Monday, September 20, 2021

The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela

Inside the mind of a murderer
The Family of Pascual Duarte, published in 1942, is the debut novel of Spanish author Camilo José Cela, who would go on to win the 1989 Nobel Prize in Literature. The novel is written in the form of a memoir by a death row inmate. A preface explains that this prisoner left the manuscript behind at the time of his execution. Pascual Duarte, the narrator, states from the very beginning that he has been imprisoned for committing a murder, and the reader waits for the details of that crime to be revealed as Duarte relates his life story. The dark tale he tells provides a glimpse into a mind gradually descending into insanity.

Pascual lives in Southwestern Spain, near the Portuguese border. Though I have limited knowledge of Spanish geography, Cela makes it sound like this region is far from financially affluent and somewhat of a Wild West compared to the sophisticated civilization of Madrid. Little is specified about Pascual’s means of making a living, but it is clear he lives a hard life replete with alcohol and violence. His mother abuses him physically and verbally. Perhaps the only bright spot in Pascual’s family life is his friendly relationship with his sister, but she leaves the home to work as a prostitute. Pascual and his family are plagued by death, particularly the deaths of children, which brings about a sort of antagonistic relationship between Pascual and fate itself. As he endures what he perceives as divine persecution, he exhibits violent tendencies that only grow more intense as the book progresses, thus foreshadowing his drive to commit murder.

The Family of Pascual Duarte calls to mind Albert Camus’s novel The Stranger, which was published the same year. Both Pascual Duarte and The Stranger’s Meursault try to make sense of a senseless universe in which they are seemingly driven by social, economic, and hereditary forces to commit crimes that marginalize them as the deviants of humanity. Duarte is driven mad by the sheer pointlessness of an indiscriminately harsh existence that yields no reward. While Camus approaches his narrative with a tone of ironically deadpan nonchalance, Cela’s view into Pascual’s mind is harsher and more disturbing. It calls to mind the brutally frank and bleak investigations into the criminal mind that one finds in Georges Simenon’s darker psychological novels like Dirty Snow and The Reckoning.

Cela has crafted a near-perfect novel. Its main fault is its ending. Rather than leading the reader all the way to the gallows, Pascual’s autobiographical narrative ends far short of his execution. Thus, many of the questions raised in the book’s introductory chapters remain unanswered, leaving the reader feeling a bit cheated. Perhaps this is intentional on Cela’s part, however. In this way the reader suffers a taste of the vindictive arbitrariness of events that has plagued Pascual throughout his life of bitter disappointments.

Many years ago I read Cela’s novel The Hive. While I found much to appreciate in that book, it contains a fair amount of political content that I couldn’t fully understand without an informed knowledge of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. The Family of Pascual Duarte, on the other hand, revolves around more universal themes of life and death, love and family, crime and punishment, obsession and insanity. Despite the dark circumstances of Pascual’s life and his status as a transgressor on the fringes of society, the reader can’t help but sympathize and identify with the underlying humanity of Cela’s tragic protagonist.
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