Camilo José Cela and the Civil War

Enrique Gallud Jardiel 
Hispanic Horizon, núm. 9, Universidad Jawaharlal Nehru, Nueva Delhi, 1991


      It is a trifle adventurous to try to speak about the political novels of CamiloJosé Cela, because any critic or any person having read Cela can easily confront me by saying that Cela never wrote any political novel; and to a certain extent he would be right in saying so. His novels are not ideologically political, but only in a historical sense, since they are a reflection of Spanish life at a particular time when several political considerations and events finished a considerable part of that very Spanish life, in fact the life of one million Spaniards, more or less: I am referring to the Spanish Civil War which, in Cela's own words was one of the worst in the history of humanity, since it served no purpose and achieved no goal at all.

     Then, why are we interested in what Cela –Nobel winner or not– may have said about politics, if he does not write novels of that genre? The fact is that Cela has an undeniable asset: he knows how to awaken interest, even among his most vociferous detractors. And that is one of the reasons of his success. In my personal opinion, this success is due mainly to the fact that he knew how to capture, at a particular time, the attention of the Spanish readers, by filling his books with two basic element –sex and violence– years before American cinema could get the Spaniards used to these two elements. The morbidity and the so-called "tremendism" of the Galician writer, with its wide range of sensual, erotical and sanguinary elements, did create for him in the forties and fifties a public that would not have existed had his works not included these elements. In Cela's own view, expressed in his collection of essays entitled Baraja de invenciones (Pack of inventions), his success is due only to the lack of competition in the field of letters. Surely he has not been surprised by the award of the Nobel Prize. He says:

I consider myself the most important Spanish novelist since the generation of 1898 and I am dumbfounded when I consider how easy it was for me to achieve it. I apologise for not having been able to avoid it.

     But the reasons of Cela's success take us away from our theme. The link is that, due to this success, the Spanish reader, at a specific point of time, with the implementation of democracy in Spain, expected Camilo José Cela to declare himself politically in his books, after a period –Franco's regime– of partisan literature, blindly in favour or blindly against the regime. In the Spanish context, it is practically impossible to talk about ideologies in an abstract form, without relating them to 20th Century Spain, and about other countries' policies. The Spanish Civil War, as the renowned critic Alonso Zamora Vicente has stated, was a painful experience that appeared continuously and will continue to appear for some time more in the literature of the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, Cela, as the first Spanish novelist of the time, was forced to write also his novel "about the war" and to describe it from his own perspective. In fact, he wrote two novels about the conflict and the radicals from both sides, who were expecting an intellectual accolade from Cela, were highly disappointed, because he affirmed that no ideology of those who caused or took part in the conflict deserved any praise and even less a justification a posteriori. And why this criticism of these two so different ideologies, he was asked? Precisely because they caused or took part in a civil war. In this answer the core of Cela's position on this matter can be found: he advocated for a pacifist apoliticism, which he tried to justify in these two works.

     Although he does mention in his other novels somne aspects of war and politics, his two main works on this theme are Vísperas, festividad y octava de San Camilo del año 1936 en Madrid, (Saint Camilo's Eve, Festivity and Octave in the Year 1936 in Madrid), and Mazurca para dos muertos, (Mazurka for two Corpses). In both of them he deals with the war, but, leaving aside the famous or important events and happenings, he concentrates on the description of the people's reaction to it, an aspect avoided till the sixties in Spanish literature. So we see that Cela is not a writer who likes to mix art with politics; he says that many times literature is used as a medium for propaganda and that politics thus ceases to be a thematical element. In his essay Al servicio de algo (At the Service of Something) we read:

The novelist should be rigorously comnmitted to his own conscience; the party commitment –whatever the party is– only degrades and sterilizes him.

     So, he devotes himself to writing about those who, in the middle of the war, were not really identified with the ideologies that caused it. And who were those peoples? According to Cela, they constituted the huge majority of Spaniards, who had a stand opposed to extremism, fanaticism and proselytism. Cela defines them in San Camilo... as the "third faction", integrated by

...the majority of the people of the country, who want to live in peace and not depending on the whims of gunmen.

     According to this interpretation there were not two, but three, the armies that in that year of 1936 were ready to fight for Spain. This "third faction" includes the people who did not directly took part in the war but who were much affected by it. The characters of Cela in these novels are a few dozen individuals who are not interested in the clash of ideologies but merely in saving their lives. This "third faction" also includes many intellectuals, and the critic José María Martínez Cachero, specialist in modern Spanish novel, has written also about "the third Spain", represented by thinkers of the stature of Ortega y Gasset, Gregorio Marañón, Pérez de Ayala or Salvador de Madariaga, to mention only a few, who were criticised and abused by both the right and the left, because they refused to back violence with philosophy or science.

     What I have said does not mean that Cela considers himself purely as a pacifist. He justifies the wars of independence, because they bring freedom, but not so the wars for ideologies, because these ideologies –he says– "may not be true or practical in their implementation". Moreover, we have to keep in mind the foreign origin of the ideologies that caused the civil war in Spain, because fascism as well as socialism were new concepts for Spaniards, and foreign ones. At the beginning of the war, other political systems with greater tradition in Spain –monarchy and the republic– had very few true followers.

     But Cela does not criticise any ideology per se, but the incapability of Spaniards to accept any of them in a rational form. The Spaniard is excessively violent by nature and many times he uses politics as a pretext to give way to his hatred and even primitive instincts, says the writer. In San Camilo... we find the statement that what the Spaniard really likes is to set Spain and Spaniards on fire. And he adds:

We, Spaniards, live in permanent civil wars, in plural, all against all.

     If we accept this vision of Camilo José Cela of the Hispanic character, we will be bound to recognize that in Spain, the ideologies require a redefinition. In the novel referred to above, there is a peculiar definition of politics in general: "Politics is the art of rescuing whatever is left and rule the Spaniards so that they do not shoot themselves in a wild hunt." The rest are only subleties. The failure in recognizing this basic truth of Spain contributed to a great extent to the conflict. A character of this novel says:

It is dangerous to propitiate the conditioned reflexes, wherever you hear the word "culture" you shoot, or on the contrary, wherever you hear the word "bourgeoisie" you shoot, because people do shoot.

     To this inborn violence, we have to add the ignorance of a great part of the population in the realm of politics, and the fickleness of their preferences. Cela makes fun of the fanaticism of the rightists in Mazurca para dos muertos, narrating that in the Circle of Artisans, the members set fire to the books of Pío Baroja, Miguel de Unamuno, Ortega y Gasset, Gregorio Marañón and Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, as they were too progressive and anti-religious; but they left untouched the books of Voltaire and Rousseau, because their names were not very familiar to them. And regarding the Spanish leftists, he says that they are merely opportunists, if not practically inexistent. The Spaniard –he affirms– is essentially reactionary and his progressiveness is always a false attitude. In his magazine Papeles de Son Armadans he writes:

Spaniards can be divided in two big groups: those who read the newspaper ABC and say it and those who read the newspaper ABC and hide the fact.

     To conclude, we can say that the "political novels" of Camilo José Cela are not  merely apolitical, but anti-political. Cela is clearly against any ideology that may cause disturbances and violence. Cela longs for peace, but he does not accept peace as a justification for war. Politics should be an activity for the welfare of a country, not for the opposite –he affirms–; and political confrontations are but manifestations of the lack of maturity of humanity, who, after centuries of civilization, is still not ready to recognise that its efforts to find a globally satisfactory form of coexistence continue to be unproductive.