as he is being considered for sainthood by the Bishop of Renada for his good works. Angela tells the bishop facts about Emmanuel’s service to the people of Valverde de Lucerna but withholds information about his lack of faith in eternal life. 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 Emmanuel, 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.
Shortly after taking Communion, Lazaro confesses to his sister about his and Emmanuel’s lack of faith. She is upset and at first in denial over this revelation. Emmanuel 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. Lazarus 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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916
The story begins at the moment when the town of Valverde de Lucerna begins to promote the beatification of its beloved priest. Angela Carballino, whose real father died when she was a child, has always considered Don Manuel as her “spiritual father”; she recounts his life as a kind of confession, the nature of which is not clear until the end of the novel.
Angela first recalls Don Manuel as a robust, active priest of about thirty-seven who participated in every aspect of the life of the town. He was especially interested in children and often helped in the school, teaching not only catechism but also other subjects. He was moved by the death of any child and rejected the popular notion that an early death is a blessing because a dead child goes directly to Heaven. He routinely helped the poor, providing them with clean clothing. On one occasion, he intercepted a child whose father had sent him for firewood on a wintry day, sending the boy home and going for the wood himself. Rather than preaching the glories of Heaven, Don Manuel urged the villagers to enjoy life on earth; he encouraged them to give parties, to dance, to be happy. His most important function, however, was helping people to die. At the moment of a parishioner’s death, Don Manuel offered comfort and strength.
Don Manuel became the spiritual mainstay of the village. Everyone loved him. Soon his reputation extended beyond Valverde de Lucerna. When Angela went to an out-of-town high school, the girls asked constantly about Don Manuel. Before long, he became famous for his miracles. On the night of San Juan, on which Spaniards celebrate the beginning of summer, the physically and emotionally ill would come from miles around to gather at the lake at Valverde de Lucerna, which Don Manuel turned into a healing pool. Sometimes, moved by Don Manuel’s presence and his extraordinary voice, they would come away cured. Yet when someone asked Don Manuel for a miraculous cure, all he would answer was, “I don’t have permission from the bishop to perform miracles.” As Don Manuel’s fame grew, he received opportunities to advance within the Church structure, but he refused to leave his parishioners. “How can I save my own soul if I fail to save the soul of my people?” he would say.
In the town of Valverde de Lucerna, everyone went to church, many simply to experience Don Manuel’s charismatic presence. At Mass all would recite the Apostles’ Creed, led by Don Manuel. When, however, the congregation came to the words, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” Don Manuel remained silent. On Good Friday, when Don Manuel repeated Christ’s words, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he did so with such conviction that he brought the parishioners to tears. Afterward, Blasillo, the village idiot, would wander through the streets crying, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” and again, the townspeople would weep. Angela, observing Don Manuel’s silences and anguished lamentations in church, as well as his obsessive need to keep himself busy, begins to suspect the priest’s terrible secret.
When Angela’s brother Lazaro returns to Valverde from the New World with progressive, anticlerical ideas, a clash between him and Don Manuel seems inevitable. Lazaro sees Don Manuel as an instrument of the primitive, theocratic feudalism that is holding Spain back. At the same time, he respects Don Manuel’s intellect. “He is too intelligent to believe everything he has to teach,” Lazaro concludes.
Instead of confronting Lazaro, Don Manuel takes him into his confidence. The two men become close friends. Don Manuel admits to Lazaro that he has lost his faith and that he has long been tempted by suicide, but he argues that the people need religion in order to endure their hardships. When Lazaro speaks of unionizing the workers, Don Manuel counters that new ideas will sow discontent. Since Lazaro is not a believer, Don Manuel cannot win him through faith. He uses reason to convince him that the people are better off with their traditional ways and faith than with new ideas that will introduce turmoil into their lives. It is at this point that the nature of Don Manuel’s martyrdom becomes clear. He has sacrificed himself all these years in order to give the people the faith he believes they need in order to survive.
When Angela’s and Lazaro’s mother is near death, Don Manuel persuades Lazaro to promise that he will pray for her soul so that she can die in peace. Once brought into the fold through prayer, Lazaro becomes Don Manuel’s most ardent supporter. He assists him in his work, not because he believes in life everlasting but because he believes in life on earth. Don Manuel has convinced him that it is better for the villagers to enjoy their lives as much as possible rather than torture themselves with philosophical questions. When Don Manuel dies, it is Lazaro who urges his replacement to give the people “religion,” not “theology.”
Neither Lazaro nor his sister reveals Don Manuel’s secret until the bishop insists that Angela, now in her fifties, write her thoughts about Don Manuel in support of the beatification process. She produces a text that not only will bring down the myth of Don Manuel, the saint, but also reveals her own doubts.