There are radios throughout Camilo José Cela’s San Camilo, 1936. One of the major characters, the ardent Republican Engracia, even has a boyfriend who repairs radios. But they often go unheard. At the crucial moment at which the news comes through that a “part of the army in Morocco has risen in armed rebellion” (152) it seems that nobody is listening. We are told of the maids Paulina and Javiera, for instance, that they “always have the radio on, but turn it off whenever the news begins, it’s so boring” (153). When more information starts to come through of events in North Africa and the Canaries–and at the novel’s first mention of Franco–it’s said that “few people listen to the radio, and fewer still at eight o’clock in the morning, at that time hardly anyone thinks of listening to the radio [. . .] you really have to be a morning person and the inhabitants of Madrid tend not to be morning people, it’s not worth it” (157). So it takes some time to register what is going on.
In fact, even by the end of the novel (almost two hundred pages later), it is hardly clear that many, if anyone, have really registered that an epochal change has taken place, a historical rupture opened up. The first mention of the phrase “civil war” comes a good fifty pages after what, with hindsight, would become known as its outbreak, and even then it is presented as a future possibility that might yet be averted if the army would only “bring peace and prevent all these events from degenerating” (213). But there is some vacillation here: if peace still has to be brought, does this not imply that war has already broken out? Amid all the uncertainty on which Cela’s novel thrives, the very border between peace and war becomes diffuse, undecidable. In the book’s epilogue the narrator’s uncle, Jerónimo, declares that “we Spaniards live in a start of permanent civil wars, in the plural, all against all, but also in an inhospitable civil war against ourselves and with our wounded and suffering hearts and battlefields” (358). But this sounds more than anything like a Hobbesian state of nature, as if the problem were that there is no Spanish “civil society” at all, no nation over which contending sides could fight.
And indeed, Uncle Jerónimo comes out against the nation, but in favour of the patria or fatherland: “the fatherland is more permanent than the nation, and more natural and flexible, fatherlands were invented by the Great Creator, nations are made by men, fatherlands have a language with which to sing and trees and rivers, nations have a language that’s for promulgating decrees” (357). In short, in Jerónimo’s hands–and the epilogue is given over almost entirely to his voice alone, in contrast to the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that characterize the book until that point–the novel shifts from what I early called infrapolitics to an avowed antipolitics whose (in fact, merely disavowed) political investments are clear enough. For Jerónimo is less opposed to politics than he is to the liberal institutions of the nation state that he–like Franco–is quite prepared to sacrifice for the greater good of a notional “fatherland” whose purported legitimacy and authority are given by God himself. Hence also the novel’s rather chilling final lines, declaring that “whatever you think this is not the end of the world, [. . .] this is but a purge of the world, a preventative and bloody purge but not an apocalyptic one [. . .] we can calmly go sleep, it must be very late already, I assure you that suffering is less important than how you conduct yourself, let’s go sleep, it must be very late already and the heart gets weary with so much foolishness” (366). All is well, please move along, nothing to see here, just a little housecleaning and the fatherland will rise again.
There is a logic to this conclusion, if we take what has gone before, with Madrid portrayed as a hotbed of licentiousness and prostitution, as a sign that the stables now need to be cleaned out and the corruption of politics erased. This is more or less the argument of Paul Ilie who, in a remarkably angry article (I have seldom seen one angrier) on “The Politics of Obscenity in San Camilo, 1936”, claims that Cela goes out of his way to portray the Republic as obscene so as to justify the (eminently political) rejection of politics. At the same time, Imre points out, Cela wants to have his cake and eat it: what he provides is “political pornography” that “seeks to titillate bourgeois taste by means of verbal prurience, immoral suggestiveness, and sado-erotic anecdote” (51, 47).
But instead of dwelling on the all-too familiar hypocrisy of this rhetorical tactic, another way of reading the novel would be to emphasize the ways in which the final epilogue doesn’t so much follow on from what has gone before as attempt to capture it, ultimately without success. For something always escapes–and here, that something is plenty. To put this another way: the epilogue is a betrayal of everything that makes the rest of the novel so fascinating and worthwhile, even if it is a betrayal that has been building from the start, long planned from the very moment at which Cela gives us his narrator staring at the mirror, idly masturbating, wondering whether to sleep with a prostitute who smells of “grease and cologne” (14). All this is obscene enough, indeed, but it is what gives the novel its substance. Without it, there would be nothing; by contrast, the transcendent fatherland peddled by the epilogue is a paltry fiction indeed. This has hardly been a novel of “trees and rivers.” It’s not the betrayal that defines and constitutes the book; it’s what is betrayed.
And whatever one thinks of governments and decrees, in fact these are hardly the key elements of the community (however corrupt) that San Camilo, 1936 depicts. If anything, it’s the call and response of radio and multitude that defines the historical situation that Cela outlines. For in the end “in a city of a million inhabitants it’s enough that a couple of dozen listen to the radio, if the rumour comes from a dozen different sources it floods the city in a couple of hours” (161). Rumour, the voice(s) of the anonymous multitude, a collectivity that fucks and shits and fights and stumbles, is what gives life to history and to the city, and ultimately to the novel that parasitically tries to capture it, too.