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What the Swedes Read: Camilo José Cela

by Daniel Handler
Illustration by Charles Burns

What the Swedes Read: Camilo José Cela

Daniel Handler
15 Snaps
  • LAUREATE: Camilo José Cela (Spain, 1989)
  • BOOK READ: The Hive, translated by J. M. Cohen in consultation with Arturo Barea

To get right into it, I loved reading this book. I read it in a sitting and a half and then shut it and felt myself grinning, there in a café. I sat for a little while afterward, sipping my cooling coffee, with the little mental Möbius strip that hits me at such moments, where I vaguely wish I hadn’t read it yet so I could read it again and be the guy reading it for the first time.

In other words, despite having assigned myself this book for this Nobel project, I basically read The Hive for pleasure, and pleasure is what it brought me, and are you smirking? Me, too. I can’t help it. There’s something suspect about the word pleasure. The phrase pleasure reading has a sleazy ring to it, and even when the word pleasure is used in highfalutin circumstances, it ends up coming off as a little dirty. When I was in college, for example, Roland Barthes’s classic structuralist volume The Pleasure of the Text was read by us pretentious lit folk like it was pornography, with similar masturbatory results. Try going up to an author, without an ounce of flirtation, and telling him his book brought you pleasure. You’ll smirk. You won’t be able to help it.

But the smirkiness isn’t limited to sex jokes. There’s just something a little cheap about saying a book brings you pleasure, as it implies a superficial relationship, or at least a surface one, between the text and the reader. A good book is supposed to move you. It’s supposed to make you think. It’s supposed to—and I’ve never liked this phrase—change your life. These things bring you pleasure, to be sure, but the pleasure shouldn’t be what’s on your mind.

This is the orthodox view of the experience of literature, and then there’s of course the opposing view, that such lofty views have dragged literature into an ivory tower that denies its primary appeal, that a visceral response to a book not only isn’t cheap but is the reason literature has endured. Me, I swing back and forth on this. There are books that have moved me profoundly while demanding a lot. I trek through them but finish them with a level of shivery satisfaction that I can’t get from, say, the easy pleasures of P. G. Wodehouse. But I also feel that Wodehouse is vastly underrated—that his ability to produce, over and over, books that snap is often dismissed in favor of the ability to mull over important things and produce books that make you mull, too, for too long.

The Hive faces this dilemma sharply and ingeniously. It’s an ambitious book, but it seems to mock its own ambition, if not ambition itself, from the start. I’d read that The Hive was a vast undertaking, presenting a portrait of Madrid following the Spanish Civil War, which is true enough on its face. It has a huge cast of characters, for instance—critics have put the number at around three hundred, but I’m certainly not going to go back and count. What’s easier to count are the novel’s 250 pages, and if you do a little math, you’ll realize that none of these characters has room to move around much.

But if The Hive is crowded, it’s not cramped. The novel is told in tiny incidents, almost fragments, of dialogue or quickly sketched circumstances. The action hovers around a café, with customers and employees walking in and out of frame, bickering, scheming, and/or lost in thought, and at first it’s off-putting to watch so many people step into the book only to step out.  Here’s a man we meet early on:

The man is not a nobody, not one of the hoi polloi, not a vulgar man, one of the herd, an ordinary, standardized human being: he has a tattoo mark on his left arm and a scar in the groin.  He is well read and translates a little from the French.  He has assiduously followed the trends of intellectual and literary life, and would be able to quote by heart, even now, some of the essays published in El Sol.  As a young man he had a fiancée who was Swiss, and he used to write futurist poetry.

A pretentious youth, then – I’m assuming that “not a nobody” is in the voice of the gentleman in question, not Cela – but before we can grasp him as a romantic figure, or an object of satire, he disappears into the crowd, along with one who described thus: “His name is Mauricio Segovia and he works at the Central Telephone Exchange.  I mention all this because he may turn up again.”

The author, it seems, hardly knows what will happen next, and accordingly, the book often slips ahead in time, only to double back and revisit a previous incident, a strategy that could be described as experimental but just feels zippy, and the incidents don’t accrue more meaning or perspective when we’re back with them, but simply feel chewed over, the way a conversation sticks in your head for hours or even years after you’ve had it, without any real progress in the way of analysis or closure.  The Hive has been widely praised – and condemned, by Cela’s own government, who suppressed it for years – as a portrait of Spanish society recuperating from a vicious war and adjusting to the tyrannies and inconveniences of the new regime.  But the novel’s own characters don’t seem to have time to recuperate from a vicious war and adjust to the tyrannies and inconveniences of the new regime.  They’re in a hurry.  They have stuff to do.  Some of these chores, it’s true, cozy up to a larger truth, such as this mishap with the café’s owner, in the back room:

Celestino tries to grope his way out when he overturns a crate full of fizzy lemonade.  Clattering on the tiled floor, the bottles make an infernal noise.
“Blast and damn the electric light!”
From the door a voice asks: “What’s up?”
“Nothing.  Just smashing what’s mine.”

The crash happens in a blackout, one of the many incompetencies of Spain’s new government, but Celestino seems incompetent enough all by himself; Cela doesn’t give us the luxury of dreaming that individuals would be better off without the unruly structures of their own making.  The world of The Hive, as one might guess from the title, is something alive with movement, best seen macroscopically, as the individual creatures flit in and out of view.  It’s a thoughtful take on the human condition, but a flitty one, too, in a book that offers tiny pleasures, over and over, without the satisfaction of lengthy consideration, and yet presents these pleasures so quickly and fleetingly that they blur into a consideration all by themselves.  The Hive gives us everything – the easy thrill and the sustained slow burn, lasting quandaries in brief glimpses, genuine laughs in suspect circumstances, capturing the buzz of the world and the toll that all that buzz eventually takes.  It’s a great novel, easy and lasting, that in the end reminded me of one of Spain’s other major contributions to the world: tapas.  Tiny bites that end up fulfilling, but in a such a way that makes you think, as I thought when I finished the novel: more please.

 

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