Boxwood, Camilo José Cela (Patricia Haugaard tranns.). New Directions. 224pp, $14.95.
A poet I used to know once asked me how novelists knew when to stop writing. When I pressed him for more specifics about what he meant, he explained that he didn’t understand how anyone could tell when to stop expanding a description, a stretch of dialogue, a philosophical (or sub-philosophical) flight. In fiction’s defense, I responded that novelists wrote as much as they felt they needed, and that writing which might first strike us as gnomic or long-winded had the form it had for artistic reasons that would reveal themselves after closer study.
I thought about this exchange recently after reading Boxwood, Camilo José Cela’s last novel, a book sufficiently strangely constructed that most of it feels both gnomic and long-winded at once. Conceptually it’s fairly simple—a couple of hundred pages of village lore from the fishing communities of the Spanish region of Galicia (misidentified as the Basque country on the paperback’s back cover), where Cela was born. But the presentation is daunting—page after page of perfect rectangles of text, mostly unsullied by paragraph breaks or even periods.
Visually, the easy comparison is to Samuel Beckett’s mature novels, although the content is radically different. Beckett famously scrubbed almost every recognizable element of conventional fiction—plot, character, setting, theme—from his work. But Boxwood is a riot of concreteness, with facts, incidents, opinions, and names piling so rapidly and so randomly that we feel swamped after a page or two. Here’s a representative quarter of a sentence from the middle of the book:
Wormwood simmered in rainwater with a few drops of sweet anisette alleviates many sicknesses but cannot cure either melancholy or indifference, the Basque tuna boat Playa de Arrízar was struck and sunk by the French container ship Artois, one man perished, six went missing and there were five survivors, among seafarers a dead man is one whose body the sea gives up while a missing person is someone the sea swallows up forever and never returns, pancakes laced with aguardiente are the key to Telmo Tembura’s heart and memory, when you ply him with pancakes, aguardiente and a cheap cigar Telmo Tembura tells eerie tales of Pindo hill and the earthquake which altered the course of the river Xallas, people’s characters are like jam stains, like smudges of strawberry, blackcurrant, cherry, fig, bilberry or blackberry jam, each jam makes a different smudge and from its shape and color you can tell the timid or forthright characters of folks
Like the Galician coastline itself, the text of Boxwood is self-similar, with excerpts of any size having approximately the same elements: folk remedies, shipwrecks, village characters lightly sketched, aphoristic wisdom. Also consistent is the arrangement of these elements, spliced together with little regard for the appearance of completeness or coherence.
With these aspects of the book’s construction in mind, it’s natural to wonder whether it really is complete or coherent. In what looks like a concession to convention, the text is broken into four chapters of roughly equal size. Each presumes to tell a shapely story about village life but instantly derails, becoming a mad monologue like the sample above. Narrative satisfactions are hard to find, even at this macroscopic scale. The voice also hardly changes, always resembling the one senile relative at the family reunion who can’t start making sense but can’t stop talking either. By having his narrator(s) go on and on this way, I think Cela may be highlighting the various forms of tyranny lurking in “traditional” wisdom. As we plow through the book, we notice how pinched its vision of human nature is, how cruel, how fearful. References to contemporary events and technology root Boxwood in the relatively recent past (it was first published in 1999, three years before Cela’s death), but the sensibility expressed in its pages is more medieval than modern.
Occasionally the flow of the text is interrupted by short stretches of dialogue between the narrator(s) and an unidentified interrogator. The interrogator’s voice is sharp, and it articulates a number of reasonable doubts about what’s being narrated. Some examples:
“Isn’t this getting a little jumbled?”
“Isn’t this a little garbled?”
“Is that figure correct?”
“Do you know that for a fact?”
“You can say what you like, but to my mind this all seems very jumbled, well, garbled, really.”
The response to this last accusation? “No, it is not garbled at all.” Q.E.D.
Perhaps the questioner in these exchanges is a young skeptic trying to think through the superstition of provincial life and connect with the modern world. If so, the homegrown freethinker is probably in for a rough time, as Cela never makes the modern world more than an incidental presence in this book. The isolation and entrapment of provincial life is suggested in another, odd way: almost every reference to seafaring in the book is to scenes of wreckage, disaster, and death. More positive facts about life at sea are never supplied, and the potential for freedom at sea is never entertained. The most convenient avenue of escape from a coastal village, these lacunae suggest, leads to doom.
The way these skeptical remarks punctuation Cela’s long paragraphs raises the question of the author’s own loyalties. Does he favor reason, superstition, both, neither? In some ways the assumptions behind a question like this are unhelpful—a serious work of fiction can present endorsements of many positions without being an endorsement of any of them. But in Boxwood’s case, aspects of the novel make the issue of the author’s own position a compelling one. Late in the book and without herald, the phrase “when I was awarded the Nobel Prize” appears, followed by a few pages of first-person reflections in what we’re led to believe is the voice of Cela himself—a Nobel laureate in real life. These reflections do not mark a break from the novel’s main voice but are threaded seamlessly into it, incorporating the usual flood of facts about seafood and history in the usual comma-heavy way. After a long and loving description of a monument to Cela, “the first Galician to be awarded the Novel [sic] Prize,” the reflections stop and the book continues to its conclusion (or at least its end).
The formal integration of a voice presented as Cela’s specifically with a voice presented as rural wisdom generally suggests a kinship between the two—a perverse kinship for Cela to want to suggest, given the unsympathetic nature of much of what the novel’s main voice expresses. I have trouble constructing a compelling explanation for why these voices are integrated this way. The best I can figure is that Cela is attempting to parody his own status as an éminence grise of letters—a perfectly acceptable thing to attempt to do, but one I don’t feel works very well here.
The mysterious appearance of “the famous Spanish writer Camilo José Cela” breaks the flow of a book that’s otherwise more tightly constructed than at first appears. In spite of the unpleasantness its main voice describes (and frequently incarnates), Boxwood succeeds at pulling us into its world because of the strength of that voice—a seductive example of the authority of irrationality. The rational voice that challenges it, although it gets much less space on the page, has equal weight and a corresponding pull. That these dueling voices, as dissimilar as they are, can be made to balance each other is an indicator of Cela’s novelistic skill. Their contest might not always be pretty, but it’s always well-fought, which is a good enough reason to keep reading.
Sacha Arnold is a contributing editor to The Quarterly Conversation.
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