This 1953 novel has been on my bookshelf for more than forty years, perhaps longer. I bought it when my interest in Spain and Spanish literature was at its peak. I wished back then to compare this author, who was then called Spain’s greatest living novelist, with Jose Maria Gironella, whose The Cypresses Believe in God was a favorite of mine.
I now regret having let so much time pass before reading this book. Because my memory can no longer track the experiences of each of the scores of characters who appear and reappear throughout. That is, I was not able to connect their daily, often insignificant, encounters, which make up the substance of this novel. This failure applies to both linking with the past actions of specific characters as they reappear, and also recalling how different character earlier reacted to each other when these characters appear again. For the accumulation of these connections is how Cela gives a literary depth to the underside of Madrid society.
What he does is use isolated moments to reveal the substance within each character. But he reveals them through different approaches: an incisive description, a subtle psychological analysis, one’s role in society, or a routine confrontation. Cela’s objective here is to convey a cross section of Madrid’s lower-class society as a means to portray to unaware readers the impact of poverty in the 1940s on millions of Spaniards.
Cela himself has written that this novel “is nothing but a pale reflection, a humble shadow of the harsh, intimate, painful reality of every day…..My novel sets up to be no more—yet no less either—than a slice of life told step by step, without reticences, without external tragedies, without charity, exactly as life itself rambles on.”
And he has certainly achieved this. For there is no overarching story here. There are, simply, people meeting in a café, in tenements, on the streets, or even in brothels. They negotiate with each other, help each other, lie to each other, loan or borrow money, feed each other, betray each other, seduce each other, laugh and cry with each other, and on and on.
There are, indeed, too many characters for a cohesive story line—160 by the author’s own count. Instead, there are these disconnected incidents that serve to convey a way of life that most readers are unaware of. Yet these characters share certain characteristics: a desire for love, for companionship, for independence, for personal fulfillment, for a successful career, and, most importantly, for respect from others.
As Arturo Barea says in his Introduction, “He shows us the pitiful content of their lives: hunger, greed, fear, frustration, desire, malice, snobbery, poverty, nausea, and fumbling tenderness, all expressing themselves through small talk and small actions.”
As these characters interact with others, most do so only within their own group. And there are many groups. Which, altogether, comprise a portion of Madrid society. And Cela compares this interaction with bees in a beehive, which complement one another to make the hive work. Thus, with his title, Cela creates the metaphor that suggests the purpose he is striving for, the portrait of a cohesive but hidden society that the reader never thinks about.
I finished this novel more out of respect than enjoyment. For I usually prefer a novel that explores the inner lives of its characters. Not the slice-of-life approach, as here, an approach that remains on the surface, that deals with objective reality rather than probes the minds and souls of its characters. But Barea defends this approach as appropriate for a novel set in Spain in 1943, in the midst of World War II. This novel, he says, has “a hard core of truth in the Spain of today. There, the surface of life has once more to be described with all its significant ugliness, before the writers can go on to the exploration of the ‘inner country’; to put it differently, any Spanish psychological novel would be lopsided unless it included the harsh domination of hunger, misery, and unsafety in their humdrum forms.”
This hard-core surface approach may also explain why Cela’s reputation has not spread beyond Spain in the years since he wrote this work. Not only did Spanish literature exist in a world apart back then, but his slice-of-life approach has not since gained favor in the literary world. Moreover, the crude experiences of his characters were difficult for his contemporary readers to identify with—and remain so for readers today.
Which explains why I will not pursue Cela’s further work. As I wrote, he is an excellent writer, a true writer of literature, who has created here a rich world of troubled but sympathetic characters, and caught their physical and emotional environment, as well as their common humanity. But he did not create characters a reader could identify with, nor a world in which one feels comfortable. He was his own man. He had his own integrity. But, sadly, it is not for me. (September, 2017)