San Camilo, 1936 I: Infrapolitics Par Excellence

Cela, San Camilo

Crossposted from Posthegemony

Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 opens with a scene in front of the mirror, and consistently returns to this same site of reflection and self-observation. At first, the mirrored gaze brings familiarity, perhaps a sort of comfort. The English translation has it: “A man sees himself in the mirror and even feels comfortable addressing himself in a familiar way” (3). In the Spanish, though, this is not a particular individual, but a generic, impersonal third person: “Uno se ve en el espejo” (13). This is the way things are in general, at least at first sight: in the mirror, we see ourselves and feel we know what we see. But it is not long before the reflection becomes both more uncertain and more specific, revealing something that perhaps we would rather not see. A second glance is less reassuring: “the quality of the pane is not good and the image that it reflects shows bitter and disjointed features [. . .] maybe what’s happening is that it reflects the astonished face of a dead man still masked with the mask of the fear of death” (3). So by the time the second chapter comes around, also opening with a mirror, the address is both more personal (second person rather than third) and more desolating: “Look at yourself in the mirror and don’t break out crying, it’s hardly worth while for you to break out crying because your soul is already more than damned” (32). And it is not long before the reflection provokes a real ambivalence, the mirror seeming to exert a strange hold on a spectator who can’t bear to look but can’t turn away: “look at yourself in the mirror and escape from the mirror, it’s like a gymnastic exercise, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror and so on until you can’t take it any more” (34). And why? Why “are you scared to look at yourself in the mirror?, yes, you’re scared to look at yourself in the mirror, are you afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks?, yes, you’re afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks” (49). Here as elsewhere, in the novel’s insistent repetitions and reiterations, we end up discovering that what we are returning to is the scene of a crime, a crime in which we are both victim and victimizer, murderer and murdered, the dead and the damned.

The crime, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, and the second-person narrator is both particular and general: it is a young student, about twenty years old; it is Spain; it is all of us. “You, you, you,” the narrative voice addresses himself, but also the reader, in a tone that both strives for self-knowledge and seeks at all costs to avoid it, in what is effectively one long, sprawling denunciation of the murderous desire written on all our faces–or, what is perhaps worse, the nonchalant ignorance and self-preoccupation that allows others to murder in our name. For sometimes it is by looking too hard in the mirror that we miss what is going on elsewhere, the violence that is about to break out without our lifting a finger to stop it. For we are both perpetrators and bystanders to a history that could not take place without us, but which we barely notice, or only indirectly. We are too close to the scene of the crime either to avoid its implications (and our complicity) or to understand them: “Seen from close up history confuses everyone, both actors and spectators, and is always very tiny and startling, and also very hard to interpret” (61). Because ultimately “history is full of Narcissuses” but “it will do no good to run away, do not close your eyes, contemplate your full and true (or full and false) image in the mirror, take advantage of your being as though hypnotized, [. . .] the miracle is not likely to occur but you must not give up that hope” (112). Cela is here returning to the civil war, to the very outbreak of hostilities, recognizing the narcissism involved but unwilling to give up on the miraculous possibility of hope for self-understanding none the less. You can’t look at it directly; but you can’t quite look away. Self-reflection and self-ignorance alike open up to moral quagmires. The best you can do, perhaps, is a gaze that looks aslant: indirect, interrupted, but repeated and insistent.

Hence this novel of the civil war is also somehow about anything and everything but. In the first instance because (at least as the first part comes to a close) the war itself has yet to break out. The conflict is (only) on the horizon; it’s a matter of rumour and fear, potential but not full actuality. We hear of the murder of Lieutenant José Castillo, a Republican policeman–a murder that took place on July 12, 1936. We register the assassination the following day of the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo. Who is behind these deaths? Falangists? Communists? Or was Castillo, for instance, merely the victim of a crime of passion? Cela passes on all the various stories that circulate around and try to explain the violence: “Listen, couldn’t he have been hit by a taxi as he was crossing the street?” (68). Meanwhile, off stage, something larger is brewing: “They say there is going to be a military coup to guarantee law and order and to save the Republic” (68). No wonder that fear stalks Madrid, that “the country is nervous, the spark can fly at any moment, maybe it has already flown with these stupid deaths, and the fire, if it breaks out, will be hard to contain” (71). But none of this is shown directly or straightforwardly. For (in the second instance) everything is at the margin of the narrator’s own concerns and preoccupations: with his family, his friends, his girlfriend Toisha, his own anxieties and fantasies about sex and health and the day to day. To put this another way, this is less a political novel than an infrapolitical tale par excellence. Cela’s interest is less in the political shenanigans and conspiracies, or even the broad structural tensions and open conflicts, that lead to the open violence of the war itself, than rather in everything that is not itself directly political but without which politics itself would be unthinkable, unworkable. Hence also the novel’s meandering, nonlinear, repetitive style, a “stream of consciousness” that belongs to no one single individual, but which presents the fragmented reflection of an uncertain, ambivalent multitude that at any moment will be cast as two great forces–Fascist and Loyalist, Right Wing and Left–that are supposedly mutually incommensurable. Cela writes against that political fiction, with all its reductiveness, to give us instead a more complex (non)narrative glimpsed in a distorting mirror for which we are inevitably always on both sides of the divide.

For Whom the Bell Tolls I: The Infrapolitical Paradox

More of the same

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Halfway through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the protagonist Robert Jordan is thinking both forwards and back to Madrid. Forwards because, in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, stuck in a cave behind Fascist lines waiting to begin a tremendously risky and seemingly ill-fated operation to blow up a bridge, he distracts himself by imagining what he will do if and when his mission is successfully concluded. “Three days in Madrid,” he thinks. The capital is under siege, of course, but even so it would offer creature comforts unimaginable on the front lines: a “hot bath [. . .] a couple of drinks.” There would be music and movies: he’d take his peasant lover Maria to see “The Marx Brothers at the Opera” (231). He’d have dinner at Gaylord’s, a hotel that “the Russians had taken over” where “the food was too good for a besieged city” (228).

But all this also leads him to think back (unusually, for a man not given to reminiscence) to other experiences he has had at Gaylord’s, a place of intrigue thick with rumor and “talk too cynical for a war.” It was here that he’d met the shadowy Russian Karkov–introduced by the last dynamiter to work in the zone and described as “the most intelligent man he had ever met” (231). And it was largely Karkov who’d made “Gaylord’s [. . .] the place you needed to complete your education. It was there you learned how it was all really done instead of how it was supposed to be done” (230). For in Jordan’s (and Hemingway’s) jaded eyes, the Republican cause may be right, but it is far from pure. Behind “all the nonsense” (230) is a murky world of machination and deception that only fully comes into focus at the Russian-held hotel. This is the epicenter of disillusion and corruption, but it is also the only place to “find out what was going on in the war” (228).

The hidden reality of the war is not pretty, but in some ways (Jordan reflects) it is “much better than the lies and the legends. Well, some day they would tell the truth to everyone and meanwhile he was glad there was a Gaylord’s for his own learning of it” (230). And Jordan and Karkov talk about when and how this truth will emerge: “out of this will come a book,” Karkov says, “which is very necessary; which will explain many things which it is necessary to know” (244). Jordan himself, a Spanish instructor at a US university, has already written a book–about “what he had discovered about Spain in ten years of travelling in it”–but it “had not been a success.” Some day soon it would be time to try again:

He would write a book when he got through with this. But only about the things he knew, truly and about what he knew. But I will have to be a much better writer than I am now to handle them, he thought. The things he had come to know in this war were not so simple. (248)

Now, Jordan is not Hemingway–and Hemingway is not Jordan, though the author has surely invested plenty in his character, a man of few words who prides himself on his powers of observation and his knowledge of the human psyche. But is this novel the book that Jordan would have wanted to have written? The work of a “much better writer” that is to explain the truth of a complex war whose surface veneer is attractive but whose grim interior is more fascinating still. Perhaps.

But For Whom the Bell Tolls is not really about the war’s covert machination. Indeed, what’s interesting about the novel is that Hemingway refuses to accede completely to Jordan’s notion that the “truth” of the conflict is to be found amid the cynicism and corruption that his protagonist tells us “turned out to be much too true” (228). Or rather, Jordan himself is shown as struggling to determine where the reality of the situation lies. Up in the hills, he knows that the situation is bad, not least when he sees the “mechanized doom” (87) of the Fascist planes that roar overhead and announce, as clearly as anything, that the enemy knows of the forthcoming Republican offensive. But he can’t quite admit this: asked whether he has faith in the Republic he replies “’Yes,’ [. . .] hoping it was true” (91). To admit to the precariousness of their fate, the difficulty of their mission, would be to fall into the trap that has ensnared Pablo, the local guerrilla leader who has let fear (and alcohol) overwhelm him, because he knows that their cause is long lost: he toasts “all the illusioned ones” (214) and explains himself by saying that “an intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend his time with fools” (215).

Ultimately, Jordan–and Hemingway–know that Pablo is right. But that cynical truth has to be both acknowledged and at the same time staved off, postponed, in the name of another truth that resides within the illusion itself, the legends and lies. So what we get is an ebb and flow, a tense and agonizing interchange between these two truths, between an apparent simplicity and purity (incarnated above all perhaps in the figure of Jordan’s lover Maria–who can never be taken to Gaylord’s–but equally in Hemingway’s characteristically terse and understated style) and a darker, more cynical complexity that can neither be denied nor allowed to dominate. So the paradoxical result is that simplicity ends up being far more complex than the web of machinations that it endlessly has to deny, precisely because in fending them off it recognizes and so includes them, while the cynic can only destroy all that is pure. It preserves, in other words, the infrapolitical paradox: that what is necessary for politics is never inherent in it, but vanishes with scarce a trace.

Crossposted from Posthegemony.