Camilo José Cela’s The Hive Revisited

Twenty-five years after being conferred the Nobel Prize, a previously unknown manuscript has emerged shedding new light on one of Camilo José Cela’s most notorious and extraordinary works: The Hive. The document was presented in a public event by the Spanish National Library on February 6th after being donated to the institution by Annie Salomon, the daughter of French Hispanist Noël Salomon, who died in 1977. Clearing her parents’ country home in the Bordeaux region in 2011 prior to putting it on the market, Annie found the folder containing the manuscript that Cela would allegedly have sent to Noël Salomon in 1952 as an example of the effects of censorship in Spain.

 

 

The papers found in the folder are not all from a single copy of the original but rather from a collection of different versions of the work. The National Library’s official reading notes describe it as a heterogeneous and incomplete document containing versions of chapters two to five, crossed out sections rejected by the book censorship office, and a previously unknown portion of chapter five which is heavily charged with graphically explicit sexual scenes.

 

Cela. Source: Oporteditores.

To this day, more than a decade after his death, Camilo José Cela remains one of the most problematic figures of Spanish literature in the XX century. Born in 1916, he was a tremendously gifted writer with a famously unscrupulous stance. Curious and fickle, he began several degrees and dropped out of just as many. In the summer of 1936 he was in Madrid, studying Law, when the Nationalist Movement revolt signaled the official start of the Spanish civil war, a conflict that had been simmering for some time. He enlisted on the nationalist front in 1937 and was badly injured in Logroño less than a year later. Back in Madrid, he volunteered as an informer for the fascist faction, a move for which he would never be forgiven by most of his detractors.

 

After the war his fortunes were mixed for most of the 1940s: his debut novel The Family of Pascual Duarte was an instant success, before it was sequestered and banned by the censorship office. Ironically, he had acted himself as a magazine censor in 1943 and 1944 and continued to collaborate with the government, working his way back into favor, earning his license as an accredited journalist and publishing five books in 1945, including a new edition of his Pascual Duarte, before again getting into trouble with the authorities. The Hive was banned from publication in 1946, his civil rights suspended and his accreditation as a journalist rescinded, making it impossible for him to publish in the media of the time under his name. But an Argentinean publisher finally accepted The Hive in 1951 and the book was sold clandestinely. Like Pascual Duarte it was a major hit, going through four new editions before the ban was finally lifted in 1963.

 

 

We now have available, among the 182 pages donated by Annie Salomon, parts of the manuscript presented by Cela to the Spanish censors on January 7th 1946, which was returned to him with a rejection note approximately two months later. Vast sections of this document —primarily those with a sexual content or indications of adultery—were crossed out in red crayon by the censors, who prohibited the publication the book. Many of the pages in the Salomon folder correspond with alternative versions of the novel stored in the Camilo José Cela Foundation in the writer’s hometown of Iria Flavia, Galicia, in Spain. Nevertheless, this particular copy, crossed out in red, represents the first concrete evidence we have of the specific sections of The Hive deemed inappropriate by the censors, and as such provides fascinating insight into the criterion used by the authorities at the time.

 

 

In the rejection letter sent to Cela in March 1946, the reasons for banning the book were reduced to three simple questions: does the work represent an assault on the current regime? The censor’s answer was “No”; does the work represent an assault on religious dogma or morality? “Yes”. Does the work have literary merit? “Scarce”. Lust, harlotry and infidelity are at the core of The Hive’s plot, and, as we can now see, the way Cela portrayed them was ruled unacceptable an unmeritorious by the fascist government of the time. What seems striking, however, is that the very practices depicted by Cela were not persecuted with the same force as the literature representing them. Undoubtedly, Cela was doing nothing other than expressing in words the mood, values and behavior prevalent in the society of Madrid in the early 1940s. To Franco and the military and religious alliance that formed the ruling elite of this highly turbulent time, however, the main concern was form above substance, rules over action, appearance over reality, what was being said instead of what was being done.

 

Meanwhile, the previously unknown material found in the Salomon manuscript delves in detail into a seemingly trivial episode on chapter five of the novel, which in its original version appears to have held a far more prominent place. Titled “History of a Photograph,” the scene used to be at the top of chapter six, depicting the consequences of an encounter between one of the male characters of the book with his youngest daughter, who meet each other on the stairs of a building where—unbeknown to each other—both rent rooms by the hour to cavort with their respective lovers. In the official 1951 version, the father is so put off by the meeting that he fights with his lover, who swears to seek revenge, triggering a series of intrigues that remain unsolved. In the newly unearthed version, however, the lover’s revenge is far more carnal, taking other lovers and even engaging in a lesbian meeting with the matron of the house.

 

 

The question that arises, of course, is, why did Cela leave this section out of his book? The most obvious answer is that he thought the novel stood a better chance of getting published without the more lurid scenes. But both he and The Hive far outlived the days of censorship in Spain: if he was self-censoring his book, why would he not have gone back to the original version once all censorship was lifted? We might never know, but one possible answer is that Cela might have found his novel more coherent without this section. In other words, this material might have been edited, instead of censored, out of the whole.

 

By the time The Hive was legally published and sold in Spain without restrictions, Cela was already a celebrity. Despite losing his license as a journalist, he remained a prolific and inventive writer, producing travel journals, novels, poetry books, short story collections and essays with astounding regularity. His travelogue Viaje a la Alcarria (1948) earned him much praise, as did his novel Mrs. Caldwell Speaks to Her Son (1953). He moved from Madrid to Palma de Mallorca in 1954, perhaps hoping to steer away from the acute sensitivity of the authorities in the capital. He was asked by Venezuelan dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez to produce a work about the South American country, which derived in La catira (1955), a novel that earned him the Critics’ Award in Spain. And in 1957 he sealed his place among the intellectual elite of the country when he was elected into the Spanish Academy. He collaborated with Franco’s government well into the 1960s, but at the same time he founded and promoted the magazine Papeles de Son Armadans, which was in circulation from 1956 to 1979, publishing much material by authors in exile and on occasion displaying a critical attitude against the dictatorship. During the transition to democracy and the democratic period in Spain Cela remained controversial, outspoken and unabashed, famously driving a yellow Rolls-Royce, which he later traded in for a Bentley.

 

Cela accepting the Premio Cervantes (1995).

Despite all the controversy, though, he remained both acclaimed and successful, winning the Spanish National Prize for Literature in 1984 for Mazurka for Two Dead Men, as well as the honorary Príncipe de Asturias in 1987, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989, and six years later, the Premio Cervantes, Spain’s highest recognition, which he had once discarded as a meaningless prize “covered in excrement”.

 

The relationship between Cela and the Spanish intellectual milieu remained strained, even as late as the mid 1990s: chastised by the nationalist government in the Franco era and derided by the dissident camp, Cela’s profoundly misanthropic and egotistic personality clashed with practically every social circle of his time. Nevertheless, an opportunistic vein, allied to an otherworldly talent allowed him to excel in his trade and succeed at a time when success could hardly be achieved without political affiliation.

 

The Spanish National Library has announced that it will publish a new version of Cela’s most celebrated work, The Hive, in time for his centennial in 2016, with a bulky appendix including all the recently discovered scenes. Regardless of whether we think of this as the original version or an early draft, the new edition is guaranteed to open fresh perspectives into a fundamental work of XX century fiction.



Published in the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday March 30, 2014.

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