[NYRB; 2023]

Tr. from the Spanish by James Womack

Camilo José Cela, the most self-avowedly Spanish novelist of the twentieth century, was a soldier, a censor, an actor, a rat, an arch provocateur, a frustrated bullfighter, a half-hearted democrat, a half-hearted fascist, a Nobel laureate, a stiff-necked grammarian, an exhaustive lexicographer of Spanish obscenities, a chronicler of travels, a singer of tangos, and a dazzling, tremendous stylist. He had the ear of Mark Twain, the formal audacity of John Dos Passos, the unrestrained ego of Vladimir Nabokov, the affable neuroticism of Italo Svevo, and the feeling for the comedy and tragedy of the street of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Cela’s first novel is often cited, as it was by the Nobel Committee, as Spain’s most read since Don Quixote. I have yet to substantiate that claim—I’ve tried—and I find it suspect, but he is that good.

“I would like to put forward the idea,” reads one of the author’s seven prefaces to various editions of The Hive, all reprinted in a new translation, “that the truly healthy man has no ideas of his own.” Cela was so flexible, so slippery, that he likely suffered from a profusion of ideas—many, if not all, his own. Despite his fascination with all things Spanish, he was an outsider, a Galician from Spain’s distinctive, Celtic northwest. His mother was English and Italian. In an interview he once described the individual as “never a plane, but a polyhedron.” Indisputably, Cela himself was a polyhedron.

From his early career, two works in particular appear in any distillation of the Spanish canon: The Family of Pascual Duarte (1942), his first novel, and The Hive (1950), by most accounts his masterpiece. His biography before and between them is as varied as his personality. He claimed to have had such a happy childhood that the thought of its end moved him to tears, as perhaps it should have. In 1931, at fifteen, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Much of the rest of his youth was passed in a sanatorium, where he devoted his convalescence to reading the Spanish classics. When he finished them, his condition improved, and he went to college in Madrid. Soon thereafter, he left college to fight for the wrong but winning side in the Spanish Civil War. He was wounded. At twenty-six, not long after the war, he published The Family of Pascual Duarte, the darkly comic confession of a pious, well-meaning, impoverished psychopath. According to Cela, “Jehovah invented humor when he cast Adam and Eve out of Paradise.”

After a travel book, some short stories, a few more novels, and a brief, ironic stint as a censor, he published The Hive in Buenos Aires, where he found Perón’s censors somewhat more amenable than Franco’s. An uncensored version could not be published until 1966, under Cela’s own imprint, Alfaguara, now owned by Penguin Random House. (Despite his frequent sparring with the regime, his reputation as a champion of freedom of expression was posthumously tainted by the revelation that he continued to spy on his peers into the 1960s.) The previous English translation, while not so bad, was finished more than a decade early, in 1953. James Womack’s new translation is the first in English to be billed as fully uncensored. According to one of Cela’s prefaces, he wrote most of The Hive in the countryside—often without access to a flush toilet—but its power resides in his subversive treatment of its urban subject, Madrid at the end of 1943. Madrid, as Cela saw it, was a frightening, stultifying dump. For all its humor and moments of warmth, The Hive is a portrait of misery.

The most immediately striking and commented-on feature of the text is its radical approach to form. In a montage style he lifts from Dos Passos, we cut from character to character—apparently hundreds—as Cela takes his movie camera around and away from its starting point, a café. In a joke that both its translators have missed, Doña Rosa, the café’s proprietor, gets the first word: “Don’t let’s lose our sense of perspective.” (In both the English editions, perspectiva is translated as “proportion.”) One page later, we lose our perspective. After a whitespace, we enter the company of a dandyish conman, Don Leoncio Maestre. On the next page, we have another whitespace and, with it, another change in perspective.

We go on losing perspectives and entering others on virtually every page. These vignettes make up the book’s substance, and their distinct but harmonizing voices—a baker’s, an accountant’s, a bartending Nietzschean’s, a disconsolate widow’s, some poets’, some prostitutes’, Cela’s own—are the book’s great subject.

In some instances, the result is purely cinematic; in others, purely novelistic. The camera might flit from a conversation on a streetcorner to the window from which a neighbor observes it. Other connections are baked into the language—spun from a motif, a repeated phrase, or a repeated situation. The characters’ lives repeat themselves, and they frequently rhyme with others. They drink the same drinks, get sick in the same toilets, and meet for assignations in the same rooms by the hour. We encounter two wire-caged, fifteen-candlepower bulbs one hundred pages apart. The effect is oceanic, or hive-like. Madrid is always turbulent and always looks the same.

Cela plays fast and loose with time and tense, and his shifts in register arrive unannounced. What rescues his Madrid from total dissolution is an unwaveringly careful attunement to its rhythms, its patterns of vibrance and compulsory solitude that characterize life in any big city. All of its voices are musical—the overeducated, the undereducated, the autodidactically muddled—and the objects pulse with the same intensity, even in abject surroundings. This sensuality of word and substance makes all things possible. A warm breeze passes over the legs of a languorous couple in bed, as if they were honeymooners beneath a cracked window in a room on the Costa del Sol. In truth, it originates from an electric heater—in an attic, in Madrid, in December, with a “you-know-what” on the nightstand. We never learn “what,” but “what” sounds tawdry.

Then there are the novel’s more typical pleasures—fractured, but no less present. Every thread sustained through multiple vignettes engages and builds to a fever pitch, from which point, more often than not, it is dropped for something entirely new. In an episode that at first seems the opening salvo in a murder mystery, an elderly woman is strangled with a towel. One of her neighbors, an eccentric pedant who practices florid speeches on logic and justice in the mirror—whether for a real or a speculative audience, we never know, but he does sound secure in his genius—gathers everyone in the building to discuss the case, or at least to hear him declaim on it. His high-flown rhetoric produces a minor sensation in the neighborhood, and everyone agrees to chip in to defray the costs of the old woman’s funeral. Immediately after, the matter is abandoned. Nothing more is illuminated. The corpse is shown near the end on a “cold marble slab” in the morgue.

If the rhythm sustains the novel across its two hundred-odd whitespaces, the humor does double duty for plot. It alleviates and deepens the bleakness at once. Even the murder has its funny side. For Cela, death holds a comic appeal. An old woman is strangled with a towel, but her neighbors are as concerned with absolving themselves of guilt and determining the type of towel involved as they are by the death itself. (It’s a terry towel.) Murder is an excuse for speeches, condemnations, and the raucous, pestilent gossip that both animates and degrades the urban hive. Every tragedy is attended by comedy. In one vignette, an unnamed man defenestrates himself (devastating), because his bedroom is suffused with the stench of onions (hilarious). It has a whiff of a trailer for a French New Wave film—sex! crime! laughs! despair! eminently danceable music!—that beats the real thing. There is death, and there is depravity, but The Hive is the rare technical experiment that gives life rather than quenches it.

The city itself is unremittingly hostile to all this life. In its repetitions, nonlinearity allows space for respites of tenderness. Near the end, the young, hungry, leftish writer Martín Marco—perhaps the closest figure to a protagonist other than Madrid itself—sleeps with Purita, a prostitute. In the morning, they play at husband and wife. We have already seen what comes next. Martín loses his last five duros in a restroom. The same night, Purita goes out with a john, a “junk” dealer (clothes, not heroin), to financially support her siblings. She is twenty, and her parents are dead. Purita calls Martín a “romantic,” but he insists, “No. I’m just sentimental.” Cela, the bullfighter-censor, the actor-grammarian, the singer-informer, is sentimental too. The only sane position in a fallen world, or a fallen city in the wake of civil war, is profound disillusion. But the disillusioned person who is incapable of affection is worth even less than the optimist.

Much of this magic survives the translation, and about as much is lost. Few writers have as many registers in English as Cela had in Spanish, and few of those writers read any Spanish. For the very small number who might fit the bill, translating Cela remains hard work. Still worse, any translator has to face down the preface to The Hive’s Romanian edition—the seventh of seven prefaces in the NYRB edition, as in the Royal Spanish Academy’s edition—in which Cela insists on the futility of literary translation. He semi-seriously argues that a silla is not precisely a “chair.” If concrete objects are untranslatable, then the challenge posed by “merely” abstract notions is insurmountable. “If there were such a thing as good sense in the world,” he writes, “we writers would be the first and most stubborn opponents of translation.” Printing this sentence directly before the body of the text surely counts as cruel and unusual punishment for any translator, however gifted.

The preface aside, Womack’s version is generally accurate, and he faithfully reproduces nearly all the uncensored text. His restorations are welcome and, in English, long overdue. Solving dated idioms, keeping up with changes in tense, and sorting out all the Pacos (I count five, but wouldn’t place bets) must have kept him up at night. The effort shows. The best thing that can be said about this translation is that producing it must have required time and creativity. What baffles, against that apparent care, is the final product’s lack of design. There are a thousand indications of effort, and none of a rigorous approach.

Sometimes Womack hews so close to the Spanish that the English makes little sense, if any. Though you could translate redacciones as “redactions,” it relies on a nonstandard definition in English that is almost guaranteed to produce confusion—especially in the context of The Hive, with its tortured history of censorship. Here, Cela is only referring to his five successive “drafts,” or “versions.” In another preface, siniestra cucaña is translated as “disgusting pillar,” but when used to describe sex work, it is likely a “sinister bargain.” And a patrón might be a “landlord,” but in the context of a conversation with your bartender—even if you address him formally, as usted instead of —he is probably “boss” or “chief.”

These decisions, agree or disagree, at minimum seem intentional. Womack follows the text and is careful not to overinterpret. Other phrases—he struggles with colloquial language—look less like decisions and more like mistakes. “The cat’s mine,” says Doña Rosa, “and if I want I can feed it black pudding, or else I can club it to death, if I want.” Setting aside the odd repetition of “if I want,” which has no analogue in the original text, an English-language reader could easily miss that Doña Rosa is not considering feeding her cat a sausage. The word morcilla does mean “black pudding,” but the phrase dar morcilla is a euphemism for poisoning. Every translator slips up now and then, but when a phrase is covered in the Spanish edition’s glossary, as is dar morcilla, the slip-up is hard to forgive.

Elsewhere Womack goes to extraordinary lengths to preserve not the literal sense of words, but the sound, rarely for the better. It may be tempting to think that disposición is identical in meaning to “disposition,” and sometimes it is, but you cannot be at your employer’s “disposition” for the evening. You can only be at his “disposal.” The most jarring instance of Womack’s attempts to produce an English that looks like the Spanish, without capturing any of its sense or flavor, is his rendering of the phrase, ¡La que se armó! In the 1965 translation, J.M. Cohen sensibly proposes, “And hell breaks loose.” In 2023, the same phrase is rendered, “Alarums!”

Ordinary phrases in Spanish tend to sound, in Womack’s English, like P.G. Wodehouse. Señorita Elvira, a café regular, considers setting her sights on Don Pablo, another regular. According to Womack, she thinks to herself, “He’s a greasy little slug, but—heigh-ho!—I don’t have much choice anymore.” The phrase that becomes “heigh-ho” is simply después de todo, meaning “after all.” Spanish becomes Latin, idioms become neologisms, and bestia, meaning “brute” or “beast,” becomes “muppet”—twenty-five years before Sesame Street. To borrow a phrase from Womack, the result is “camp as a row of tents.”

The beauty of The Hive in Spanish lies in Cela’s ability to maintain a kind of internal coherence across his vocal range. Womack’s problem is not his Spanish, but his understanding of his material. Where creativity is in order, he plays it straight; where Google Translate would do, he whips out a backflip. All the acrobatics would be permissible, advisable even, if they enhanced our experience of the English. They do not. Some of the blunter jokes survive, but the subtler humor is lost. The punchlines are in all the wrong places, and the original’s lively concision is bloated, made waxy and cold. After all the editions, prefaces, and battles with government censors, The Hive deserved a return to English more in tune with Cela’s spirit.

Enough of the brilliance remains, hopefully, to pick up the gist. You still can follow Cela’s camera, and you still will have occasion to gasp—sometimes to cry, and often to laugh. Maybe we should not ask for more. Cela personally expected less: “I can’t imagine The Hive in Romanian: I also don’t see much sense to its existence in French or English, Italian or Swedish, German, Portuguese, or Polish.” He could be right. Whatever else can be said of The Hive, if it does not convince you to drop your ideas, it will make you want to learn Spanish.

Chapman Caddell is a writer in San Francisco.

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