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Camilo José Cela: La familia de Pascual Duarte (Pascual Duarte’s Family, US: The Family of Pascual Duarte)

Cela’s first novel ran into a certain amount of trouble with the Spanish censors, primarily because of its violence. It purports to be a manuscript that the transcriber found in 1939 (i.e. at the end of the Spanish Civil War) in a pharmacy in Almendralejo (he has no idea how it got there) and which he has tidied up and is now publishing. It is written in the form of a letter to a Mr. Barrera (which means barrier in Spanish), originally written in 1937, from Pascual Duarte, who is in prison for the murder of Don Jesús González de la Riva, Count of Torremejía (and to whom Pascual dedicates his account), awaiting execution. Pascual killed the Count at the beginning of the Civil War but his defence is not political but, rather, that he was a victim of circumstances.

Pascual proceeds to tell his story to Mr. Barrera and it is quite a tale of woe. He was born, he says, at least fifty-five years ago, into poverty, in marked distinction to the wealth of the Count. But it is not just the poverty which causes him suffering. His mother is a drunk and unfaithful, his father dies of rabies, his sister is a whore, his retarded brother drowns in a barrel of olive oil, he loses his two children, the first to an accidental abortion (when his wife is thrown by a horse), the second to illness. He himself gets involved in all sorts of violence, from raping the woman who would become his first wife, stabbing a friend, killing a horse, shooting his dog and killing his wife’s lover, his mother (in revenge for her treatment of his father) and, finally, the Count. Cela does not spare us the details and it isn’t entirely difficult to see why the Spanish censors of the time did not like the book.

Is Pascual innocent? He would have us believe that he is. I am not a bad man, though I have reasons to be one, he tells Mr. Barrera. But Cela’s skill is to leave an element of ambiguity, for Pascual is an unreliable narrator. He has forgotten things, skips over others and we can never tell whether he is telling the truth or not. Cela is credited as being the founder of Tremendismo, which is characterised by excessive violence and focusing on characters on the margins of society, such as prostitutes, criminals, the insane and those with physical defects, and this book is credited as being one of the first books to use tremendismo. It certainly does not make for pleasant reading but it was to establish Cela as one of Spain’s foremost writers.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1942 by Aldecoa
First English translation 1946 by Eyre & Spottiswoode