Friday, 25 March 2016

Book Review: Abel Sanchez and Other Stories by Miguel de Unamuno

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/770305.Abel_S_nchez_and_Other_Stories
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter
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It is often said that life is suffering and this is certainly true because our bodies are vulnerable, not to say mortal, and our minds use to be overflowing with desires, many of them such that can never be fulfilled. Pain is the inevitable consequence, but the big question is how we cope with it. At the heart of all three works assembled in Abel Sanchez and Other Stories by Miguel de Unamuno are suffering souls, be it that of a man unable to stop envying his best friend Abel who is almost like a twin brother to him, be it a physician who sees that his innovative talent as a writer isn’t recognised and slowly ruins his practice, be it the charitable village priest who knows how important religion is for his people and never gets tired of preaching the Catholic creed although he himself has long ceased to believe.

Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was born in Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain, in September 1864. Immediately after his studies at the University of Madrid, he began to publish short stories and essays. In 1891 he became a professor at the University of Salamanca where he was rector from 1900 through 1914 and again between 1931 and 1936 (honorary rector after his retirement in 1933), i.e. during times of great social and political unrest. His first novel Paz en la Guerra (Peace in the War) came out in 1895, but not before 1914 his most famous book titled Mist: A Tragicomic Novel (Niebla; also translated as Fog) appeared. As a politically active intellectual the author got into trouble with the authorities on several occasions and even lived in French exile (Paris and Hendaya) from 1924 to 1930. Most notable among his fiction available in English are Abel Sanchez. The Story of a Passion (Abel Sánchez: 1917), Three Exemplary Novels (Tres novellas ejemplares y un prólogo: 1920), Aunt Tula (La tía Tula: 1921), and Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr (San Manuel Bueno, mártir: 1930; also translated as Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr). In addition, he wrote poetry and plays along with philosophical non-fiction. Miguel de Unamuno died during house arrest in Salamanca, Spain, in December 1936.

The English-language collection published as Abel Sanchez and Other Stories combines three works, namely the novel from the title, the short story The Madness of Doctor Montarco and the late novelette San Manuel Bueno, Martyr originally published in 1917, 1904 and 1931 respectively. Each of them deals with suffering souls. Abel Sanchez is a modern version of the biblical story of Cain and Abel that explores the roots and effects of life-long envy by way of example of two men who have known each other since earliest childhood. They are charming and gifted Abel Sanchez and Joaquín Monegro who always feels that to succeed he has to work hard and yet he can’t make people like him. Abel becomes a famous painter, while Joaquín enters the medical profession opening his own practice although he dreams of being a celebrated researcher. Joaquín also plans to marry, but then he introduces Abel to his beautiful cousin Helena whose love he expects to win. Even after Abel’s and Helena’s wedding and the birth of their son, Joaquín clings to his infatuation for his cousin secretly grudging Abel for having stolen her love and at the same time continuing to consider Abel as his best friend. Later Joaquín marries Antonia, the sacrificing daughter of a patient who died, and has a daughter with her. Still he envies Abel. Firstly, he doesn’t love Antonia and secondly, Abel has a son, moreover one born before his daughter. However old he grows, Joaquín can’t stop envying Abel and increasingly seeks revenge. Like Joaquín the protagonist of The Madness of Doctor Montarco is a physician, but he is also a writer. Seeing that his stories are thought strange and shy away his patients, he slowly loses his mind. San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, on the other hand, is a village priest dearly loved for his good deeds although in reality he has long lost his faith. 

Written over a period of little more than twenty-five years, each of the three narratives in Abel Sanchez and Other Stories represents a different phase in the writing of Miguel de Unamuno. Nonetheless, all stories show the characteristics of his fiction, notably the consequent use of antithesis as central element and driving force of the plot. Science contrasts art, madness sanity and faith unbelief respectively. Without exception the protagonists are tragic figures struggling with deep inner conflict caused by the seemingly unbreakable ties of passion or of personality that make happiness an impossible dream. The focus on a single quality prevents great psychological depth and even approaches the characters to rather one-dimensional allegories, but it doesn’t reduce the power of the narrative. The fact that the author lends the protagonists his very own philosophical views on faith and immortality gives all three stories, above all San Manuel Bueno, Martyr, the touch of personal essays. Moreover, the strong philosophical dimension gives much room for interpretation which becomes most apparent as regards Abel Sanchez that is much more than just the parable of Cain and Abel from the Old Testament retold. Since my Spanish is fairly good, I preferred to read the original Spanish texts and found them pleasantly accessible as well as modern.

All things considered, I enjoyed reading the three narratives of Abel Sanchez and Other Stories by Miguel de Unamuno very much and therefore gladly recommend this significant selection from the oeuvre of the courageous innovator of Spanish literature, member of the Generation '98 and early representative of the existentialist movement in Europe.

Nota bene:
Miguel de Unamuno died on the last day of 1936 which means that all original Spanish editions of his works are meanwhile in the public domain and many of them can be downloaded for free from sites like Project Gutenberg or Feedbooks

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