The Hive, by Camilo José Cela

Having read and been deeply disappointed by The Family of Pascual Duarte, I’m surprised I ever got around to The Hive – I can’t think why it was I did now, Cela should have been consigned to the mighty scrapheap of worthless writers – but I’m glad I did. The Hive is nothing like Pascual Duarte: where that is a boring, pointless, realist tale of a murderer and his punishment (really, I can’t remember much about it; I might be making up even those few adjectives), The Hive is a wonderful, engaging, realist tale of life in Madrid.

No, there’s a bit more difference than that even. Let’s start with this: The Hive is about 200 pages long and has about 300 characters in it. Some get many pages devoted to them; some are nothing more than names, people mentioned in passing because of their relations to other people. The story starts off in a cafe: it describes the patroness, the cafe-workers and each of the patrons in turn, introducing us to their natures and their lives; then, it escapes from the confines of this cafe and – by the same process of following characters for a bit, losing them and then occasionally catching up with them again and continuing with their stories – it spreads out across Madrid, becoming a vision of that city in the period just after the Civil War (it is set, actually, during WWII, though it is rarely mentioned), a panoramic attempt to include in its pages every aspect of that city’s life.

Despite his reputation as being from the dark side, The Hive was banned by the Spanish authorities (and published instead in Argentina). This is hardly surprising: its portrait of Madrid under Franco isn’t exactly flattering or the kind of piece totalitarian regimes appreciated, what with its constant dwelling on poverty and prostitution; and the bit in the epilogue (I shan’t spoil it) seems directly critical of certain aspects of the political situation.

Cela, it seems, became ever more experimental. Now I’ve gone and ordered his novel Christ vs Arizona, which Wikipedia describes as “the story of a duel in the OK Corral [told] in a single sentence that is more than a hundred pages long”. (I’m always a bit sceptical of these single sentence novels: I read one once, and it basically just used semi-colons instead of full-stops, which seems like cheating to me. One day I’d like to write a genuine single sentence novel, which properly builds clause upon clause, each of which then, in the second hand, gets resolved).

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5 thoughts on “The Hive, by Camilo José Cela

  1. My memory of this novel has faded, but this sounds like what I remember. All of the little pieces were excellent. Boy, I do not remember the story at all.

  2. That’s probably because there is no story: although I was wondering, maybe the story was a puzzle that was just too subtle for me to notice – someone was murdered after all, and then later someone who being hunted by the authorities. Perhaps somewhere amongst all these connections there was a key linking these two events.

  3. I’ve got the Pascal Duarte book here… Yeah, well it doesn’t mean I won’t like it but this one does sound quite interesting.
    That single sentence novel you are planning will be very challenging but I have to agree, the semicolon is cheating.

  4. Pascal Duarte is entirely readable – just not very memorable or interesting, I found.

    I think the thing about the single sentence novel is to choose the right place to start. I’m imagining it should be just as one character is going to stab another, and then the whole plot could be told in subordinate clauses of how they got to that point, with the outcome of the stabbing as the last line. I guess it would be much like an over-elaborate piece of late Henry James. Now all I need’s a decent plot.

  5. Have received Christ vs Arizona now, and by a sentence more than 100 pages long, they seem to mean 261 pages. It doesn’t even bother with semi-colons; it just uses commas and an ignorance of agreed punctuation. Not impressed.

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