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the family of pascual duarteCamilo José Cela (1916-2002) was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1989 but reading his first novel left me with the distinct impression of a second-rate Poe, featuring some of the most gruesomely ludicrous deaths since his idiotic orangutan wandered into the Rue Morgue. Because these (many, many) deaths destroy this novel’s credibility I have to write an extremely spoiler-heavy review for clarity’s sake, so you should proceed with utmost caution.

Problems start right out of the gate. Published in 1942, the same year as The Stranger, which made the literary establishment jump on it as a work of Spanish Existentialism. But they got it completely wrong. Pascual Duarte has an unshakeable belief in God and sees himself as a doomed sinner marked by fate: Who knows if it were not God’s vengeance upon me for all the sins I had committed and all the sins I would still commit! Who knows if it were not written in the divine record that misfortune was my only sign, that the road to disaster was the only path my dogged footsteps could travel throughout all my sad days? 

One does not ever get used to misfortune, believe me, for we are always sure the present affliction must be the last, although later, with the passage of time, we begin to be convinced – with what misery of heart! – that the worst is yet to come.

This tone is carried on throughout The Family of Pascual Duarte. It’s a bleak and dismal picture of the universe but that alone doesn’t make a work existential. Duarte believes in God, hence he absolves himself of all responsibility for his own actions and writes his life story, revisiting his worst moments, as an act of penance. Life is miserable but it clearly has meaning for him, and did I mention he has a conscience? Ex-i-sten-tial.

Secondly, for all the claim that this and The Stranger both revolve around “meaningless murder,” nothing is further from the truth. Duarte’s killings are unnecessary but always provoked. He’s a violent man, raised by violent, abusive, alcoholic parents. His simple solution to hatred is to kill the object of it. There is no comparison to Meursault’s emotionless crime in Duarte killing the pimp who used his sister and got his wife pregnant. Even a mild-mannered man would take that exceedingly poorly.

Anthony Kerrigan, who translated it in 1964 and wrote the introduction to my copy, continued this strange interpretation with his over-the-top preface, full of buzzwords like “anti-saint,” “will-to-eroticism,” “anti-Faustian man” (who’s apparently a “natural nihilist”), “purity in atheism” and on and on. If this was an atheistic, Nietzschean novel, it would be a great opening volley – but it’s not.

So the next question: is it a realist novel? It wants to be, but it’s about as realistic as Therese Raquin – like Zola’s work, it is the product of an angry young man so keen on representing the horrible aspects of mankind and the grisly features of the natural world that the result is a relentless scream of a novel. Disaster is laid on with a trowel.

And this is where the real problems arise. So the critics were wrong. So it doesn’t fit into a given “type.” On its own, these hardly matter but The Family of Pascual Duarte is marred by several flaws, particularly the worst foreshadowing I have ever come across. The reader is not given a moment’s peace from it. Here is one example:

Having sent his pregnant wife home on a mare which he already states would be the cause of the first disaster in our life together, Duarte lingers in a tavern and gets into a knife-fight. Then he and some friends walk to his house and pass the village graveyard. The cypress looked like a tall dry ghost, a sentinel standing guard over the dead… There was an owl in the cypress tree, a bird of ill omen, and he hooted mysteriously. The men go on to exchange comments on how it’s “an evil bird” and enquiring why they haven’t reached the house yet, noting each other’s pale complexions and nervousness (subtle this is not). They arrive at the house and it’s silent and dark! The medicine woman is there! Turns out the mare threw Duarte’s wife and she suffered a miscarriage so Duarte immediately goes out and stabs the mare to death – Cela even uses similar wording in both stabbings.

Another incident: Duarte’s wife is pregnant again and this time delivers a healthy boy. They spend two pages talking about how careful they’ll have to be in raising him, another three talking about how terrible it would be if something happened, mentioning an “ill wind” that brings death to infants and then the worried parents hear a window creak in the bedroom and suddenly the child moans! Of course after all that buildup the boy quickly expires and Cela moves us along to the next disaster. And THIS novel is praised by Alastair Reid for its “restraint?”

By about the time the above incidents happened I was ready to howl. It’s the worst of both worlds: the foreshadowing prevents anyone from reading this “for the plot” and yet the plot is so outlandish that attempting to read it for anything else is futile. It’s as if Cela’s intent was for his readers to study the protagonist as a representation of the violence, ignorance and fear which infect the lower classes but it’s not remotely credible. I suppose it could work as some kind of allegory for Spain at the time but if your book ONLY works as an allegory then your book is a fail.

What separates it from Therese Raquin, whose flawed sense of naturalism Pascual Duarte shares, is Cela’s hurried narrative. Zola offered great Gothic setpieces, inviting the reader to soak in the gruesome details until everything started to make emotional sense. In opposition, Cela as Kerrigan translates rushes from one catastrophe to the next, with pauses only so Duarte can ruminate on his predicament and despair. Some of his inner monologue is actually quite effective and contributes the best and easily the most realistic portion to the novel.

I have pondered a lot and often, till this day, truth to tell, on the reason I came to lose first my respect and then all affection for my mother, and finally to abandon even the formalities as the years went by. I pondered the matter because I wanted to make a clearing in my memory which would allow me to see when it was that she ceased to be a mother for me and became an enemy, a deadly enemy – for there is no deeper hatred than blood hatred, hatred for one’s own blood. She became an enemy who aroused all my bile, all my spleen, for nothing is hated with more relish than someone one resembles, until in the end one abominates one’s likeness. After much thought, and after coming to no clear conclusion, I can only say I had already lost my respect for her a long time before, when I was unable to find in her any virtue at all worthy of imitation, or gift of God to copy, and I had to be rid of her, get her out of my system, when I saw I had no room in me for so much evil. I took some time to get to hate, really hate her, for neither love nor hate is a matter of a day, but if I were to date the beginning of my hatred from around the time of Mario’s death, I don’t think I would be very far off.

This passage is actually quite good but even here it’s made extremely obvious what’s going to happen by the end of the book. Were the entire novel to consist of psychological narration only occasionally broken into by scenes of violence, the effect would very probably have been bloodchilling. In that way, my main complaint of this novel is surprisingly similar to that of Story of O, only in the latter’s case, the psychological passages were drowned out by a lot of over-the-top porn instead of over-the-top death scenes.

Upon finishing the novel it became apparent that Cela falls short of what other writers have done with similar ingredients and far, far superior use of foreshadowing. John Hawkes could walk away with this plot (it’s even got a horse) and craft a living, breathing nightmare out of it. Flannery O’Connor could weigh the scales of sin and redemption, turning the abject and grotesque into a resonant universe. Elfriede Jelinek could overdose on doom, despair, viciousness and the wrenching blows of fate with greater psychological acuity. And if you want a fucked-up mixture of crime, grime, realism and Gothic exaggeration, there’s always Therese Raquin.

So if you’re planning to read Cela, please don’t make my mistake. Presumably, his later novels are much better than this (which, to be fair, he did write at the age of 26). The Hive is respected. But so is The Family of Pascual Duarte, which was considered groundbreaking for Spanish literature at the time but only shows that as times change and context is lost some writings definitely do not cut the mustard.

Camilo Jose Cela

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