Journey to the Alcarria (Camilo José Cela)
In the summer of 1946, seven years
after the end of the Spanish Civil War, Camilo José Cela set out on foot to
discover the heart of Spain. He chose Alcarria, in the north-east corner of New
Castile, because he believed that the region – peasant, simple, rustic –
would suit his purposes: it was a place where nothing ever happened; it was a
place remarkable for its Spanishness. This is travel writing at its best –
picaresque in the tradition of Cervantes, elegiac, evoking a Spain that has
almost ceased to exist. Regarded as his greatest book of non-fiction, Journey to
the Alcarria should help establish why Cela, at the end of 1989, surprised an
English-language readership unfamiliar with his work by receiving the Nobel
Prize for Literature. (Book Jacket)
There are three distinct eras in
modern Spain. The Spanish-American war of 1898 delivered a coup de grace to the
Spanish Empire, striking at the decayed root of post-Moorish Spanish identity.
This gave birth to a movement loosely known as 'the Generation of 98',
whose objective was to start a process of national self-examination, culminating
in the finding of a new set of ‘authentic’ Spanish values.
The Generation of 98 criticized the
contemporary social, political and economic conditions of the country and called
for fundamental changes in the society. Although not entirely homogenous in
outlook, it was basically European and existentialist in character. The
philosophers Angel Ganivet and Miguel de Unamuno; the essayists Gregorio
(the patron to whom Cela dedicates Journey to the Alcarria), Ramon Perez de
Ayala and José Ortega y Gasset; the writers Pio Baroja and Ramón de Valle
Inclan, the scientist and Nobel prize winner Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the
historian Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo; the socialist thinker Pablo Iglesias;
the composers Manuel de Falla and Joaquín Costa were all part of the pre-Franco
intellectual establishment. Between the Wars, the Generation of 98 gave way to
the Generation of 27, which championed the same diversity, creativity and
Miguel Primo de Rivera, dictator of
Spain, was thrown from power in 1930; the Bourbon monarch Alfonso XIII
abdicated; and the Second Republic was born. So there were the Republicans.
There were also the Communists. There was the Catholic Church. There were the
Falangists, who were fascist in nature and recently formed to preserve Spanish
traditions and culture. There was
the Popular Front. Spain was wracked with revolutions, anti-clerical movements,
and intrigues from Left and Right. In 1931-1933 a Left-Wing group – cobbled
together from trade unions, socialists, and many intellectuals – came to
power, and it passed laws dealing with agrarian reform, regional autonomy and
curbs to the powers of religious orders. In 1933-1935 the Center-Right --
composed mainly of landed aristocracy, the Church, and the Army -- ascended to
power. It reversed the direction of government, passing new laws dealing with
agrarians benefiting landowners, postponed the replacing of religious schools
with lay ones, and violently suppressed revolts in Barcelona and the Asturias.
In 1936, the Leftists returned to Power. It did not seem to matter -- general
strikes persisted, churches were burnt, assassinations continued unabated.
General Franco was biding his time in Morocco as society unraveled. In July
1936, the Army in Morocco revolted against the government.
At the beginning of the Civil War,
most of the intellectuals -- writers, composers and artists, sided with the
democratically elected government (the Leftist Republicans). History knows more
writers who were against Franco -- Hemingway, Orwell, Neruda -- but Camilo José
Cela was to be in a minority – he served as a corporal with Franco's army –
on the wrong side of history with a scattering of other notables such as Jacinto
Benavente and Salvador Dali for company.
As Franco's forces started getting
the upper hand in the war, many intellectuals, fearing retribution, went into
exile. Those who could not or did not do so fared badly. Federico García Lorca
was executed at 38; the poet Miguel Hernandez died of TB in Franco’s prisons
aged 31. With the collapse of the Republic and the beginning of Franco's
dictatorship, modern Spanish culture entered its second era and came under the
spell of order, obedience, and diehard Catholicism.
Intellectual life compromised, went
underground, or emigrated: Pablo Picasso
(the Guernica was composed in this time), Luis Buñuel, the cellist Pablo Casals,
the Nobel laureate and great mystic poet Juan Ramon Jimenez (who together with
his American wife Zenobia Camprubi translated Rabindranath Tagore into Spanish)
all fought from the outside. So did
poets Luis Cernuda y Bidon, Pedro Salinas and Jorge Guillen, the artist Joan Miró,
and García Lorca’s sister Isabel -- working relentlessly, teaching,
pamphleteering, producing works of art and literature. Some, like Andres
Segovia, the father of contemporary Spanish guitar music, avoided direct
confrontation with the establishment, even working against Franco from within.
The third era started with the death of Franco in 1975. The wind of change started blowing. In 1977, democracy was formally reintroduced and the stage was set for a cultural resurgence. The European establishment nodded its approval in the shape of awarding the1977 Nobel Prize for Literature to the Republican poet Vicente Aleixandre.
The period immediately following was
one of an exhilarated confusion. There was an explosion of culture, some daring
and provocative. This period of
fear, excess and doubt peaked in 1981, when Colonel Tajero's attempted coup
failed to drum up any effective support among the people. Spain seemed to have
shaken off La Leyenda Negra and found its contemporary European destiny.
One of the signs of this new
confident mood was the Movida Madrileña. Movida translates to ‘scene,’ or
‘buzz’; it has been described as an attitude, a feeling, a
freedom-celebrating spirit that rose amongst the young like the swinging London
of the '60s or San Francisco’s Summer of Love. Soon there were movidas in all
the major centers of Spain. Spaniards, after more than four decades, could
taste, feel, look, read, hear, and experiment without fear. The great taboos of
sex and politics disappeared. Pédro Almodóvar was a product of this movement.
Carlos Saura, Manuel Gutierrez Aragon, Fernando Trueba, Mario Camus and Pilar
Miró were other filmmakers of the post-Franco era.
Playwrights Antonio Buero Vallejo, Jose Sanchis Siniestra; novelists
Antonio Gala, Manuel Vazquez Montalban and Pedro Reverte became popular. It was
in this environment of ‘nothing is sacred’ that the Nobel committee plucked
Camilo José Cela out of relative obscurity.
Cela was born near La Coruna, Spain, in 1916, of an English mother and a father of partial Italian origin. He fought, as we have seen, for Franco in the Civil War, and, at its end, graduated with a degree in Law. His first novel, The Family of Pascal Duarte (1942), was characterized by vivid descriptions of violence accompanied by slightly grotesque images, a style that has become known as ‘tremendismo’, perhaps echoed in the fornicating nuns of Almodóvar; this purported autobiography of a primitive criminal awaiting execution for the murder of his mother reflected the crude reality of rural Spain, and was banned by the Franco regime.
(Perhaps some of the attitudes that lay under Cela's early association with Franco's Spain never went away, 'tremendismo' or not. In 1998, at the age of 82, he deeply offended the Spanish gay and lesbian community when he urged they "stay away" from celebrations honoring Lorca, revered the world over as an iconic gay poet. "I would prefer that any homage paid to me after my death be without the support of gay groups," Cela told an audience in Spain, provoking much denunciation and anguish.)
Cela’s most celebrated fiction is
The Hive (1951). A radical departure from the elegiac solemnity of Journey to
the Alcarria, The Hive is a bleak satire that captures three days in the life of
Madrid in the aftermath of the Civil War. The Hive presents over 300 characters,
cutting back-and-forth across narrative time, using cinematic montage techniques
to portray the poverty, degradation and hypocrisy of Spanish society. The Hive
was originally published in Latin America; in Spain it was banned as subversive.
After the lunch time the waste ground is the resort of old people who come there to feed on the sunshine like lizards. But after the hour when the children and the middle-aged couples go to bed, to sleep and dream, it is an uninhibited paradise with no room for evasion or subterfuge, where all know what they are after, where they make love nobly, almost harshly, on the soft ground which still retains the line scratched in by the little girl who spent the morning playing hop-scotch, and the neat, perfectly round holes dug by the boy who greedily used all his spare time to play at marbles. (The Hive.)
Cela's non-fiction, in contrast,
is ruminative and, well, sweet; but the similarity of the technique is in the classic
essayist’s observation and description, rather than conventional character or
plot. Here’s how the Traveler (the Journey to the Alcarria is told in the
third person) sets out from Madrid:
Reciting his verses, the traveler reaches Cibeles Square. The last little bar girls of one of the nightclubs, in the first uncertain light of the day, are selling a final dreary drink of anisette to the high-living young blades who are about to go home. The girls are young, very young; but they already seem to have in their eyes that special patient sorrow that one sees in hired animals, dragged hither and yon by bad luck and evil intentions.
The traveler goes off down the
Paseo del Prado. Under the portico of the post office some urchins are sleeping
in a dirty heap, all sprawled together on the hard stone. A woman passes by
hurriedly, a square of lace on her head, on the way to early Mass, and a couple
of policemen are sitting on a bench, smoking languidly, with their carbines
between their knees. The mysterious black streetcars of the night drag their
scaffolding on wheels from one place to another; men without uniforms drive
them. Men wearing berets, silent as dead men, who cover their faces with scarves
… Two streetcar men pass by with their hands in their pockets, cigarettes in
their mouths, without saying a word. A ragged child is rooting with a stick in a
mound of garbage. As the traveler goes by the child lifts his head and turns
away abruptly, as if he wanted to hide. He does not know that appearances are
deceptive, that many a rough exterior hides a heart of gold; that in the breast
of this stranger, whose outside appearance is odd and even fearsome, he could
find a heart as wide open as all outdoors. The child, looking as timid as a
whipped dog, cannot know what infinite compassion the traveler feels for
abandoned children, for wandering children who thrust a stick into the fresh,
warm, aromatic heaps of garbage, just as dawn is breaking.
Some filthy, threadbare sheep pass by on their way to the slaughterhouse, with a B painted in red on their backs. The two men who are driving them hit them with sticks from time to time, perhaps for sheer amusement; while they, with a look in their eyes half-wretched and half-stupid, doggedly lick the dirty barren asphalt as they go along.
The traveler boards the 7 o’clock
Near Alcala de Henares the train
goes past the walls of the cemetery. A little mist hangs, as always, over the
river. In Alcala de Henares a good many people get off, leaving the train almost
empty … A blonde girl, who looks as if she should be called Raquel or
Esperancita or some such name, with her hair done up in little curls held tight
with spray and wearing a green-and-red striped sweater, is flirting with a young
civil guardsman whose moustache is ‘shaped’, as the barbers say. The
traveler reflects on love. The traveler has, in his house in Madrid, a French
engraving called ‘L’Amour et le Printemps.’ A bearded beggar goes down the
platform picking up cigarette butts. His name is Leon and he is wearing sky-blue
sandals. A man says to him, “Come here, Leon, you know how much I like you.
Want a cigarette?” When Leon comes up to him, the man gives him a slap that
cracks like the lash of a whip. Everybody laughs except Leon, who doesn’t say
a word, his eyes are full of tears, like a child’s, and he goes off in
silence, looking at the ground, bending over every little while to pick up a
butt. At the other end of the platform Leon turns to look back. There is neither
love nor hate in his eyes, they are like the eyes of a stuffed deer or an old
disillusioned ox. He is bleeding from his nose.
The Journey, then, is an escape from the hive-like despair of the city. The traveler walks along country roads through the Alcarria, takes short cuts through the dried pebbly beds of streams, sleeps in ditches, eats out of his knapsack, bathes his blisters in the swift-flowing tributaries of the Tagus. The countryside is not without warts, but it lacks the impersonal cruelty of civilization. It is tranquil; not without tragedy, but tragedy of a kind that is beyond human imposition, tragedy that is a fundamental property of the cosmos.
He sits down on a stone, his heart
suddenly heavy, and watches a group of eight or ten girls who are washing
clothes. The traveler is deep in thought and somewhat abstracted, and soft pagan
wisps of cloud fill his memory as he recalls the ever-fresh lines of the
Mother, see, the maidens, the maidens of the town,
Are washing in the river; their shifts they wash with water,
The water running down …
Two dogs are making love violently, obstinately and shamelessly out in the sun. A setting hen goes by, surrounded by chicks yellow as grain. A goat looks out of a side street with his head up, his eyes fathomless, his horns proud and threatening. The traveler looks for a last time toward the girls who are washing, gets up and goes away. The traveler is a man whose life is crisscrossed with renunciations.
Sitting in the sun, an invalid boy
is reading Andersen’s fairy tales out of a handsome book with stiff covers. As
the traveler goes by, the child raises his head and gazes at him. He has dark
curly hair, dark eyes, white skin, and a charming, prematurely embittered smile
… The mother comes to the door. The traveler asks her for a drink of water and
the boy’s mother invites him to come in and offers him a glass of wine. Then
she tells him the boy’s name is Paquito; that he was born normal, a lovely
child, but he got crooked very soon, he has infantile paralysis, and some nights
when they put him to bed they can hear him crying for a long time until he goes
Along the Cifuentes to the Tajo, then
on to the Stream of Soledad, Empolveda,
Casasana, Córcoles, Sacedón.
Duron is town where the people are
open and pleasant and treat a passerby kindly. They are curious and even
friendly with the traveler. It is amusing to notice how different, at a short
distance, the people of Budia are from those of Duron; in Duron they talk and
laugh and show a favorable attitude.
“If you get as far as Pareja be
sure to go up to Casasana, it’s my home town.”
The speaker is a young woman, the
mother of a child some two years old, who keeps climbing up on a cart which is
lying in a ditch; he falls off, cries a little, climbs up again, falls up again,
cries another little while, and, as they tell the traveler, spends the whole
afternoon doing this. Now and again his mother gives him a spank on the bottom
and then the youngster cries a little harder for a few minutes, wanders
squalling among the crowd and then, naturally, climbs up on the cart
Cela is, in a way, exploring the way
novels are written. His works are marked by a laying of layer upon layer of a
realistic, if sometimes tragic, existentialism, and in his world vignettes from
the lives and emotions of hundreds of people are mounted alongside each other.
The existence of one is inseparable from the hive-like existence of all, the
voices and thoughts blend. Our individual worlds are illusory fables: death alone can differentiate individuals. As he says in his Nobel lecture:
Through the process of thought man begins to discover hidden truth in the world, he can aim to create his own different world in whatever terms he wishes through the medium of the fable. Thus truth, thought, freedom and fable are interlinked in a complicated and on occasion suspect relationship. It is like a dark passageway with several side-turnings going off in the wrong direction; a labyrinth with no way out.
Today the Alcarria with its way of life has all but vanished from Spain; it lives on in this book, the soft ground laid over with the crisscrossed footsteps of an odd-looking notebook-carrying Madrid traveler, assorted tramps, peddlers and donkeys, girls laden with washing.