Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936 opens with a scene in front of the mirror, and consistently returns to this same site of reflection and self-observation. At first, the mirrored gaze brings familiarity, perhaps a sort of comfort. The English translation has it: “A man sees himself in the mirror and even feels comfortable addressing himself in a familiar way” (3). In the Spanish, though, this is not a particular individual, but a generic, impersonal third person: “Uno se ve en el espejo” (13). This is the way things are in general, at least at first sight: in the mirror, we see ourselves and feel we know what we see. But it is not long before the reflection becomes both more uncertain and more specific, revealing something that perhaps we would rather not see. A second glance is less reassuring: “the quality of the pane is not good and the image that it reflects shows bitter and disjointed features [. . .] maybe what’s happening is that it reflects the astonished face of a dead man still masked with the mask of the fear of death” (3). So by the time the second chapter comes around, also opening with a mirror, the address is both more personal (second person rather than third) and more desolating: “Look at yourself in the mirror and don’t break out crying, it’s hardly worth while for you to break out crying because your soul is already more than damned” (32). And it is not long before the reflection provokes a real ambivalence, the mirror seeming to exert a strange hold on a spectator who can’t bear to look but can’t turn away: “look at yourself in the mirror and escape from the mirror, it’s like a gymnastic exercise, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror, look at yourself in the mirror, escape from the mirror and so on until you can’t take it any more” (34). And why? Why “are you scared to look at yourself in the mirror?, yes, you’re scared to look at yourself in the mirror, are you afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks?, yes, you’re afraid of finding the mark of the murderer on your forehead or on your cheeks” (49). Here as elsewhere, in the novel’s insistent repetitions and reiterations, we end up discovering that what we are returning to is the scene of a crime, a crime in which we are both victim and victimizer, murderer and murdered, the dead and the damned.
The crime, of course, is the Spanish Civil War, and the second-person narrator is both particular and general: it is a young student, about twenty years old; it is Spain; it is all of us. “You, you, you,” the narrative voice addresses himself, but also the reader, in a tone that both strives for self-knowledge and seeks at all costs to avoid it, in what is effectively one long, sprawling denunciation of the murderous desire written on all our faces–or, what is perhaps worse, the nonchalant ignorance and self-preoccupation that allows others to murder in our name. For sometimes it is by looking too hard in the mirror that we miss what is going on elsewhere, the violence that is about to break out without our lifting a finger to stop it. For we are both perpetrators and bystanders to a history that could not take place without us, but which we barely notice, or only indirectly. We are too close to the scene of the crime either to avoid its implications (and our complicity) or to understand them: “Seen from close up history confuses everyone, both actors and spectators, and is always very tiny and startling, and also very hard to interpret” (61). Because ultimately “history is full of Narcissuses” but “it will do no good to run away, do not close your eyes, contemplate your full and true (or full and false) image in the mirror, take advantage of your being as though hypnotized, [. . .] the miracle is not likely to occur but you must not give up that hope” (112). Cela is here returning to the civil war, to the very outbreak of hostilities, recognizing the narcissism involved but unwilling to give up on the miraculous possibility of hope for self-understanding none the less. You can’t look at it directly; but you can’t quite look away. Self-reflection and self-ignorance alike open up to moral quagmires. The best you can do, perhaps, is a gaze that looks aslant: indirect, interrupted, but repeated and insistent.
Hence this novel of the civil war is also somehow about anything and everything but. In the first instance because (at least as the first part comes to a close) the war itself has yet to break out. The conflict is (only) on the horizon; it’s a matter of rumour and fear, potential but not full actuality. We hear of the murder of Lieutenant José Castillo, a Republican policeman–a murder that took place on July 12, 1936. We register the assassination the following day of the right-wing politician José Calvo Sotelo. Who is behind these deaths? Falangists? Communists? Or was Castillo, for instance, merely the victim of a crime of passion? Cela passes on all the various stories that circulate around and try to explain the violence: “Listen, couldn’t he have been hit by a taxi as he was crossing the street?” (68). Meanwhile, off stage, something larger is brewing: “They say there is going to be a military coup to guarantee law and order and to save the Republic” (68). No wonder that fear stalks Madrid, that “the country is nervous, the spark can fly at any moment, maybe it has already flown with these stupid deaths, and the fire, if it breaks out, will be hard to contain” (71). But none of this is shown directly or straightforwardly. For (in the second instance) everything is at the margin of the narrator’s own concerns and preoccupations: with his family, his friends, his girlfriend Toisha, his own anxieties and fantasies about sex and health and the day to day. To put this another way, this is less a political novel than an infrapolitical tale par excellence. Cela’s interest is less in the political shenanigans and conspiracies, or even the broad structural tensions and open conflicts, that lead to the open violence of the war itself, than rather in everything that is not itself directly political but without which politics itself would be unthinkable, unworkable. Hence also the novel’s meandering, nonlinear, repetitive style, a “stream of consciousness” that belongs to no one single individual, but which presents the fragmented reflection of an uncertain, ambivalent multitude that at any moment will be cast as two great forces–Fascist and Loyalist, Right Wing and Left–that are supposedly mutually incommensurable. Cela writes against that political fiction, with all its reductiveness, to give us instead a more complex (non)narrative glimpsed in a distorting mirror for which we are inevitably always on both sides of the divide.
Crossposted to Infrapolitial Deconstrution Collective.
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Your description of the opening of this novel made me think of Luigi Pirandello’s 1904 novel, -The Late Mattia Pascal- that opens with its eponymous protagonist contemplating his image in the mirror. His wife arrives and asks him whether he’s looking at the fact that his nose hangs to the left somewhat. Our hero is shattered by this question. He’s never noticed his nose was skewed to one side and this provokes an identity crisis – how can it be that his image of himself doesn’t correspond in any way at all with the image others have of him? what can he do to control the way others think of him?
I wonder if Cela’s later novel could be read as a kind of politicised re-reading of this typically Pirandellian dilemma.
P.S. Have you guessed that I supposed to be marking exam scripts? You can’t beat a bit of displacement activity…!
Oops! I’ve muddled up my PIrandello novels. The novel I was thinking of is -One, No-One, and One Hundred Thousand- (1926).