Friday, 2 December 2016

Book Review: The Hive by Camilo José Cela
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

It’s a characteristic of the big city that there’s a constant hustle and bustle in all the central places. Around every corner seems to wait big adventure… or maybe just the daily struggle for a petty livelihood that is the inexorable fate of the masses crammed together in its less fashionable quarters. However hard the times, day in day out without fail people go about their business – because they have to – and fill the city if not with cheer then at least with life. Overall, their existence may appear ordinary and dull, but it suffices to break it down to the individual level to discover the unique, sometimes surprising and often moving stories that make it up. The Hive by Camilo José Cela, the Spanish recipient of the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature, shows the much-tried people of Madrid striving to return to something like normality after the Spanish Civil War.

Camilo José Cela, full name Camilo José María Manuel Juan Ramón Francisco Javier de Jerónimo de Cela y Trulock, 1st Marquis of Iria Flavia, was born in Iria Flavia, A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, in May 1916. In 1934 he began medical studies at the University of Madrid that he was forced to suspend during the Spanish Civil War and never resumed. After his first novel The Family of Pascual Duarte (La familia de Pascual Duarte; also translated into English as Pascual Duarte and His Family) was published in 1942, he earned his living as a censor for the Franco regime and as a journalist. During these early years he published four novels, most importantly The Hive (La colmena: 1951 in Buenos Aires) and Mrs Caldwell Speaks to Her Son (Mrs Caldwell habla con su hijo: 1953). In 1954 Camilo José Cela settled down in Palma de Mallorca and continued to write prolifically in virtually all genres. Among the most notable novels of this period are La catira (1955; The Blonde Woman), Tobogán de hambrientos (1962; Toboggan of Starving Men), San Camilo, 1936 (1969), and Mazurka for Two Dead Men (Mazurca para dos muertos: 1983). In 1989 the author moved to Madrid for good. The same year he received the Nobel Prize in Literature “for a rich and intensive prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man’s vulnerability”. Two more novels, namely La cruz de San Andrés (1994; The Saint Andrew’s Cross) and Boxwood (Madera de boj: 1999), appeared before Camilo José Cela died in Madrid, Spain, in January 2002.

Madrid in December 1943 buzzes with life like The Hive of a bee swarm, but only two years after the end of the Spanish Civil War the population still has to cope with its aftermaths that include rationed or stretched staple food, no or badly-paid jobs and restrictions of the freedom of expression. Most people have a hard time feeding their families (or just themselves) and fear that they might be arrested any time for something they have carelessly said or done. Moreover, in the rest of Europe rages World War II and Hitler threatens to expand his Third Reich even further invading one after another all independent countries on the continent and beyond. The atmosphere in the city is bleak and unsettled, especially in the run-down neighbourhood that is the scene of the novel. People there are mostly lower middle-class and just manage to scrape by, and yet, they haven’t lost their taste for social life. The café of Dona Rosa and the bar of Celestino Ortiz are only two of the popular places where the residents seek distraction… or a warm meal, shelter from the cold outside, someone to pay them a coffee or to treat them to one of those cheap cigarettes that the vendor sells apiece. Many of the customers are regulars and know each other if only from sight, while others are chance ones never to return. The local doctor is as likely to be there as the aging kept woman with her lover or alone, the bookkeeper on his way home to wife and children, the widow who prefers to keep to herself, the transvestite and his companion, the hard-working girl who decides to prostitute herself to be able to buy medicine for her fiancé, the overly sensitive would-be poet from good house or the penniless writer who fears for seemingly no reason to be in serious trouble.

As indicates the title, the focus of The Hive is on a vibrant community, more precisely on its diverse, though trivial everyday life, and this is why the novel needs neither a real plot nor a closed cast of characters. Instead the author ingeniously evokes an authentic atmosphere of post-Civil War Madrid through a kaleidoscope of more or less short glimpses into the individual fates and souls of (estimated) 300+ characters. Some of the stories are interwoven or at least loosely linked which accounts for the fact that certain characters appear ever again, while other stories remain solitary and their protagonists vanish without trace. The narrative point of view is that of the writer himself as objective chronicler in third person, but occasionally he switches to first person to comment on something. When the novel was first published in the early 1950s, the merging of elements from modernism and Spanish realism was so innovative that it’s praised today as the most important work of Spanish literature of the post-Civil War period. The censors of the Franco regime, however, prohibited its publication because they considered it immoral and pornographic. Therefore the first edition came out in apparently less prudish, Perónist Argentina in 1951.

For me reading The Hive by José Camilo Cela has been an unexpectedly great pleasure considering that novels without plot can be a rather boring and tiresome experience. My edition was an original Spanish one and its vivid descriptions of everyday life, notably its existential sorrows immediately drew me into the bleak post-Civil War atmosphere. Thanks to the author’s deft use of mild sarcasm and of the slightly grotesque, I didn’t experience the novel as particularly sad, though. Had I had the time, I might have read the book in only one run. But then, I have a certain liking for chronicles of petty life like this one. Therefore, I can’t but recommend this masterpiece of one of the Nobel Prize laureates in Literature who received it most deservedly.

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  1. I have reading lists for every year from 1940 to the present. I always include the Nobel Prize winner of each year and try to read at least one of the winner's books. I did not have any books listed for this author, so you have saved me a lot of time and searching. Thank you! The only novels I have read about the Spanish Civil War were written by non-Spaniards so this one will round out my reading about that period nicely. Love your review!

    1. In fact, The Hive is NOT ABOUT the Spanish Civil War, but it's always there in the background. It's dealt with only indirectly. Camilo José Cela refrained wisely from talking politics in his book! If you'd like to read a Spanish novel about the Spanish civil war I can recommend In Diamond Square by Mercè Rodoreada although it also includes also the periods before and after.
      Thanks for your comment!


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