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Castilla by Azorin
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Castilla (1912)

by Azorin

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These essays/memories of Castilla are a mix of nostalgic history, lamentations of the state of Spain circa 1900 and metaliterature. The last element added tremendously to the first two, and many of the essays I enjoyed the most incorporated characters that were familiar to me from reading books like La Celestina, Lazarillo de Tormes and Cervantes' Novelas ejemplares. That's not to say I didn't like the rest, though, because Azorín's style is friendly and inviting, incorporating the reader into the texts and including us in his nostalgic project. When a man surveys the town from a high tower, equipped with a spyglass, and the man's lens fogs, Azorín doesn't say that the man cleans the lens, rather, "let us clean it"; he begins another essay "If you wish to go there, to that house in Henar..."; in another, he invites the reader to cross the threshold and enter an austere, furnitureless home where a down-on-his-luck hidalgo shares hard, stale bread with his servant. The essays are smart and polished and show the author's sophisticated grasp of the Spanish literary tradition and its continued presence in everyday life. But they're also just fun to read, and I can imagine reading them in a Sunday newspaper or a magazine and enjoying them whether or not I was able to enter into his web of references.

The first two are about the history of the Spanish railroad system and a rather lengthy period of the 19th century when the railroad was on the verge of arriving to Spain (Cuba even had a railroad) yet ground had not been broken on peninsular soil. Then there's one about the various inns and roadside accommodations that are littered across Spain and have rich histories of mysterious crimes and even more mysterious guests (Don Quijote's presence goes without saying, and needs not be mentioned in Azorín's text). He references an Englishman named Ford who found them to be rather lacking in creature comforts, going so far to call a particular Segovia inn one of the worst in all Spain. Then there's an essay on the bullfights that transcribes a couple of different accounts of these spectacles. As I understand it, the author's rather negative view of the violence of the bullfight wasn't altogether typical of his time, and I enjoyed his ruminations on what a foreigner would think of the bloody event.

Then come some of my favorite essays. First, "Una ciudad y un balcón," where a man looks out on a city and each time he cleans his lens time leaps forward. The spectre of Celestina is seen in the streets at first view, but disappears when the lens is cleaned and centuries pass. The city of the first glance disappears as Spain is slowly pulled into the industrial era and the roads are paved as the city expands outward...and there will always be a man on a balcony with his head rested against his closed fist, looking out on the world, suffering from an incurable melancholy...feeling just like the Quevedo line that begins the essay, No me podrán quitar el dolorido sentir. My friend told me that the man looking out over the city is actually a character from Leopoldo Alas' La regenta, so that's just another layer of literary figures espying other literary figures from towers that stand over cities that change with the centuries yet also remain the same. I was pretty excited when I finished this story and was hoping there'd be more like it. There were.

In "Las nubes" Calixto and Melibea, the star-crossed lovers from La Celestina, are happily married and entering into the autumn of their lives with a single daughter whom they love and cherish. As the clouds cycle through the sky, ever-different yet also ever-repeating, a falcon enters the garden and a young man comes to retrieve it. Calixto can't hear what the young man
is saying to his daughter, but he can guess his words. They're words he's said himself in the beginning of a different story, or a different iteration of the same story that repeats itself endlessly.

In "Lo fatal," the episode of the poor nobleman from Lazarillo is remembered, with the young pícaro observing his starving master with respect and pity, sharing the very stale bread he though he'd never have to eat again when he agreed to enter into the man's service. The hidalgo's story is then continued into a future where he returns to his homeland and finds fortune and wealth yet at the same time becomes aware of the fleeting nature of worldly life as his health degrades. Then two verses from a Góngora sonnet present an image of a different sort of man, a nameless pilgrim wandering across a dark world, a pilgrim who could represent the fate of the nobleman if he didn't return home and recover his name. Then the hidalgo goes back to Toledo to visit his old servant Lázaro and he sits for a portrait. In the portrait, rumored to be made by El Greco himself, there's a flicker of immortality in his eyes.

Then in "La fragancia del vaso," the title character from Cervantes' "La ilustre fregona" returns to the inn where she once worked and came to be known across Spain for her beauty and virtue. Now mature and with a family of her own, nobody remembers her in the place where she once sowed so much happiness.

I really enjoyed the way Azorín utilizes stories from real life and from fiction to construct a multifaceted portrait of Castilla. Those characters are as much a part of the country as the people and events of the historical past. Incorporating both history and literature and drawing freely from both, these essays almost seem "realer" than if they had been purely historical. The people in those books never stopped existing, they're still with us today, and they're as much a part of the landscape of Azorín's Castilla as the crumbling churches and expanding cityscapes. I mean, its greatest and most enduring hero, El Cid, is very much a mix of historical and literary elements, as the events of his life were developed into countless oral adaptations before finally being penned in a form that mixes reality and fiction. I think it was a very inspired decision by Azorín, to write essays that incorporate literary tradition into evocative essays. And again, his style is so warm and friendly that it wouldn't have mattered what he was writing about, I probably would have enjoyed it. ( )
1 vote msjohns615 | Sep 23, 2011 |
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A la memoria de Aureliano de Beruete, pintor maravilloso de Castilla silencioso en su arte. Férvido.
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