The Stuff of Heroes, by Miguel Delibes

I read another book by Miguel Delibes, The Prince Dethroned – but that was more than 7 years ago now (somewhere between 7 and 10 years, I reckon) – which I enjoyed greatly; and I’ve possessed quite a few novels of his for a long time now, but have never got around to reading any.

The Stuff of Heroes I’m ambivalent about. It started off very well: a boy, Gervasio, is growing up with his sister in a wealthy household in Spain (was it Valladolid? perhaps it’s not specified) in the 1920s. He’s obsessed with heroism and believes (along with his uncle) that he’s destined to be a hero; but as he grows up he becomes concerned about the specific nature of heroism, which he finds isn’t as black and white as he’d believed – and of course, this being the 1920s, we can see where this uncertainty about heroism is all going to end up. His family, for instance, is implacably Carlist in its views, but his father – who has married in from the merchant class – is a republican (or “wrong”, as Gervasio sees it); he has strange dreams of heroically rescuing his father from the imprisonment of his republicanism.

Delibes – as evidenced by this, and even more by The Prince Dethroned (about a boy who suddenly gains a baby sister, and finds nobody any longer pays him much attention) – is the best evocator of children and childhood I have ever come across. The questions they ask, their ways of creating and understanding the world around them, all seem to me to be exactly the way children act and think. The first part of the book then is very enjoyable. But it’s the latter half of the book which I had issues with: Gervasio has to discover the equivocal nature of heroism, and to learn that his father’s views aren’t necessarily “wrong”; and this is all played out with the subtlety of a Hollywood blockbuster (one with a lot of explosions). Perhaps it’s fair enough that Gervasio is certain of his own views and can’t see the value of others, and comes across as a brain-washed fascist (OK, he’s probably a Carlist, rather than a fascist); I’m sure there were people at that time, brought up in that environment, who were like that; but everything – especially his relationship with his father, who seems to have had not the slightest influence over him – is too simplistic, too black-and-white until the plot development needs to convert it into grey. The whole novel is structured so that right at the end he can discover that it’s not so clear who is right and who is wrong, who is the hero and who is the villain – and of course we’ve seen this since about page 20, so we aren’t exactly impressed.

Or perhaps Delibes isn’t so good at writing about people when they’re grown up.


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