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Gonzalo Torrente Ballester: Don Juan [Don Juan]

The legend of Don Juan is well-known to English speakers, even if they are not familiar with Tirso de Molina’s El burlador de Sevilla y convidado de piedra (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest), the earliest known full length written record of the story. We know it from others plays, e.g. Molière, from poetry, e.g. Byron, from opera, e.g. Mozart, as well as film, prose fiction and other music. Wikipedia has a comprehensive list. And, of course, we also use the expression to mean a womaniser. Torrente Ballester has taken the legend and cleverly told the story both of the original Don Juan as well as setting it in the contemporary period, specifically Paris of the early 1960s. Torrente Ballester had long been interested in the legend of Don Juan. He was particularly interested in Don Juan’s motives (beyond the obvious one of sexual desire) and had concluded that his main motive was a rebellion against God. However, fortunately for us, this novel is more complex than that. Unfortunately for Torrente Ballester, though this was probably his favourite of his own novels, it did not go down well either with the Spanish censors or the Spanish reading public and was one of the reasons Torrente Ballester left Spain to take up a teaching position at the State University of New York in Albany.

The story starts in the 1960s in Paris. It is narrated by an unnamed Spanish writer. Only later do we learn that he is a journalist and not a novelist. While in a bookshop in Saint Sulpice, he sees a man who he determines is Italian but is dressed like an English butler. Interestingly enough, the man is buying fairly technical books on theology. He later goes to a theological meeting with a priest friend, where he again meets the Italian. They start talking and the Italian, who speaks good Spanish, says he studied at Salamanca and mentions the names of some of his teachers. When he has gone, the priest friend tells the narrator that the teachers he mentioned lived over three hundred years ago. The narrator sees him again the next day on the Boulevard Saint Michel, where he seems to know many of the students. He tells the narrator that his master, whom he will not name, wants to meet him and takes him to a nearby café. He points out to him his master, an elegant man in his forties, in the café, having a drink with an attractive young woman. To the surprise of the Italian, the narrator does not recognise his master. The Italian leaves, promising him tickets for a premiere. When he has gone, the café owner, Marianne, who has clearly been seen to be jealous of the young woman with the Italian’s master, tells him that the Italian’s name is Leporello. He immediately recognises the name as that of Don Juan’s servant.

The narrator and Leporello meet again, where Leporello says that Don Juan was impressed by an article written by the narrator about Don Juan but then goes on to say that they are not Leporello and Don Juan and it was all a joke. But later that evening the narrator is summoned by Leporello, who takes him to Don Juan’s pied-à-terre, where they find that the young woman from the café, a Swedish woman named Sonia, has shot Don Juan. Leporello seems very unconcerned about Don Juan, saying that a doctor they know will soon make him better. It is there that the narrator learns that Don Juan may well be impotent and that what he does is to somehow transform the women he meets, without having sex with them. He cites the case of Sonia, an educated, well brought-up woman who has become a murderer, unlike Marianne, a former lover of Don Juan, who is from a poor, uneducated background but whose reaction has not been violent but has become a victim (she willingly gives blood for Don Juan’s blood transfusion).

The rest of the book tells the story of how the narrator meet Sonia and interacts with her. She tells her side of the story and explains her reasons for shooting Don Juan – not the obvious reasons. She had been unaware that the man she had shot was Don Juan, even though she had written a doctoral thesis on the Don Juan myth for her doctorate at the Sorbonne. We also learn about the history of Leporello and Don Juan. Leporello seems to be a demon. We learn of his past history and how he had become Leporello. We also learn of Don Juan. Torrente Ballester completely subverts the Tirso de Molina story, having Don Juan almost as the victim and Don Gonzalo de Ulloa, the Commander, who is the father of the seduced Ana in the Tirso de Molina play, turning out to be a rogue. We also see Don Juan later in life, with Baudelaire as his friend. We even get a subversion of the Adam and Eve story as well as Don Juan meeting his dead father. The narrator, who is still not named, tries to help Sonia but she remains in love with Don Juan.

Torrente Ballester tells a masterful story. He subverts the standard myths. He gives us an unreliable narrator, so that we never know what the real story is. He cleverly mixes in the past and present. He tells his story with great wit and satire (he has several digs at Sartre, for example.) Whether you are familiar with the Don Juan story or not, you cannot help but enjoy Torrente Ballester’s lively and clever tale-telling. Sadly, you can read this in Dutch, French, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian and Serbian but not in English.

Publishing history

First published in 1963 by Destino
No English translation
Published in Dutch as Don Juan by Wereldbibliotheek in 1992
Published in French as Don Juan by de l’Alei in 1988
Translated by Claude Bleton
Published in German as Don Juan by Klett-Cotta in 1993
Translated by Carina von Enzenberg, Hartmut Zahn
Published in Italian as Don Juan by Editoriale Jaca in 1985
mbrosiniTranslated by Angela
Published in Portuguese as Don Juan by Relógio D’Água in 1995
Translated by Cristina Rodrigues, Artur Guerra
Also published in Romanian, Russian, Serbian