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Magical Realism

B O O K   R E V I E W
REAL MAGICALISM
in The Family of Pascual Duarte


BY STEPHEN SICILIANO

THE FAMILY OF PASCUAL DUARTE
Camilo José Cela
© 2004
Dalkey Archive Press, 166 pp.
$12.95 Paperback

IN CAMILO José Cela’s The Family of Pascual Duarte, people, plants, animals and other natural forces take on shimmering qualities when a murderous madman projects his imagination over a gray and barren landscape.

His nameless and impoverished agrarian village is located, Pascual tells us, "some two leagues from Almendralejo, squatting athwart a road as empty and endless as a day without bread..."

He works only rarely, and his account reads like one of a low-rent bon vivant flitting about indulging self-generated paranoias and fears that might hold less sway were he out tending fields with more consistency.

His personal poverty is a relative thing. He enjoys a modicum of economic independence and the ability to make a pleasure trip with his bride to the provincial capital. The house he describes is clean and appointed for basic necessities, even if the family burro occupies the room adjacent.

Yet, for all the poverty Pascual claims to suffer, he does not seek exculpation for his serial murders by invoking a drab past or rotten luck. More important than poverty in the formation and motivation of Pascual lurks the shadow of his religion.


Compounding the grayness of the narrator’s environment are the proscriptions of Spanish Catholicism, more severe and reliant on penitence than its gentler, more charitable Italian cousin.

Spanish philosopher and author Miguel de Unamuno defined this social order as "One faith, one shepherd, one flock, unity before anything else, unity imposed from on-high, repose, submission and obedience."

The Catholic and Castilian code, Unamuno wrote, implied two worlds: "A God and a devil over each, hell to fear and a heaven to conquer through liberty and grace, gaining a merciful and just God."

Indeed, God and proper convention are never far from our murderer’s mind. After his mare kicks an old lady he stops to check on her "...for it would not be in the nature of a well-born person to ride on."

Pascual's relationship to the Church marks the real boundaries to his actions and perceptions. Its laws lend an otherworldly allure to what they forbid. Eve, after all, was naked and she gave Adam an apple to eat, not a bar of soap.

While visiting the local friar to discuss his intentions of marrying the village maiden Lola, "Don Manuel opened the door of the sacristy and pointed to a bench in church, a bench like any bench in any church, made of unpainted wood, hard and cold as stone, but a place where sometimes wonderful moments are possible."

The Lord clearly taketh in Pascual’s life, but giveth on occasion as well. To the considerable extent that Pascual has faith in God, he has faith in the devil and the archangels and demons as a result.

While out spending a placid day in the country with his hunting dog Chispa, the animal (he says) turns to gaze on him with "the look of a confessor, coldly scrutinizing, the eyes of a lynx, the look they say a lynx fixes on you."

Pascual is unable to shake the resulting shudder that wracks his body and overcomes him.

"It was hot, the heat was stifling, and my eyes began to close under the animal’s stare, which was sharp as flint.

"I picked up my gun and fired. I reloaded and fired again. The bitch’s blood was dark and sticky and it spread slowly along the dry earth."

It appears, then, to be Pascual’s destiny to kill; to that end, his assignment becomes one he fulfills consistently. Along the way, he also slashes a man in a barroom brawl and stabs to death a mare that has thrown Lola and killed the baby she carried inside.

Pascual becomes a fugutive for a number of years, but returns to kill his tormentor, Estirao (Stretch), who first abused his sister and later impregnated Lola in Pascual’s absence.

Pascual eventually lands in jail, where the peasant from Extremadura (meaning "extreme" and "hard" in Spanish) pens his memoirs from death row. These memoirs constitute the story of Pascual Duarte throughout the majority of the book.

No madman on a self-destructive binge, Pascual does manage to be released on good behavior. At that moment he begins, earnest as ever, to rebuild a life, this time marrying Esperanza. But his demons get the worst of him and his mother pays the ultimate price.


Of course, the story is about Pascual’s family, the most important social unit in agrarian settings such as this. His father is Portugese and an explosive madman who has a heart attack at the news of being cuckolded.

His sister Rosario, whom Pascual adores, is cursed with a similar, if less violent, destiny because "God did not wish any of us to be distinguished by good deeds..." She is a prostitute, which can be shameful and painful before the sacred community, not to mention fatal to her as a practitioner.

His brother, Mario, sired by a man other than Pascual’s father, is born deformed.

"The poor fellow never got beyond dragging himself along the floor as is he were a snake and making some squeaking sounds in his throat. It was all he ever learned."

The unfortunate Mario even suffers the indignity of having a pig chew off his ears. Eventually he relieves the family of his oppressive sadness by drowning in a vat of olive oil at 10 years old:

"When we lifted him out, a thin trickle of oil poured from his mouth, like a gold thread being unwound from a spool in his belly. His hair, which in life had always been the dim color of ash, shone with such lively luster that one would have thought it had resurrected in death. Such were the wonders associated with the death of little Mario."

Pascual's mother is conniving and untrustworthy, giving birth to children not her husband’s and encouraging her daughter-in-law Lola to do the same.

Back in that hornets’ nest after his term in prison, Pascual threatens the old woman so that she removes herself as instigator, none of which escapes Pascual, who observes: "It’s sad to think that in order to gain a little peace a man has to make use of fear!"

But fear is not retribution enough and, in the novel’s dramatic highpoint, Pascual kills his mother and records his first impressions..."Her blood spurted all over my face. It was warm as a soft belly and tasted like the blood of a lamb."

True to form, Pascual flees the scene. At this point his personal narration ends and outside voices, introduced by Cela in the form of public testimony and private missive, fill in the rest.


The dispassionate diaries Pascual pens to divulge his murders have prompted comparisons with Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Both books were published in 1943; Cela’s went on to become the most polemic and most prolifically translated of Spain’s 20th Century literary output. Camus did as much for French letters.

But Pascual is not empty of soul in the way of Camus’ feckless anti-hero; rather he is driven by the customs and practices of a pervasive moral code. He fears the Holy Ghost.

His narration of events is not relayed in any linear way because, as Pascual explains, "Following the footsteps of people involved rather than the order of events, I jump from beginning to end and from the end back to the beginning. Like a grasshopper being swatted."

The memoirs tell his version of events, of a good man driven by intermittent and irrational forces to kill. Pascual admits it freely in his opening.

"I am not, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax."

Recollections from his confessor ("the transcriber" of his testimony introduced at the beginning of the book) and the warden make clear that, following Pascual's release from jail, the murderer had more killing to do.

We learn that at the Spanish Civil War’s outset, Pascual engaged in "revolutionary activities" that led him to kill the richest man in the town. The memoirs were sent, at Pascual’s request, to the only friend of his victim "whose address he can remember."

The date of Pascual's eventual execution makes it likely, and the book works to suggest, that he was not shot in the end for his serial murdering, but, ironically, for his politics. Posted to a moral social code, Pascual is ultimately killed by the forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, keepers of that very same code.


Adding contrast to Pascual's atrocities are the peasant village life and style that unfold in what Unamuno called the "intra-historical" cycle of birth, marriage, procreation and death, or "the world of silences."

Pascual chooses a wife at his brother’s funeral:

"When Lola went down on her knees she showed the smooth whiteness of her legs above her black stockings, tight as blood sausage. I blush to say what I must, and may God apply the effort it cost me to say it toward the salvation of my soul, for the truth is in that moment I was glad my brother had died...Lola’s legs shone like silverplate, the blood pounded in my temples, and my heart seemed ready to burst from my chest."

Here, Cela is superimposing rituals of passage to accentuate the eventless existence of agrarian life. These rites provide the only signposts for direction and action in an otherwise mundane universe.

Pascual gains Lola, but the imprimatur of the church robs her of allure, for "that first kiss given with permission didn’t taste half as good as the kisses in the cemetery, so long ago now."

Sexual pleasure and death are also coupled in the aforementioned stabbing of the mare. "When I quit the stable my arm was aching. I was covered with blood up to my elbow. The mare hadn’t made a sound. She only breathed deeper, and faster, like when we put her to stud."

And the flow of blood is often swathed in an inviting metaphor of rejuvenation and cleansing: "When they carried him off to Don Raimundo’s pharmacy the blood was flowing from him like water from a spring..."

Cela marks a life-rhythm in Pascual’s pueblo using a trance-like dirge from a single, mournful drum. "The years passed over our heads as they do all the world. Life in our house went down the same drains as always..."

When Pascual's son dies, he is tortured by the endless chatter of the women in his family.

" ‘Oh, the agony, the death throes!’

‘I held him gasping in my arms!’ [they cry]

It sounded like a litany, as slow and weary as a night filled with wine, as languid and heavy as the pace of an ass. And they went on in this way day after day, week after week...It was frightful, dreadful, and the curse of God, vengeance from on high."

Pascual’s is the superstition of a provincial haunted by ill-fortune, relieved only by splashes of momentary magic.

Happy in a family life, he and Lola seemingly conjure the boy’s death, inviting an ill-wind that kills him:

" ‘Did you hear that?’

‘What?’

‘The window.’

‘The window?’

‘Yes. It creaked as if the wind, as if a draft were trying to get through...’

The creaking of the window, moved as it was by the wind. Came to be mingled with a moan."

The modern mind scoffs at the individual’s dark power to conjure death, but Pascual’s mind does not. He leaves his future "in God’s hands" along with responsibility for his past transgressions, for the lamb of God takes away the sins of the earth. His very understanding of things is woven with the Catholic iconography of sacrifice and suffering.

The surrounding universe corroborates the place he sees for himself there. Lola tells him before she dies, "It’s just that blood seems like a kind of fertilizer in your life..."

When his sister Rosario asks why he says he is damned, Pascual responds, "I’m not the one who says it."


Such is the "real magicalism" of Cela, who paints the everyday gray, then drapes it in golden thread and lively luster.

In magical realism, the extraordinary is invited to accompany the ordinary on its daily rounds; in the real magicalism of Pascual’s mind, the very ordinary takes on the cast of something extraordinary by the projection of his fevered mind on the contrasting drabness and boredom of his surroundings

Camilo José Cela's inspiration to write The Family of Pascual Duarte might be seen as having an intrinsic connection to his own colorful political life in Spain. Cela was born in May 1916 in Iria Flavia, Galicia; a province steeped in fog, drizzle and a black magic mythology to match them.

In 1934, he began the study of medicine, but soon wound up under the tutelage of Pedro Salinas, a poet and member of the legendary "Generation of 1927" which counted, among its numbers, one of Spain’s most triumphant literary exports, Federico Garcia Lorca.

Set up in Madrid’s well-heeled Barrio Salamanca at the outset of the Civil War, Cela signed on with the Fascist fighting units of General Millan Ashtray whose war cry was "Long Live Death!" This experience could explain Pascual's righteous obsession with death and murder.

Later, Cela would serve for a time as a censor to the Franco regime only to see his own work receive the same rough treatment later. In 1974, he resigned his post as president of the prestigious Madrid Atheneum over the anarchist Salvador Puig Antich’s execution. It seems Cela was always living at odds with the power brokers of his time. In 1962, he dedicated the 13th edition of The Family of Pascual Duarte to his "enemies, who have been of such help to me in my career."

Cela, by all accounts, was a man who planned to be famous, and to be so as a writer. He was prolific throughout his life, crafting internationally acclaimed novels, less critically adored plays, countless essays and articles.

He won the Nobel Prize in 1989 and quickly turned it to his commercial advantage, developing what he himself considered "the business of Camilo José Cela." Until his death in 2002 he roamed the streets and bars of Madrid with his youngish wife, living the old-style literary life in a European capital, collecting caviar prizes and stipends, expounding in electronic and print media on any number of topics, contemporary and otherwise.

In the years following Franco’s death he was disdained by the political right over his criticism of the Franco regime and reviled by the reigning cultural elites of the ruling Socialist Party.

He could have cared less and if moved to, gave as good as he got. None of it could dent his hard-earned triumph, rooted more firmly in the quality and variety of his work than the meticulously crafted public persona he employed in shadowboxing the world around him.

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