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James Skinner reviews the writer's life

‘In 1880, John Trulock, a relatively unknown English engineer arrived in the north of Galicia to build the first railway between Santiago de Compostela and the seaside town of Villagarcia. His entry into the annals of history, however, was neither for his engineering prowess nor as the pioneer of the first rail connection in the area. He was the grandfather of Don Camilo Jose Manuel Juan Ramon Francisco de Jeronimo Cela-Trulock, the last Nobel Prize (Literature) from Spain who passed away in Madrid on the 17th of January. Camilo Jose Cela was 85 years old.

He was born in Iria Flavia, a small village in the province of Corunna on the 11th of May 1916. A the age of five, Camilo Jose and his family moved to the city of Vigo (not half a mile from where I live) where the young boy began his controversial education. He was expelled from his first school for biting his French teacher on the ankle and thrown out of the Jesuits (the same school my own son went to and my grandson is now attending) for opening the gate of the school’s pigsty and allowing the future ‘ham’ to roam the city. In 1925, the troop moved to Madrid whereby Camilo Jose, although removed from yet another school, managed to complete his secondary education. In 1931, however, he was stricken with tuberculosis, an illness that was to mark the eventual course of his life.

He started reading the Spanish classics based on works of Ortega and Gasset and Rivadeneyra. Although he had had a go unsuccessfully at three different University careers that included Medicine and Law, writing was already flowing through his veins. By the mid-thirties, young Camilo Jose starts to write poetry and enters the realm of intellectuals and other contemporary writers. However, in 1936 the Spanish Civil war breaks out and Camilo Jose is caught up in the conflict fighting for the Nationalists (Franco). He is actually wounded and by the end of the war begins, in earnest, his career as a writer. Post war Madrid will have a lasting effect on the budding author.

In 1942 Camilo Jose writes his first and probably his most famous novel, 'The family of Pascual Duarte'. It is a story about a peasant from Extremadura, who is finally executed by the cudgel. Although it is printed and is a success, it is soon banned by the Franco regime. He follows it with a second novel, 'Trip to Alcarria' (1948), a delicious travel book delving deep into the heart of the Spanish hinterland of small villages and country life. In 'The Beehive', his next bestseller completed in 1951, he reverts back to describing life in Madrid in the nineteen forties.(made into a film in the 1980's) One of the many characters in the book is Matias Marti, ‘the inventor of words’. Is it Camilo Jose by any chance? Yet again, the book is banned in Spain! In between he completes several essays, memoirs, scripts and many literary reviews. His work however was not only confined to the art of putting pen to paper.

The prolific Cela tried his hand at acting, painting, world travel and politics. In 1947 he presented a series of indescribable paintings in Madrid and later in his home country, Corunna. In 1950 he appeared as an actor in a low budget film called The basement, and in 1977, after the death of Franco he was elected to the Spanish Parliament as a senator in the transitional government of Adolfo Suarez. He even had a say in the development of the new Spanish Constitution. It is no surprise that the praises, recognition and awards that followed reflected his varied life achievements.
Apart from numerous honorary doctorates from universities as far apart as Sarajevo and Syracuse, he attained several oddball recognitions such as that of Honorary Forensic of the National Society of Spanish Forensics and Honorary citizen of the city of Tucson, Arizona. The former was due to his excellent description of an autopsy in his novel ‘Mazurca for two corpses’ and the latter thanks to his Quixotic novel ‘Christ vs. Arizona’. But his more serious awards were yet to come.

Although he was invited to join the prestigious Spanish Royal Academy in 1957, it was not until 1987 that he won the Prince of Asturias prize in literature for universal contribution to the arts and recognition of worldwide literary achievements. His Nobel Prize followed in 1989 and finally in 1995, King Juan Carlos handed him the Cervantes Prize, the highest literature award in the Castilian language.

Despite his fame and universal adulation, Don Camilo Jose Cela was also a highly controversial character. He was not everyone’s cup of tea. Many politicians and fellow writers felt he’d betrayed his native Galicia by writing entirely in Castilian and not Galician, the language of his birthplace. Others considered him chauvinistic, right wing, sarcastic, blasphemous, cynical and even foul-mouthed. One high society madam after one of his afternoon tea conferences actually said to him: ‘if it weren’t for the fact that I’m a lady, I’d tell you to go f*** yourself!’ He was, above all, honest. He said what he thought, to whomever he pleased; he spoke his mind. He had no time for fools, hypocrites or even politicians. He hurt a great deal of people including his own family. Married for 30 years, he suddenly left his wife and married his mistress on the eve of his Nobel Prize nomination. He’d not spoken to his only son for years. He never even met his one and only granddaughter!

Nevertheless, he was a genius, a master of Spanish prose, a storyteller who had a never-ending thirst to write. He explored the different facets of our contemporary world and delved into the depth of human nature to surface with a never-ending wealth of classical compositions. As he himself put it: ‘life has no plot and my novels are like life.’ Philologist Manuel Seco said of Don Camilo: ‘You get the sensation that Cela knows the dictionary by heart until you realise that he is the dictionary!’ His death, a few days ago, marks the end of one of Spain’s greatest twentieth century writers and one of its last classics, alongside Valle Inclan, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Torrente Ballester and naturally, Miguel de Cervantes.

His family, King Juan Carlos, members of the Spanish government and other dignitaries were at Camilo Jose Cela’s funeral. His remains were buried under an olive tree in the small cemetery of his birthplace. His final words before he died were: ‘Viva Iria Flavia!’

© James Skinner. 2002

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