Camilo José Cela: the controversial Nobel Prize for Literature who went from being a Francoist spy to being a censored censor
The Prince of Asturias Award in 1987, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989 and Cervantes in 1995, the Spanish writer Camilo José Cela (1916-2002) not only stood out as an eclectic narrator but also, from his youth, collaborated with the Franco regime. He applied for and obtained a position in the Police Investigation and Surveillance Corps of the Ministry of the Interior, where he worked as an informant and censor. “That having lived in Madrid and without interruption for the last thirteen years, he believes he can provide data on people and behaviors that could be useful,” reads the request he wrote at the age of 21 and dated March 1938. “I I went there to eat, to be able to have a minimum salary, about 250 or 300 pesetas -Cela declared-. And I discovered that the people who worked in my office wanted to censor political newspapers. That was a tremendous mistake, because you had to get involved, and of course I didn’t want to get involved at all. They gave me several magazines, which I chose myself”.
Paradoxically, some of his novels were censored in Spain, among them, Beehive, one of his masterpieces. It was not the only irony of fate: that novel should have been published first in Buenos Aires, in 1951, in a publishing house founded by Spanish exiles -Emecé- because in their native country erotic passages had been prohibited. In 1982, the Spanish director Mario Camus took it to the cinema, and the author participated as a screenwriter and actor. Today marks twenty years of the death of Cela, in Madrid.
“It had always produced a kind of stupor the fact of how one could be a censor with Franco and write Pascual Duarte’s family at the same time”, declared on the centenary of the birth of the Spanish Nobel laureate his only son, Camilo José Cela Conde, author of Cela, skin inside. During the 1960s, the writer returned to work as an informer at the service of the Ministry of Information with the aim of diluting dissidence among his intellectual colleagues. Cela even suggested that some could be “bribed, tamed or converted” and joined a group of writers to spy on their activities and then denounce them as members of the Communist Party. This and other findings can be read at dissidence and subversion. The struggle of the Franco regime for its survival (1960-1975), by the Catalan researcher Pere Ysás.
He also wanted to “refound” Venezuelan literature, and accepted a commission from dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez to write a series of novels about that Latin American country. From that agreement came The chair, from 1955, for which Cela received three million pesetas and which sparked controversy in the Venezuelan cultural environment, putting an end to the pact between the dictator and the novelist. In 2008, historian Gustavo Guerrero won the Anagrama essay award with Story of a commission: ‘La catira’ by Camilo José Cela. Literature, ideology and diplomacy in Hispanic times. He was not the first writer related to totalitarianism and authoritarianism (not the last, unfortunately).
In 1957, Cela was chosen to occupy chair Q of the Royal Spanish Academy and, during the Spanish transition, he held a seat by royal appointment in the Senate of the first democratic courts and participated in the revision of the constitutional text prepared by the Spanish Congress . In 1996, on his eightieth birthday, King Juan Carlos I granted him the title of Marquis of Iria Flavia (the town in La Coruña where the writer was born). Upon receiving the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature, a Swedish journalist asked him if he felt happy. “Very happy, because with this background I can aspire to the Cervantes Prize,” he replied ironically.
“I write from solitude and I also speak from solitude -Cela said in his speech upon receiving the Nobel-. Mateo Aleman, in his Guzman de Alfarache, and Francis Bacon, in his essay Of SolitudeThey said, and more or less for the same time, that the man who seeks solitude is much of a god or a beast. I am comforted by the idea that I have not sought, but rather found, solitude, and that from it I think and work and live, and write and speakI think with calm and an almost infinite resignation. And I am always accompanied in my solitude by the assumption of Picasso, my also old friend and teacher, that without great solitude a lasting work cannot be done. Because I go through life disguised as a belligerent, I can speak of loneliness without embarrassment and even with a certain grateful and painful illusion”.
After the Nobel (but before the Cervantes), he won the Planeta Novel Prize with The cross of Saint Andrew, a story narrated and starring a female character. However, at the end of 1998, both the boss of Planeta, José Manuel Lara Bosch, and Cela were brought to trial for plagiarism by the Spanish writer Carmen Formoso, who denounced that she had sent a novel to the contest that bore many similarities to the winning work. The appointed jury had not been chosen precisely with a gender perspective; It was made up of Alberto Blecua, Antonio Prieto, Ricardo Fernández de la Reguera, José María Valverde, Carlos Pujol, José Manuel Lara Hernández, Martín de Riquer and Manuel Lombardero. “That novel should never have been published,” Cela acknowledged a few years before he died. He was also accused of hiring “ghost writers” from the 1950s to help him with his novels. In Cela, the man who wanted to win, the Hispanist of Irish origin Ian Gibson narrates the missteps and successes of a genius of letters and marketing.
Caricature with the word
Professor and researcher Martina López Casanova observes that Cela built a career as a professional writer on the basis of a strategy manifested in various actions in the postwar literary field. “If the literary work fuses Spanish traditions and avant-garde procedures, this man of letters also opens cultural spaces and participates in political spaces, of apparent contradiction to each other. What in principle could be understood as a political strategy attentive to the times, ‘to look good with everyone’ and survive, could also be considered an authorial strategy of positioning in the literary field. Cela builds his place”.
From this perspective, López Casanova points out that Cela’s approach to Francoism does not contradict the figure of a “bridge writer” from Spain with the exiled republican writers, whom he had frequented in the Madrid of his youth, before the Civil War. “The magazine that he founded and directed in 1956, in Mallorca, Papers of Son Armadans (1956-1979), registers the place that Cela grants to exiles -adds the author of Argentine literature and recent past: stories of a lack. A few years ago it was published correspondence with exile which brings together his letters with María Zambrano, Rafael Alberti, Luis Cernuda, Francisco Ayala, Américo Castro and León Felipe, among others, and which had largely appeared in the magazine during the Franco years, in addition to stories and articles. at the same time as index and suture of the wound of post-war Spain, Cela builds his place as a writer aware of the crack, base and consequence of the Civil War, and, perhaps, above all, he stands on it”.
“Controversial, contradictory, provocative, owner of a unique capacity for insult, with an enviable command of the language and an extraordinary power of observation and understanding, Camilo José Cela sums up, with his work, all of Spain,” the writer and Academician Eduardo Álvarez Tuñón. He once confessed that he aspired to make his characters caricatures of human beings. I wanted to be a caricaturist, not with drawing, but with words. Not in vain had he been born in Galicia and fervently read Ramón María del Valle Inclán and his grotesque”. For Álvarez Tuñón, Cela is the author of at least two masterpieces in the narrative of the 20th century: Pascual Duarte’s family Y Beehive. “It is not an act of emphasis to affirm that its choral structure, the proliferation of deeply human characters, the poetry of many of its scenes and the terrible climate of the Spanish postwar period make it a moving and unique novel.” Many contemporary Spanish narrators, from Almudena Grandes to Fernando Aramburu, followed in Cela’s footsteps (who in turn followed Pío Baroja’s) to tackle intimate stories in tumultuous social contexts.
“I had the privilege of attending a public report that was made in the Crystal Palace of the Retiro Park in 1997 -adds the author of the stumble of time-. He had a deep voice, acting skills, humor and a great power of seduction. It had been presented by a young professor who was trying to find avant-garde elements in her prose, linking it to structuralism, interior monologues, stream of consciousness and psychoanalysis. Cela listened to her in silence and when she finished she asked what French writer she was talking about. He immediately added, as advice to the new narrators, to dispense with Joyce, Beckett and the modern ones, whom he described as ‘disoriented in the language’ and recommended that they pay close attention to The guide of Tormes, because more than Oedipus, the obsessive love for a mother, or the madness of a ‘casquivana’ couple there is nothing as current as bad faith, hunger, betrayal, fear and death that, according to his words, was stalking him. Lastly, he said: ‘Deal with dark themes in a clear way. The worst fate of a writer is that no one understands what he meant.
Cela was included in a literary style called “tremendismo”, a kind of naturalism in the Spanish style. “More accessible, and for now, less hermetic than the erudite and cultured prose of Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, Cela deepened the concept of experimentation in the novel of the early 1940s, through characters whose human misery seemed to exaggerate the idea of realism proposed by the Generation of ’98, via Azorín or Baroja -says the writer and literary critic Augusto Munaro-. This led him to his maximum expression in works such as Pascual Duarte’s family, supreme example of tremendousism. A novelistic approach whose existentialist root sensitivity, stark, ugly of life, it opened a more complex and rebellious horizon, to the gaze of the Franco regime”.
“It imposed a general feeling of sterility, skepticism, emptiness, which translated into an atmosphere of indifference and boredom; there was only room for the prospect of withdrawing into oneself -adds the author of Ficciones supremas-. The Civil War had left its deep traces, impossible to erase. The figure of Cela is key as link between the disaster generation and the new Spanish novel. Without him, it would be impossible to think of later novels like a meditation, the Juan Benet, oh landless john, by the admired Juan Goytisolo. Its importance is inescapable.”