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Camilo José Cela: La colmena (The Hive)

Cela was unable to publish this book in Spain as the censors objected to his very bleak portrayal of life in Franco’s Spain, so he had it published in Buenos Aires. The book has six chapters and an epilogue but the chapters are not told in chronological order. The story tells the tales of well over 300 characters living in Madrid in the early 1940s, though the actual events in the novel take place over three specific days in 1943. The novel tells the stories of the various characters in the form of short anecdotes but, though told independently, they do cross and mix with another, like the beehive of the title. This technique has been likened to the work of John Dos Passos and there are certainly similarities, though Cela is more realist in his approach and does not have plot elements running through the book, as Dos Passos does.

Cela’s book has been hailed, particularly by Spanish critics, as his greatest work and it is easy to see why. Like other city novels, this one has the inhabitants as almost secondary to the city itself, in this case, Madrid soon after the end of the Civil War, warts and all. Sex (including homosexuality), one of the reasons the censor objected to the novel, café culture, financial problems, the black markets and murder are just some of the key themes of the work and all move throughout the novel, like bees in a hive. While seemingly a succession of different stories, a careful reading shows that, like the hive, there is a structure to the novel and a very fine novel it is.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1951 by Emecé, Buenos Aires
First English translation 1953 by Victor Gollancz