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Camilo José Cela: Víspera, festividad y octava de San Camilo del año 1936 en Madrid (San Camilo 1936)

Any book that gives the names of brothels in Madrid, with addresses and the names of the madam, in its first chapter, is not going to be a run-of-the-mill novel, and this novel certainly is not run-of-the-mill. Cela had by now entered fully into his experimental phase and this novel is certainly experimental. The book consists of an anonymous student’s stream-of-consciousness, telling how he has not participated in a particular Civil War action, when many of his friends were killed, and trying to exculpate his guilt. As the Spanish title tells us, the novel is divided into three sections – The Eve of Saint Camillus, Saint Camillus’ Day and The Octave of Saint Camillus. There is also a small epilogue, narrated by the narrator’s Uncle Jerónimo.

As in his other books, Cela’s book focuses on the seamy side of life. The setting is Madrid at the outbreak of the Civil War and we are going to be presented with death, misery and sex, all in abundance. Indeed, for Cela and the narrator, the only redeeming feature left in life seems to be the aforementioned brothels. As it is a period of great turmoil, this turmoil is very much reflected in the novel. The student does not give us a simple, linear account of events but he is, in his turn, assailed by the noises surrounding him – other people, events, the radio, music, propaganda. Above all, it is the noise of war and death contrasted with the more joyous noise of sex. Much of the violence is precipitated by the (historical) death of Lieutenant Castillo, a socialist, and the (historical) revenge killing of Calvo Sotelo, a Conservative politician. But Cela is in no doubt where the blame lies for the Civil War and the violence it engendered. It is not an easy book to read and critics have condemned it for being too opaque or praised it as a great post-modernist work. My view is in the latter camp. It is a great post-modernist work but not for everyone.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1969 by Alfaguara
First English translation 1991 by Duke University Press
Translated by J. H, R. Polt