San Camilo, 1936 (1969)
Camilo José Cela (1916-2002)
Translated from the Spanish by John. H. R. Polt
...seen from close up history confuses everyone, both actors and spectators, and is always very tiny and startling, and also very hard to interpret.This line from Camilo José Cela’s novel San Camilo, 1936 lies at the heart of what Cela allows us to experience as readers: that historic events, as they occur, do not have the linear, almost inevitable feel that one is left with when reading about them in a history book years later. Even if we are aware of the broad direction of societal and political shifts that are occurring around us, the details generally remain a mystery, and we only reluctantly allow our daily habits and lives to be interrupted by the force of these outside events. The struggle for a novelist is how to make the history of a moment come alive to a reader as it was felt by everyday people experiencing it, to envelope the reader in the reality of those disrupted lives. It is not enough to simply tell us, we need instead to be actively overwhelmed by the moment, just as the characters are.
Cela’s amazing novel accomplishes just that, thrusting us as readers into the middle of the chaos that accompanied the onset of the Spanish Civil War.
When parts of the Spanish army rose up against the government in July 1936, mobs of people in Madrid took to the streets demanding to be armed in order to help protect the Spanish government, an only recently formed Republic after a long history of monarchial rule. Those on the side of the government became known as Republicans (or Reds, depending on one’s point-of-view); along with the centrist socialist parties in power at the time, this included farther left Socialist groups, as well as syndicalist, anarchist and communist groups. Those who joined the uprising led by the army were known as Nationalists (or Rebels, again depending on one’s loyalties); along with the rebelling army units, it included monarchist, catholic and fascist groups. Madrid and just over half of the country was initially Republican controlled, while the rest fell under the control of the Nationalists. (A brief summary of the period can be found in my review of Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War.)
The situation was, of course, not nearly as clear as it might appear on a historian’s map of the division of the country between the two groups. The division of the country was not on relatively orderly north-south, or east-west lines, but rather very rough regions. On each side of the suddenly and rather unpredictably appearing areas of control, a majority may have supported the group in control of a particular region, but generally a significant minority remained who supported the other side, and were simply caught on the wrong side of the line.
In Madrid, the government armed its supporters, and with the support of loyal army units was able to put down the rebelling army groups in the city. However, as Cela writes “the people are asking for weapons, once they have them they will ask for targets,” and so the many monarchists, Catholics and fascists who remained in the city found their lives suddenly threatened. And then there were the truly silent masses of people who had little interest in the deadly political struggles going on around them, and simply wanted order restored so they could go back to their old lives. The city of just over a million people descended into an armed chaos of distrust, animosity and fear.
Cela makes this descent real for us as readers. An historian of the Spanish Civil War can described the events of the period, and the effects on the population, but even the best historical writing struggles to fully convey the emotional impact on the people affected. Historical fiction tells a story within the larger history of the civil war, but typically with a relatively small cast of characters, focusing the effects on these few people. Cela, in San Camilo, 1936, uses a technique that grabs us a readers by our shirt collars and pulls us down into the muddy water, leaving us to struggle along with his characters, fighting for breath.
Cela begins his story just a couple of days before the uprising, which began on 18th July, Saint Camillus’ Day, from which the novel is titled. The novel ends, 300 odd pages later just a day or two after the uprising has begun. The story is nominally centered around a young man of twenty, but has a large supporting cast of his family, friends, acquaintances, others he encounters by chance, and political and military figures of the period. The main character is studying at the university and being treated for tuberculosis, and is riven by self-doubt and uncertainty as the time comes to choose sides in the growing conflict.
The story does not, however, develop in the traditional sense. There is a more or less linear time line to the scenes, tracing the deterioration of the political and social situation in Madrid through the experiences of the characters, but there is not a plot as such. Or, better put, there are dozens of very small plot lines: Cela presents the many groups of characters going about their daily business, the often mundane events of their lives mixed with the occasional unexpected moments, and the disruption of these lives as the rebellion takes hold.
The power of the novel is in Cela’s method of presenting it. He divides the novel into three sections, covering the days just before the rebellion, the day it breaks out, and the days just after it starts. Over these three sections there are some ten chapters, but the chapter breaks are more a chance for the reader to catch a breath than actual plot divisions. Each chapter is single ‘paragraph’ of dozens of pages, and within each chapter-paragraph there is minimal punctuation beyond commas, question marks and the infrequent period. Sentences go on for pages at a time, any particular ‘sentence’ passing often, and generally without punctuation, from one set of characters in one part of the city to others elsewhere, and including descriptions of events and dialogue among characters with only a minimum of punctuation.
The feeling for the reader is one of being presented the story by a kind of angel, who can listen to people, read their minds and who comments on their thoughts and lives (reminiscent of Wim Wender’s angels in the movie The Wings of Desire). We tag along as this ‘angel’ moves quickly around the city settling for a few minutes in one place, with one set of characters, and then moving on to another part of the city and its characters. We watch as the events of the overarching plot of the descent into civil war enter into the consciousness and disrupt the lives of people going about their daily business, the hardworking and the shiftless, those struggling to survive and those who feel in control of their lives.
An example best demonstrates Cela’s technique. The following quote is taken out of the middle of a sentence that had started pages before, and would only end several pages later. To give some background, the rebellion is just opening, and General Miaja is in Madrid and has been appointed by the government as Minister of War, while General Mola is in Pamplona and joining the rebellion; in a Madrid apartment; Victoriano has awoken next to his wife in the middle of the night with stomach cramps; Don Máximo is visiting his favorite brothel…
…General Miaja makes two calls to General Mola they’ve made me Minister of War congratulations thank you are you planning to have me shot? that’s not why I’m calling you did you get the letter I wrote you? I haven’t had time to answer it yet but we can talk whenever you like the situation is confused but Mola’s words give no hint of anything the second conversation is clearer is it true that you have ordered the military commandant of Vitoria to proclaim the state of war? yes sir don’t you know that the authority to issue such an order rests with the commanding general of the sixth division? I am commanding the sixth division how’s that? what about Batet? I’ve relived him what? are you crazy? that’s outright rebellion yes sir I am in rebellion along with the division you could have told me that! I said as much when I asked you whether you were planning to have me shot well well you are responsible for your actions Victoriano has another attach of diarrhea this time he can’t make it to the bathroom and shits on the bed and along the hallway this is too much fine shape I’m in! don’t worry dear you’ll get over it tomorrow with a little rice and some quince jelly you think so? sure I do that’s the best way there’s no diarrhea it won’t cure go on change your pajama and I’ll get some clean sheets Don Máximo falls asleep in an armchair and Rafaela fans him with an ostrich-feather fan like the one use by Miss Dolly the dancer from Gibraltar the princess of the cabarets and queen of the charleston Angelines offers him a crème de menthe and Dulce offers him drags on a Cuban cigar that smells heavenly Victoriano like Rabelais has another attack of diarrhea …
It is no doubt a struggle to follow the circumstances and dialogue in that passage, especially as it is taken out of context from the middle of the novel, but it gives a sense of Cela’s approach. People going about their lives as events happen that they are unaware of and yet that will threaten their very existence.
Read the novel from the beginning however, and one gradually becomes accustomed to the tone and flow, and it becomes less difficult, if not necessarily ever easy, to distinguish the voices during the dialogue, and follow the jumps in location from one story line to the next. (The English translation by John H. R. Polt contains a glossary of characters and some expressions from the story to help us keep track.) At the same time, as you give yourself over to the story, and worry less about clarifying every uncertain detail about character and place, you find yourself immersed in the novel as in a canoe without a paddle on a fast moving river, pulled along inexorably; even the periods and chapter divisions don’t really offer relief from the relentlessness of the story, at best offering points where you feel you can set the book down for a moment and return later without completely losing the narrative. But be warned that setting the book down in mid-stream is difficult: even with the punctuation that does exist the novel feels like one, long 300 page sentence, and until you reach the end, it feels awkward to break the flow.
But I highly recommend taking courage in hand and enter into this deep dive snapshot into a moment in the life of a city on the brink of civil war.
Read quotes from this book
Other reviews / information:
Recently discovered negatives of photographs of the Spanish Civil War, taken by Robert Capa, Chim and Gerda Taro, are collected in The Mexican Suitcase.
Other books I have reviewed can be found at the links below, in the sections (non-fiction) Spain and Spanish History, and (fiction) Historical Fiction: Related to Spain.
...cities don't run away, they burn, they rot, they fall apart, but they don't run away, cities can't run away, if they could they would have done it long ago.and
...if cities could flee not one city would be left in the world, but cities cannot flee...Years ago I read a science fiction story, Cities in Flight, by James Blish, in which cities did just that, escaping a dieing plant by encapsulating themselves and flying off as giant individual space ships, leaving Earth behind to travel among the stars.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION