Spanish essayist and cultural critic Fernando Diaz-Plaja said that Spaniards are the first to sing the woes of their own country. His judgement was borne out recently at a commemoration of Spanish Civil War exile literature at the University of Maryland, held exactly fifty years after the defeat of the Second Republic in 1939. The proceedings were interrupted to announce that Camilo Jose the memory of exile poets such as Rafael Alberti and Leon Felipe was at best mixed and at worst disdainful. The disdain was understandable in light of the neglect of exile writers by the Spanish cultural establishment (El Pais, the Ministry of Culture). The most distinguished members of the Spanish intelligentsia, writers and thinkers such as Jorge Guillen, Pedro Salinas, Luis Cernuda, Jose Gaos, Max Aub and Luis Bunuel, were forced to leave the country with the rise of insurgent fascism. As a result, Spain became a cultural wasteland for nearly a decade. Camilo Jose Cela not only stayed in the wasteland, he was on the side of the nationalists, and immediately after the war he supported the Franco regime. The wide range of opinion expressed at the conference was indicative of a variety of problems exacerbated by this year's prize.
"The Latin Americans are going to kill us," said one scholar, to which another responded, "And it would be an act of justice."
"Another Echegaray!" complained one participant. "My God, what an embarrassment!"
Jose Echegaray, a mediocre playwright, won the Nobel in 1904, when Spanish novelist Benito Perez Galdos was alive and considered to be second only to Cervantes (he still is). Echegaray's supporters were stunned by the 1904 prize and spent much energy trying to justify it. Subsequently, a handbook was published with a synopsis of the lives and works of the Spanish Nobel Laureates. For progressive Spaniards, it is difficult to determine, even after the subsequent granting of the prize to the brilliant poets Juan Ramon Jimenez and Vicente Aleixandre, which is more culturally embarrassing: the handbook of Echegaray's theater.
It is far more difficult, however, to determine if Spaniards should be as embarrassed in 1989 as they were in 1904; although Cela has been a politically problematic figure for many years, his novels are well worth reading. Born in 1916, he was declared exempt from military service because of tuberculosis but later joined the nationalist forces, as did countless other Spaniards in 1936, not out of a firm ideological conviction but as a result of the vagaries of social circumstance and geography (ideological inclinations often depended on the area in which one happened to reside). Perhaps more difficult to rationalize is Cela's collaboration in the early 1940s in journals such as El Espanol and La Estafeta Literaria, run by Juan Aparicio and Dionisio Ridruejo, ideologues of falangist-fascist aesthetics: sonnets in the style of sixteenth-century poet Garcilaso de la Vega extolling la madre patria ("the Motherland") and the "innate" Catholicism of Spain.
But unlike Aparicio and Ridruejo, Cela has never been an ideologue. His break with fascist aesthetics came gradually and cautiously. Some might even say that his discretion in the face of repugnant lines of thinking and writing was politically astute, given that, as Enrique Tierno Galvan (Marxist mayor of Madrid from 1977 to his death in 1986) pointed out, the Spain of the early 1940s was a Spain in which one was either an uncompromising supporter of the regime or a scoundrel. But while Tierno became a self-proclaimed scoundrel and went to jail as a result, along with other writers who called themselves "interior exiles," such as Antonio Ferres and Armando Lopez Salinas, Cela was ironic and coy.
Cela's first major novel, La Familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte, 1942), dealt with the squalor and brutality of a peasant from Extremadura who relates his …