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Javier Marías: El siglo [The Century]

In an afterword to this book, Marías says that this is his favourite of his own books but points out that this view does not seem to be shared by others. He recounts the difficulties in getting it republished, not least because his publisher did not seem particularly fond of it. Neither critics nor the public considered it highly. As far as I can determine, it has never been translated into another language, and certainly not into English. The various national wikipedias give it short shrift or do not mention it at all. Part of the reason can be seen in the style. The style, as he says in the same afterword, was influenced by two writers – Joseph Conrad and Sir Thomas Browne. Marías himself describes the style as dense and that is certainly a good description. It is written in a formal Spanish, using long sentences and long paragraphs, with much of the work narrative rather than dialogue.

The book is about a retired judge, Casaldáliga. There are nine chapters. The odd-numbered chapters are told by Casaldáliga himself, in his house by the somewhat mysterious lake. He is living alone, with visits from his adopted son (the son of his late cousin) and the son’s lascivious wife (Casaldáliga uses no other term to describe her). The son is now a famous tenor (Casaldáliga calls him all the time The Lion of Naples and is almost as critical of him as he is of his wife). Casaldáliga is waiting to die while his adopted son and his lascivious wife are waiting to get their hands on his considerable fortune. The even-numbered chapters are an account of his life, written in the third person, up to the age of 39 (he was born with the century, hence the title of the novel). At that age, he did the only really decisive thing of his life, namely became an informer for the Spanish authorities in post-Civil War Spain.

There are two key themes which are common to many Spanish novels, namely a character coming to terms with what happened or, more particularly, what he did in the Civil War and also coming to terms with the legacy of his father. Casaldáliga was clearly under the sway of his father. He lived with him till his sudden death when Casaldáliga was in his thirties. (There is a brilliant scene when Casaldáliga returns home drunk late one night and cannot find the light switch. He feels around in the room and finds what appears to be someone sitting there, motionless. It turns out to be his dead father. He learns at that time, from his old nanny, that his mother, an Austrian, had abandoned the family (and was not dead as he thought) for another man when he, Casaldáliga, was one.) His father had told him that a man must have a destiny. Casaldáliga, a weak and ineffectual man, somehow never manages to have one, till he becomes a police informer. Casaldáliga, unlike other protagonists of Spanish novels, does not feel any guilt about his actions. He was on neither side during the Civil War, having spent the entire three years in Lisbon.

There are two other key people in his life. The first is his wife. When staying in a Southern city (in the afterword, Marías tells us that it is Seville), when he has inherited his father’s successful business, he visits a family with whom he has some business connections but knows little about them. At the party he is attending, he meets a man called Donato Dato (several of the main characters have Italian names, though they are clearly Spanish). Dato, whom Casaldáliga insists on calling Dado, tells Casaldáliga that the family they are visiting have a beautiful daughter (Dato points her out) called Constanza Bacio (another Italian name – it means Constance Kiss in Italian). However she is very ill with a mysterious illness though she herself is unaware of this, so any man who married her would soon be widower. This conversation lasts for several pages and, when it ends, we suddenly find Casaldáliga married to Constanza Bacio. She is a highly competent pianist and it is her playing that, once they are married, Casaldáliga finds attractive though once they are in Lisbon, he loses interest in her, particularly when it is revealed that she is, apparently, not ill and he takes a mistress (with, of course, an Italian name). We know that his wife is dead by the period when he is writing the odd-numbered chapters but we do not how. Interestingly, he meets Dato again, after the Civil War and it is he who suggests that Casaldáliga become an informer. The other key person in his life is Natalia Monte (Italian name, of course) who may or may not have been his mistress, though this also is not entirely clear. He does know her brother and we do know that she married a rich Belgian as her family was in financial distress.

While the style may be awkward for some and, of course, the book has not been translated, it does seem to me to be a superior book to, say, Todas las almas (All Souls). The theme of the Civil War and father may be too familiar for many Spaniards but novels on those themes continue to do well, even so many years after the end of the war. But the story of an ineffectual man, who does well in his career, who seems to overcome both any guilt about his shoddy behaviour and his father complex and who seems to be entirely self-satisfied, is a key work in Marías’ work.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 1982 by Seix Barral
No English translation