La colmena

Camilo José Cela

I first learned about Camilo José Cela in my salad days, in Spain.He was a towering figure (“complex and theatrical” noted one biographer) whose literary production—works like La familia de Pascal Duarte and La colmena—represented significant milestones in post-war Spanish literature.His membership in the Real Academia Española and his involvement with the journal, Papeles de Son Armadans, which often featured authors not always sympathetic to the Franco dictatorship, only added to his stature among many.

La colmena (The Hive) was one of those novels that I had failed to read in its entirety during my time in Spain during the 1960s, in part because sections of the novel were filled with the colloquial speech of the mid-XX Century—a vocabulary quite difficult for a non-native speaker.Time passed, but the novel remained for me something that I felt compelled to return to read again.After Cela received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989, I tracked down an English translation of La colmena and shelved it on my bookcase with the full intention of re-reading it as well as at least some of Cela’s more influential works.

The novel is substantial and innovative.Structurally, Cela organized his work into six chapters that cover two consecutive days and an epilogue covering a third.Each chapter, in turn, consists of a number of interlinked vignettes (some 215 in total) that scroll through the actions of over 300 characters.With La colmena, Cela initiated a novelistic style identified as “objectivismo”—a written cinematic montage that, in essence, is a type of documentary realism.In effect, the central personage of the novel is the city of Madrid (the “hive”) whose character or personality is forged by the collectivity (that is, the over 300 people or “bees” who pass through the pages of the work).Seen from that context, the biographies of the individuals are fragmented.We see them in the moment but, in most cases, know little about them either before or after the three days framed by the novelist.Most are left suspended by the end of the epilogue.Even Martín Marco, whom Cela considered “an indispensable character of the novel”, is left in limbo.

An additional complexity to the work is the organization of the six chapters.They are not sequential in regard to the documented time.Chapters 1, 2 and 4 cover day one sequentially; chapters 3, 5 and 6 cover the second day.But the latter three are themselves not normally sequenced in regard to time.Chapter 3 covers the afternoon of the second day, chapter 5 covers the evening of the second day and chapter 6 covers the morning of the second day.The epilogue takes place two or three days after the end of time covered in chapter 5.

Apart its structural or technical innovation, it is also a perceptive snapshot of Spanish society during three December days in Madrid in or around the year 1943, after the end of the Spanish Civil War.That society is in clear crisis: economically strained, desolate, malnourished and morally conflicted.

The Spanish Civil War tore at the very roots of civil society from Galicia in the northwest of the peninsula through Castilla in the center, Cataluña in the northeast and into Andalucía, in the south.There was not a part of the Spains that remained at the margins.And the Nationalists, in victory, did retaliate.Particularly in its early years, the Franco dictatorship was vindictive and harsh.The society that Cela creates in La colmena lives in the wake of that war and its aftermath, submerged in political suppression.But if the hive is in crisis, it is not immobile, it is not stagnant, it is not without productive options.

It is important to point out that Cela fought for the Nationalists and that he long remained supportive of the Franco regime.(In the post-Franco years, Cela did not enjoy unconditional support from all segments of the social or intellectual spectrum.)An attempt to understand La colmena as an indictment of the Franco regime is off course.That the novel was banned in Spain until its fifth edition in 1963 was, arguably, for what the conservative Roman Catholic Church saw as its sexual depravities and not primarily related to any implicit political commentary.Prostitution, pre-marital sex and marital infidelity engaged the bees in the hive and those activities were what most disturbed the deeply conservative Catholic censors.

Cela etched a society in crisis.But many of the bees in the hive were, if anything, industrious.In a war-torn world, the society that passes before the reader over three days in December 1943 was populated with people of flesh and blood who had the capacity to survive and in that survival could begin to lay the foundations for the Spain of the late XX and the early XXI Centuries.

Cela’s La colmena is a snapshot of Madrid in a specific time and in a specific space.It is a snapshot of the people who inhabited that time and that space who sowed the seeds of the hive’s regeneration and redemption.How else to understand the final paragraph of chapter 6:

The morning unfolds slowly; it creeps like a caterpillar over thehearts of the men and women in the city; it beats, almost caressingly, agents the newly wakened eyes, eyes which never once discover new horizons, new landscapes, new settings.

And yet, this morning, this eternally repeated morning, has its little game changing the face of the city, of that tomb, that greased pole, that hive….

May God have mercy on us all!

One final thought.Cela ends the novel with any number of unsolved histories.Who murdered Doña Margot?What will become of the Gonzalez family?Will Victoria and Paco survive?But perhaps the greater mystery seems to center on Martín Marco.We never do learn what his family and friends read in the newspaper about him.We never do learn what seems to threaten his future.Is it tied up with his lost identity card?Does he have some connection to the murder of Doña Margot?Is it related to his emotional instability?Have his politics placed him at odds with the regime?But I have come to suspect that we are focusing on the wrong issue if it is seeking an answer about Martín’s situation.Rather, Martín is the final confirmation of the hope that is rooted in the hive.He ends his time with us energized, optimistic, confident.And like Spanish society as a whole, that energy is confirmation of his eventual salvation.That is Cela’s message to us from the social crisis of December 1943.

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