Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: "San Camilo, 1936" by Camilo José Cela

San Camilo, 1936 (1969)
Camilo José Cela (1916-2002)

Translated from the Spanish by John. H. R. Polt 

302 pages
...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 M&aacuteximo 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 M&aacuteximo 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.

Odd connection:
Cela writes:
 ...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. 
...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

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Book Review: "Desert" by J.M.G. Le Clézio

Desert (1980)  

J.M.G. Le Clézio (1940)

354 pages

Nature can be astonishingly beautiful and devastatingly cruel, the difference often depending on the smallest change of circumstances. It can even be both at once: overwhelming one’s strength even as one is dazzled by its beauty. This is the view of nature experienced by the characters in J.M.G. Le Clézio’s haunting and lovely novel Desert; nature powerful and glorious, nature with the force of a separate character in the story.

The novel has two parallel story lines. One takes place in the Western Sahara desert in the early years of the 20th century, and is based on historical events of the time. The other is set in modern times, starting out near a city where the sands of the Sahara end in dunes along the Atlantic coast, before moving to the French port city of Marseille, on the Mediterranean. The two stories are interlaced in the telling, and are loosely but clearly connected to one another, the consequences of the actions of one era playing out seemingly inevitably in the next.

The novel opens in 1909, as nomadic tribes of the western Sahara are gathering together and streaming north through the desert, ahead of the advancing “Christian” armies of the European colonial powers. This part of the story is told from the point of view of Nour, a teenage boy whose family is part of the exodus. Nour watches the tribes come together around a holy man and follow him northward on a deadly search for a new home; caught between the unyielding desert sands and mountains, and the relentless armies of the Christians, Nour and his people struggle onward with little more than hope and prayer to sustain themselves. Challenged by the harsh desert and witnessing both the stalwart resolve of this fellow travelers and the dead who eventually begin to line the sides of the path north, Nour grows into a man over the months of the trip, discovering the power of faith in the face of continual loss.

The parallel, modern-day story follows another young teenager, a girl named Lalla Hawa. Lalla lives in a kind of shanty town outside a port city on the Atlantic coast of the Sahara desert. She rises above the poverty of her surroundings, seemingly fascinated by all aspects of the natural world, whether the desert landscape, the sand dunes along the coast, or the wasps hovering over the cooking food. But most especially she is enthralled with light, the light reflected off the sand, the rocks and the water. In one of the many, many beautifully written descriptions of the desert landscape in the novel, Le Clézio describes how a shepherd friend of Lalla’s leads her into
a chasm that opens at the bottom of a rocky ravine … [and] along the narrow tunnel that descends into the earth…. All of a sudden, they stop: the long tunnel is bathed in light because it opens right out into the sky… the sky right there in front of her, immense and weightless. She stands motionless, breathless, wide-eyed.

As the story develops, Lalla seems to be absorbing the light, to be illuminated by it. She moves through life with an awareness of the world that most everyone around her remains blind to. She knows, for example, that she lives in a very poor family and that there is wealth in the world --- wealth in fact just across the river in the neighboring city; she is not naïve to these facts, but this reality does not affect her appreciation of the beauty in the world around her. When a situation does finally develop that threatens to tie her down and limit her ability to follow her own will, she escapes, running away crossing the Mediterranean and ending up in Marseille. Even there, though poor, struggling to survive and missing her desert home, she nevertheless manages to find moments of inspiration even in the otherwise grimy, run-down poverty of the underside of life in the French city.

With Lalla ending up in France to try and make a life for herself the novel comes full circle in a way. The French and their fellow Europeans drove Nour and his people from their homelands and their nomadic, pastoral lifestyle. Many who survived settled in shanty towns outside of larger African cities, where they were often unable to find work on which to survive and so failed to be integrated into the local populations. In a desperate bid to make a life for themselves, some move on, across the sea, to the promised wealth of the cities of Europe, only to find the promised land a mirage, as they struggle unwanted in these new lands. Thus, Europeans reap what they have sown in colonizing Africa.

But this novel also has a powerful message of hope and inspiration. It shows the ability of people to persevere and rise above a difficult reality, making new lives for themselves that can be worth living. And too, it is a wonderful homage to the beauty of the natural world, a beauty that can be found all around us, if we only open ourselves to appreciating it. In his descriptions of nature Le Clézio’s writing verges on poetry at times, particularly when he describes Lalla’s perceptions of her desert home. When she finds herself in the middle of the desert at night, with her shepherd friend, Lalla lies on the hard ground, and though tired, sore and hungry, looks up to see
… the extremely soft light coming from the cluster of stars … [that felt] so very close, she could easily reach out her hand and take a handful of the beautiful light.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:

J.M.G. Le Clézio was awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Review by Elizabeth Hawes in the New York Times Book Review that gives a little of Le Clézio’s history.

Review on the site Three Percent by Timothy Nassau.

Review on the blog  Mookse and Gripes.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION