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 Marañon (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 liberalism.

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 to Guadalajara. 

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 medieval song:

                                              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 to sleep.

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 again.

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.