by Miguel de Unamuno

7/10 (Too talky, tedious)

This was a very slow, difficult and tedious read that surged in quality at the end after the author inserted himself into the story. Though there are some interesting metaphysical discussions, almost nothing happens for the first 3/4 of the novel; all we have is a bored playboy pining for one or two different women and talking to people (mostly himself) about it. (Caveat: I read this book in Spanish and while I’m fluent and understood over 95% of the book, the energy needed to understand a non-native language surely factored into my feeling of tediousness. I have little doubt that I would have enjoyed it more in English.)

I believe I understand what Unamuno was trying to do to the format by creating a nivola instead of a novela (Span.). His surrogate character explains, “What we have is dialogue; above all, dialogue. The thing is that the characters talk, they talk a lot, although they say nothing. . . because people like conversation in itself, even though nothing is said.” Toward the end, when the anguished Augusto asks “What am I going to do now?” Victor responds (my translation):

Do, do, do! Bah, you’re acting like a character in a drama or novel! Let’s content ourselves with being those of a. . . nivola! Do. . . do. . . do! Does it seem to you that we’re not doing enough by talking like this? It’s the mania of action, or in other words, of pantomime. They say that many things occur in a drama when the actors can make many gestures and take giant steps and fake duels and jump and. . . Pantomime! Pantomime! Other times it’s said, ‘They talk too much!’ As if talking weren’t doing. In the beginning was the Word and by the Word everything was made. . .

This passage and those around it are excellent descriptions of what you’re in for if you pick up this book. I like this concept and I agree that conversation and discourse have been devalued (even moreso almost 100 years after this book was published). However, that doesn’t automatically make the embodiment of these ideas into a compelling reading experience, and this one struggles on that level.

Probably the most famous part of the book is when Unamuno himself comes in and really spices things up. He is able to discuss directly with his protagonist the nature and value of existence, fictional and otherwise. Augusto raises an excellent point that he, in fact, is more real than Unamuno since he will last longer as a fictional entity than Unamuno will in history. I love these ideas, although again, reading them in a novel is not very engaging.

Ultimately, however, I am very happy to have experienced the book and recommend other students of literature — whether professional or amateur — do the same. Abel Sanchez and Other Stories, which I read just before this, was both more entertaining and less thought-provoking (although it’s amusing to go back and see that my principle critique of “Abel” was that it was too talky).

Still, the most impressive aspect of Unamuno remains the quote that first brought his name to my attention, when in 1936 he replied to a fascist speech by General Millán-Astray at the university where he would later have to resign. This is what he said:

You are waiting for my words. You know me well, and know I cannot remain silent for long. Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent. . . But now I have heard this insensible and necrophilous oath, “¡Viva la Muerte!”, and I, having spent my life writing paradoxes that have provoked the ire of those who do not understand what I have written, and being an expert in this matter, find this ridiculous paradox repellent. General Millán-Astray is a cripple. There is no need for us to say this with whispered tones. He is a war cripple. So was Cervantes. But unfortunately, Spain today has too many cripples. And, if God does not help us, soon it will have very many more. It torments me to think that General Millán-Astray could dictate the norms of the psychology of the masses. A cripple, who lacks the spiritual greatness of Cervantes, hopes to find relief by adding to the number of cripples around him.

[Millán-Astray responded, “¡Muera la inteligencia! ¡Viva la Muerte!” (“Death to intelligence! Long live death!”), provoking applause from the Falangists.]

[Unamuno continued] This is the temple of intelligence, and I am its high priest. You are profaning its sacred domain. You will win, because you have enough brute force. But you will not convince. In order to convince it is necessary to persuade, and to persuade you will need something that you lack: reason and right in the struggle. I see it is useless to ask you to think of Spain. I have spoken.

He was escorted to safety by Franco’s wife, and then removed from his post at the University of Salamanca. He died 10 weeks later.

Thus anything I read by Unamuno will be colored by my knowledge that the man was a bonafide hero.


Original Review


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