The Hive 
by Camilo José Cela, translated by James Womack.
NYRB, 262 pp., £15, March, 978 1 68137 615 8
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Three hundred​ characters in 260 pages. How do you possibly keep track of so many names, so much intrigue? It’s hard to imagine a reader of Camilo José Cela’s masterpiece, The Hive, who hasn’t asked this question – who hasn’t wondered, after twenty or thirty pages, whether or how to go on. Do you just accept the confusion? Or, alternatively, keep elaborate notes – perhaps sketching out, as I did, a web of relations on a very large sheet of paper?

Cela began the novel in 1945, when he was 29. Born to a middle-class family in rural Galicia, he had moved to Madrid as a child. Having decided to study medicine, he caught tuberculosis and in 1931 was sent to a sanatorium, where he dedicated himself to reading classic Spanish literature. By 1937 he had recovered sufficiently to fight in the Civil War, on the Nationalist side. He was hospitalised and discharged the following year after being wounded, and found a job as a government censor, scrutinising the newsletters of minor associations. But his first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte, published in 1942, wasn’t to the taste of his fellow Francoists. It’s told from the perspective of Duarte, a peasant sentenced to death for murder, who looks back on his appalling upbringing. There’s a savage alcoholic father, eventually locked in a cupboard to die of rabies; a mentally disabled half-brother forced to live with the pigs, who chew off his ears; a sickly sister reduced to prostitution; poverty, disease, rape, miscarriage, cruelty, bloodshed. Wildly temperamental, Duarte kills his sister’s pimp who is also his wife’s lover, his alcoholic mother and finally a rich landowner. The story unfolds as if under some dark enchantment. ‘I am not a bad man,’ Duarte insists, ‘though I have reasons to be one.’ After the first edition sold out, the novel was banned. Cela’s name was made, and the genre known as tremendismo was born, a form of dark realism that revelled in violence and grotesque incident.

In content, at least, The Hive is mild by comparison. Set over a few winter days in Madrid, it took Cela five years to write, and was published in 1951. A single reference in the closing pages to the Tehran Conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin makes clear that the year must be 1943. ‘In the winter of 1950,’ Cela writes in one of the seven bizarre authorial prefaces that head this new translation, ‘I tried to read through The Hive in full, from head to tail, using all my senses. I was very much overwhelmed.’ The reference to the senses is apt. Smell, taste, sound and touch are to the fore in this novel, as the physical is relentlessly privileged over the introspective or analytical. Cela always tells us when his characters are hot and, more often, when they’re cold.

The action largely revolves around a small café. It begins with the proprietor, Doña Rosa, moving her ‘immense behind’ between tabletops made from tombstones, smoking ‘ninety-céntimo rolling tobacco’, drinking ‘sweet anisette’, and ‘smiling at her customers, whom she secretly hates, with her little blackened teeth covered in filth’. The coffee is watered down, as is the hot chocolate. The pianist, Macario, ‘a poorly nourished sentimental man’, has a stomach ache but plays on regardless, with a violinist, Seoane, who ‘looks vaguely at the customers … and doesn’t think about anything’. Later in the evening he has a stomach ache too. One can smell ‘from a long way off’ the ‘highly perfumed’ brilliantine on the hair of Don Leonardo Meléndez, who has cheated the shoeshine sitting beside him of his life savings.

The narrative is divided into fragments a page or two long, each introducing new characters and new maladies. Rather than trying to help the reader get a grip on all this information, Cela makes things more difficult. On page 14, ‘a young man with long hair’ is introduced but not named. He is writing a poem. On page 27, a young man kicked out of the café for not paying is described as someone who wrote Ultraísta poetry, ‘not just anybody … not a vulgar man … not an identikit man’ (with the implication that most people are). Is this the same person? Apparently not, for on page 39 the young poet is still at his table. He faints and is dragged to the bathroom, where ‘the smell of disinfectant will wake him up.’ But on page 55 the kicking-out scene is replayed. This time the man is named as Martín Marco, and described as the poet in the previous fainting scene. So they are the same person. But you get the impression Cela could easily have decided that they weren’t, just as he might at any moment choose to scramble the novel’s chronology. While the characters are fragile, even in their possession of selfhood, the author enjoys total control.

Each new arrival is given an occupation, as if this were enough to distinguish them: printer, law student, doctor, baker, policeman, night watchman. Then it turns out that there are two printers, two doctors and any number of prostitutes. There are also three men called Paco, four Pepes, a Ramona and two Ramóns, a Matilde and a Matildita. As the characters multiply, Cela injects further confusion by having fun with Spain’s elaborate naming customs:

At a nearby table by a window, four men are playing dominoes: Don Roque, Don Emilio Rodríguez Ronda, Don Tesifonte Ovejero, and Señor Ramón. Don Francisco Robles y López-Patón, a doctor specialising in intimate diseases, has a daughter, Amparo, who is married to Don Emilio Rodríguez Ronda, himself also a doctor. Don Roque is married to Doña Visi, Doña Rosa’s sister; Don Roque Moisés Vázquez, according to his sister-in-law, is one of the worst people in the whole world. Don Tesifonte Ovejero y Solana, an army veterinarian, is a fine country gentleman, a little subdued, who wears a ring with an emerald. Last of all, Señor Ramón is a baker, who has a fairly important bakery somewhere nearby.

The difficulty of keeping up dissolves into comedy. But the blurring of identity is in line with Cela’s reduction of human beings to a few basic needs: ‘After the day comes the night, after the night comes the day. There are four seasons in a year: spring, summer, autumn, winter. There are certain truths that one feels inside one’s body, like hunger, or the desire to urinate.’

If life is a hive of interactions between near indistinguishable figures, governed by instinct, then all forms of rhetoric – including those related to naming – are preposterous, while expressions of righteousness and piety can only be objects of satire. On page 72 another character is introduced: ‘Doña Visitación thinks that one of the most effective ways to raise the condition of the working class is for the Ladies’ Institute to organise pinochle tournaments. “The workers,” she thinks, “also need to eat, although lots of them are such reds that they don’t deserve so much attention.”’ She’s delighted to show off the Little Missionary magazine listing her and her three daughters’ contributions towards the baptisms of Chinese babies, who might otherwise ‘all go straight to Limbo’:

Doña Visitación Leclerc de Moisés, for the baptism of two Chinese children with the names Ignacio and Francisco Javier, ten pesetas.

Señorita Julita Moisés Leclerc, for the baptism of one Chinese child with the name Ventura, five pesetas.

Señorita Visitación Moisés Leclerc, for the baptism of one Chinese child with the name Manuel, five pesetas.

Señorita Esperanza Moisés Leclerc, for the baptism of one Chinese child with the name Agustín, five pesetas.

Later in the novel, Doña Visitación’s husband, Don Roque, runs into their daughter Julita at a house of assignation. Ventura, the name Julita gave a Chinese child, turns out to be the name of the ‘insatiable’ lover she regularly meets there. Her father, meanwhile, is meeting the younger sister of a previous lover with whom he had three children, all promptly ‘handed over to the nuns at Chamartín de la Rosa’. On hearing of the embarrassing encounter, Don Roque’s lover tries to blackmail Julita, while Julita’s lover tries to blackmail Don Roque.

In his preface to the fifth edition of The Hive, Cela claims that ‘such a book might also have been written by someone other than the person who did write it,’ as if to say that his approach was inevitable, given the wars and privations of the time. It’s true that Cela’s early work shares certain qualities with other celebrated novels of the period. Camus’s The Outsider (1942), Simenon’s Dirty Snow (1948) and Frederik Hermans’s An Untouched House (1951) have something of the brutality and resignation 0f The Family of Pascual Duarte. The voices of Céline and Malaparte are also in the air. And the particular brand of comedy developed in The Hive – since ‘there’s no point in allowing sadness to overwhelm us,’ Cela writes in his preface to the third edition – brings to mind Gerard Reve’s hilariously shocking Evenings (1947) as well as Beckett’s Watt, written in Vichy France between 1941 and 1945. Here’s Beckett, documenting human frailty while seeking, like Cela, ironic distance from it:

There was … his young cousin wife his uncle Sam’s girl Ann, aged nineteen, whose it will be learnt with regret beauty and utility were greatly diminished by two withered arms and a game leg of unsuspected tubercular origin, and Sam’s two surviving boys Bill and Mat aged eighteen and seventeen respectively, who having come into this world respectively blind and maim were known as Blind Bill and Maim Mat respectively, and Sam’s other married daughter Kate aged twenty-one years, a fine girl but a bleeder, and her young cousin husband her uncle Jack’s son Sean aged twenty-one years, a sterling fellow but a bleeder too …

By attributing haemophilia to a woman (a footnote tells the reader that this condition is ‘an exclusively male disorder. But not in this work’), Beckett asserts the same authorial omnipotence that Cela flaunts with his manipulation of chronology. By situating his characters in wartime Madrid, however, Cela invites us to read his novel as a work of realism, even though it offers none of the easy pleasures of the genre: no character development, no extended plot, no climax, no catharsis. Scores of streets are named – Calle de Fuencarral, Calle de San Bernardo, Calle de la Colegiata – but they remain as undifferentiated as the characters, limited to the occasional generic description: ‘The street, when everything shuts down for the night, takes on an atmosphere that is half hungry, half mysterious, and a little breeze runs through the streets like a wolf, whistling between the houses.’ When the young Victorita agrees to sell her body to ‘the usurer’ for thirty thousand pesetas, ‘there was a disgusting breeze in the room, moving round slowly, touching every piece of furniture, like a dying butterfly.’ Only two pages later, when the housemaid Petrita meets her policeman lover, they ‘disappear into the mouth of the street’ and ‘a cold breeze blows around the girl’s warm legs.’

In this limbo between realism and absurdism the characters struggle for survival. We’re rarely privy to their thoughts, but always know whether they have money in their pockets. The café becomes a place of exchange between winners who buy company, conversation and above all sex, and losers scrounging for cigarettes, drinks and food. The genius of the novel is the number and variety of mini-plots elaborating this Darwinian comedy. Consorcio López, the manager of Doña Rosa’s café, receives a phone call from an old lover he got pregnant years ago and then promptly abandoned. ‘A splendid woman, energetic, full-bodied, brimful of health and power’, she’s in Madrid because her rich husband is dying in hospital. Does Consorcio want to get back together, maybe marry a wealthy widow? After getting off the phone, he knocks over an entire display of liqueur bottles: ‘Cointreau, Calisay, Benedictine, curaçao, crème de café and crème de menthe.’

In a blatantly symmetrical development, Doña Asunción’s daughter Paquita rejoices because her lover’s wife has died, freeing him to marry her. More often, however, Cela’s female characters have neither luck nor power – like Merceditas, the 13-year-old whom Doña Carmen sells to Don Francisco the doctor for five hundred pesetas: ‘Look, ducky, all Don Francisco wants to do is play with you, and anyway, it’s got to happen one day.’ Or the elderly Doña Margot Sobrón de Suárez, who is found in her bedroom strangled with a towel. Her death sets off what promises to be a traditional whodunnit but turns out to be an opportunity for Cela to introduce all the possible suspects who live in her apartment block.

Amid all these stories, enough to supply a soap opera for decades, only one character offers some continuity: the poet Martín Marco. ‘Pallid, feeble’ and penniless, he appears every few pages, stumbling down this or that street, hoarding scavenged cigarette stubs, brushing up against other characters and fretting ‘about the problem of society’. Any hope that Cela might be offering an authorial alter ego with some privileged insight quickly fades. Marco wonders whether the long poem he’s writing should be called ‘Our Fate’ or simply ‘Fate’, which is perhaps ‘more evocative, more mysterious … more imprecise, more poetic’. The trope of the introspective literary consciousness is mocked along with everything else.

‘Those who wish to disguise life with the fool’s mask of literature are liars,’ Cela declares in his preface to the first edition. His strategy in The Hive is to make us aware of our literary expectations by arousing and then disappointing them in tease after tease, interspersed by episodes of ugly reality which, as that preface has warned us, cannot be ‘wiped away or cured with the moist towelettes of conformism, the poultices of rhetoric and poetry’. Cela’s prefaces, it has to be said, make more sense – and are more fun – when read after the novel. In one he speaks at length about the lack of flushing toilets in the houses where he wrote the book, the pains of ‘buttockitis’ brought on by sitting too long at his desk, and a mishap with a suppository during a power cut. One is reminded of Beckett’s instruction in Waiting for Godot that Estragon’s trousers ‘fall right down’, and his defence of references to farting and erections. The urgency of the body’s essential functions must be made plain. In the words of a Galician policeman quoted by Marco, ‘nobody’s a believer when his dick’s stiff.’

In the preface to the Romanian edition, Cela writes that he ‘can’t imagine The Hive in Romanian’. He wonders why writers aren’t ‘stubborn opponents of translation’, which he considers ‘the covering up of that which is closest to our hearts’. Words, like the body, have an intractable reality, so translation can only be part of the euphemistic conspiracy behind polite literature. Still, Cela went ahead with the Romanian edition; he admits elsewhere that the American edition ‘earned me some money’, selling 700,000 copies ‘at 35 cents a pop’. In any event, we can be grateful that James Womack has produced this excellent new version, the first English translation of the complete uncensored text, even if the idiomatic quality of the original dialogue – for which Cela is celebrated in Spain – has been lost.

It was more or less inevitable that such a negative vision of life in Madrid would be banned under Franco’s dictatorship, and for some years Cela had to be content with a lightly censored version published in Argentina. Refusing to be intimidated, he continued to launch his provocations at a regime from which, however, he never distanced himself. He even, on occasion, told the authorities which of his fellow writers were communists. When the American edition of The Hive was published in 1953 one squeamish reviewer conceded that the novel’s ‘gamy realism’ was delivered with ‘dark brilliance’, but nevertheless concluded with the warning: ‘Libraries beware.’ Undeterred, the Nobel judges gave Cela the prize in 1989, praising his ‘rich and intensive prose which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man’s vulnerability’. My impression is that Cela tries to prevent us from arriving at a stable view of his achievement, or stable views in general; they aren’t warranted. ‘Sometimes,’ he says in one preface, ‘it seemed to me that I had written a masterpiece; at others I thought that it was a piece of shit with no value or meaning whatsoever.’

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