Tyrant Banderas, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

It’s traditional by now to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán for Spanish Literature Month – though it’s a tradition which might have to end soon, because I’m not sure there’s all that much else in English. As we (no doubt) noted last year, his books vary widely in style, and indeed, in content in a way that most authors’ don’t. This novel is a far from the Sonatas novellas depicting the leisured lives and loves of aristocrats. Instead it is your typical – indeed, archetypal, since it was published in the 1920s(?) – Latin American dictatorship novel; although Valle-Inclán was himself of course a Spaniard and is at least in part displacing the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera to that other continent.

Tyrant Banderas seems to have been particularly influential on Miguel Angel Asturias’ The President, whose basic structure and plot mimic it. A dictator rules a South American country and our narrative drifts from person to person – though largely, it is true, remaining in the upper echelons of government – giving as it does so a panorama of the country, and a multi-sided view of the dictator. Banderas is himself an interesting character – perhaps more so than leaders from other South American dictator novels – since although he may kill and oppress, even as he does so, he remains concerned to distance himself from those activities, and particularly to maintain a respected position in the opinion of the wider world.

Like Asturias’ The President, the novel also follows the fortunes of a politician who falls foul of the dictator and goes over to the revolution; though the outcome in this case is certainly less depressing, since Banderas turns out ultimately to have a far less secure position from which to act; – one feels maybe Asturias – and other later Latin American writers – are more inured to the idea of dictatorship being a permanent form of government, from which one can see no forthcoming release. Valle-Inclán does share too with Asturias a certain unflinching pitilessness – an interest in the grotesque – which we remember well from the, at times, shocking plays of his we read last year: – there is a scene in this, for instance, where a baby, after his mother is taken away by the secret police and he is left on his own, is eaten by pigs.

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Plays: One, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

During Spanish Literature Month (it is still Spanish Literature Month, isn’t it?) it’s traditional for me to read something by Ramón del Valle-Inclán: the past few times it’s been his seasonal sonatas, a series of novellas about the Marqués de Bradomín, a Don Juan sort of character and fervent Carlist, which I remember as fairly traditional; – this time I read Plays: One – and I have to say, the contrast is vast. In fact, the contrast between the three individual plays in this edition is pretty vast; and it’s unusual to come across such discrepancies in the body of an author’s work, even if that work is spread of a wide period of time (here, from 1902-5, the sonatas, to 1919-22, the plays).

Plays: One contains three plays: Divine Words (1919), Bohemian Lights (1920), Silver Face (1922). Divine Words is pretty extreme: a bit perhaps like Beckett transposed into a Spanish picaresque setting. The plot is basically this: a boy who is born with severe physical disabilities is used by his mother to beg off strangers; when his mother dies, there is a dispute between over who will look after – and thus exploit – this child; and then there’s a large cast of other picaresque characters – thieves, charlatans, mountebanks, whores – who proceed across the stage. We are very much dealing then here with the lowest rung of society, where everything is to be exploited in the fight for survival and there is an absence of any worthwhile human qualities. (It’s more extreme than anything you’d find for instance in Zola, or probably Faulkner).

Bohemian Lights is set in entirely different world, although one which again suffers from an acute shortage of money: the world of artists. What is this like? It’s like the Nighttown episode from Ulysses (or, I was more inclined to say, since I’d read it so recently, it’s like the central section of Luis Martin-Santos’ Time of Silence). Two artists, Max Estella and Don Latino, wander through the artistic demimonde of Madrid (?), meeting other artistic folk, becoming involved in a revolutionary protest, being arrested and jailed, visiting a brothel (they always visit brothels in these things). And that’s it, pretty much: a vision of the talented and rejected – a self-portrait; – oh, and Rubén Darío (who was a friend of Valle-Inclán) makes an appearance, along with the Marqués de Bradomín.

Silver Face is a bit more of a return to the world of the Marqués de Bradomín, and is largely concerned with the demonic Don Juan Manuel Montenegro (Bradomín’s uncle), who is the archetypal feudal lord and an even more notorious womaniser than his nephew, and who decides one day to ban anyone from crossing his land – mostly peasants on the way to the market, but also later some churchman doing the Lord’s work. Anyway, things escalate and once again any concept of morality is generally far from the thoughts of any of the characters (particularly the clergy).

All good fun. None of the plays has a traditional theatrical plot: they are more like visions which gradually start running out of control – the introduction compares them to Brecht, and since I happen to be reading some Brecht at the moment (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; The Life of Galileo) I found myself having the same thought. Nor do Valle-Inclán’s plays seem to get put on much, not just because he continues to be as overlooked as he was when he was writing, but because they don’t seem much written with the theatre in mind; – the commentary here suggests they are cinematic; but I feel they are probably just whatever visions Valle-Inclán found running about his head.

Spring and Summer Sonatas, by Ramón del Valle-Inclán

So I begin Spanish Literature Month, as I hope to end it, with Ramón del Valle-Inclán, a writer more famous for his work as a playwright and who belonged to a group – along with Unamuno and Baroja – called the generation of 98, who appear, as far as I can tell, to reject realism – and support both modernism and post-modernism, but whose contribution, rather like that of the Russian writers of the Silver Age, is, for the sake of a Gallo-Germano-Celticism, conveniently ignored.

Valle-Inclán wrote a quartet of novellas based on the seasons, the recollections of the Marquis of Bradomín, a now aged aristocrat reflecting back on the romantic adventures of his youth. The Marquis is a kind of Don Juan figure (though he denies it; and, of course, Don Juans can come in many guises), his hero and text is Casanova; yet the loves he portrays are not manipulative loves but, if they end tragically, at least are genuinely felt. Romanticism is the keynote here: as is the case too sometimes with Unanumo and Baroja: the denial of realism leads to a world of adventure and overwhelming passions. In the Spring story, he falls for a young lady – an innocent – who is soon to enter a convent; in the Summer story, he travels to Mexico – in an attempt to forget another unrecounted love – and falls for a Mexican woman who has a sinister secret.