The Olive Field, by Ralph Bates
by Robert A. Parker
This novel belongs to 1936, the era in which it was published. It does not read like a novel of today. Nor even like a novel of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, both of whom introduced a new style and a new literary attitude.
What I mean is that this novel has a rich vocabulary, but not a rich reality. It is about a small town in Andalucia, Los Olivares, that produces olives on a vast scale. And while we learn a lot about different kinds of olive trees and how they are cultivated, it is difficult to sense the reality of the village, both its geography, which is liberally described, and its people, who more often represent various political and spiritual viewpoints.
And that is my major problem. The characters do more reacting to the events around them than, as individuals, reacting to and influencing each other. Indeed, the movement of the novel is geared more to the calendar and the seasons. And each event within the calendar brings out the culture or the politics of the town, but they are isolated events, linked by the novel’s theme rather than by the actions of the characters. Moreover, it is often difficult to separate and identify each character, given their lack of interaction, and given that the characters are often identified by their titles rather than their names. Is this latter point, in fact, why at the end of a later 1966 edition there is an extensive list of the principle characters?
There are many events presented here that seem intended to illustrate the Spain of the 1930s, the political changes taking place and the economic dependence of this town on its single industry. Thus, there is a religious procession and a counter demonstration, with a subsequent trial. There is intrigue between two priests. There is a major storm that ruins the olive crop. There is rebellion by the olive workers. There is even a rape and an attempted abortion. But the events are not tied together. They seem to be included primarily to draw a complete portrait of this town and its people just prior to the explosion of the Spanish Civil War.
I write this as I am half way through this novel. I shall continue reading, however, because this work received many notable reviews when published. Let us see if I will revise my opinion over the second half.
No, I do not. Bates continue to portray life in the olive fields, the harvests, the problems and violence the workers face, their rebellion against the landowners and the supporting civil authority, finally resulting in the massacre of workers as they attempt to demonstrate against the town leaders. There is also the fate of Don Fadrique, the town’s leader and main landlord, as he discovers the betrayal of his mayordomo, a quiet interval that adds richness to the town’s atmosphere but does not advance the novel.
There is also the birth of an illegitimate child, a boy, to Lucia Robledo, in which the entire town becomes involved. This is followed by the unexpected death of a minor character. Which leads, arbitrarily, to the transfer of the two main characters to the north of Spain, to Asturias.
Those two characters, both advocates for the workers, as is the author, emerge from this conflict between the landowners and the olive workers. Joaquin Caro is more thoughtful, a negotiator, a peacemaker, while Diego Mudarra is more aggressive, more violent, more physical. Both love music and the guitar, both earn respect from other workers, and because both fall in love with the same girl, Lucia Robledo, they are both personal rivals and political companions.
It is Joaquin who makes the (author’s?) decision to move the action to Asturias. He does so because of the sudden death of his brother Marcial and because of the town massacre. He no longer feels tied to Los Olivares, and he feels disillusioned by the defeat of the olive workers. And, perhaps more significantly, Lucia has moved there (although I missed the author telling us why), and he still loves her.
Whereupon, the novel makes to two time jumps. First, Joaquin has found Lucia and has married her, and the reader encounters a lengthy discussion of how well they love each other, largely based on whether or not he will allow her illegitimate son to join them in Asturias. Which, again, does not advance the flow of the novel, even as it is an interesting psychological issue that enriches their portraits.
The second jump in time confronts the reader with a precursor to the Spanish Civil War. It is 1934, and suddenly the aggrieved workers in the north rebel against the center right government. The latent tension in the air seems to arbitrarily explode. And with this development, the entire tone of the novel changes. Joaquin and Mudarra are still prominent, but the novel’s action no longer revolves around them. Instead, they are used by the author to portray the uprising against the government. The action is conveyed more through narrative than through dramatization. One even wonders if Bates has chosen this premature rebellion in order to end his novel with a moment of high drama.
Why am I so negative about this novel which received much high praise when it was published? I wonder if it was the times—in another sense. That because it sympathized with the workers, it was regarded favorably by the anti-fascist intellectuals who were the critics. Certainly, Bates draws here an effective portrayal of the tensions within Spanish society in the 1930s. And he clearly favors the workers, even as he acknowledges the violence on both sides.
But Louis Kronenberger sums up my reaction in his 1936 New York Times review: Bates “can paint an exciting scene, stage a moment of telling drama, record a sharp conversation; but the sure, steady vividness which results from the march of events themselves, the creative breadth which makes the narrative and the meaning of the narrative inseparable, are things beyond his power. ‘The Olive Field,’ for better or worse is intensely episodic….[and] not, as it was plainly intended to be, a successful panoramic novel.”
I, too, admire the effort, but, less so, the result. (October, 2016)