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Mazurka for Two Dead Men by Camilo José…

Mazurka for Two Dead Men (1983)

by Camilo José Cela

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This book made me work. That's not a bad thing, but along the way it almost drove me crazy. I couldn't make sense of it. Was there a clue in the title? I looked up the structure of a mazurka to see if there was a link between that and the prose rhythm. There wasn't.

Then one day, about one hundred and seventy-five pages in, I discovered the secret. Up 'til then, I had been reading it in ten to twenty page segments, and that day I read about seventy. It clicked. This is a book which requires immersion. There is a rhythm and music to it which can't be appreciated in brief bursts.

Set in a rural village in Galicia during the Spanish Civil War, the novel tells a story of clan loyalty and revenge that could have happened in any era, but is one which the war magnifies and repeats again and again. The mazurka in question is one which the blind accordion player from the brothel will only play twice: once for the oldest of the nine Gamuzo brothers, Lionheart, when he was murdered in 1936; and once more when his death was avenged three years later. However, the novel starts with another murder, that of Lazaro Codesal, whose death had caused the rain to fall continuously ever since, obliterating the line of the mountain range beyond it, and keeping the villagers in their own world. Here we have the two great themes of the novel: revenge and superstition.

Imagine an old bard telling a story. There is repetition. There are digressions, complications, and red herrings. Cela's novel is like that, only there is not just one narrator there are many. There are no chapter breaks and it is up to the reader to know when the changes in narrator occur. Added to these voices is that of the recorder, who sometimes interjects his own thoughts, and sometimes stops his recording altogether to converse with a narrator. Time is like a tide in this novel, ebbing and flowing back and forth.

As each assertion is introduced, it seems like a simple fact. It grows with a slight embellishment each time it is repeated, connecting to other facts, other characters, setting up rivalries, explaining family histories. It's like elderly aunties competing with each other to air the dirty laundry in the baldest of language, leaving nothing out. These are peasants, close to the land, their animals and each other. Often they fail to make the usual distinctions. Always there is that underlying bloodlust, that drive to avenge the murder. As the arrangements are made, the pace quickens, a certain tension is introduced.

In this novel of layers though, there is yet another death that must be avenged. Cidrán Segade was killed half an hour after his comrade Lionheart. His wife Adega's wish was to live long enough to see the murderer dead and buried. She wouldn't utter his name, she just wanted to see him dead and his remains sullied. Sullied they were when the time came after revenge had been extracted. Even then, Adega could not speak his name, calling him always "the dead man that killed my old man", one of the refrains of the novel.

Throughout, Cela pokes fun at those in authority. He gets his last dig in with a coroner's report on the dead man. While there is truth in it, it is so far off the mark as to be ludicrous. The villagers have won.
  SassyLassy | Feb 25, 2018 |
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...our thoughts they were palsied and sere,
Our memories were treacherous and sere.

--Edgar Allan Poe
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It rains gently and unceasingly, it rains listlessly but with infinite patience, as it has always rained upon this earth which is the same colour as the sky -- somewhere between soft green and ashen grey, and the line of the mountain has been blotted out for a long time now.
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Mazurka for Two Dead Men represents a culmination of the 1989 Nobel Prize winner Camilo Jose Cela's literary art. The novel was originally published in Spain in 1983 and is now presented in a fine translation by Patricia Haugaard. In 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, "Lionheart" Gamuzo is abducted and killed, an event recalled repeatedly by the widowed Adega, one of the several narrative voices. In 1939, when the war ends, Tanis Gamuzo avenges his brother. For both events, and for them only, the blind accordion player Gaudencio plays the same mazurka. Set in a backward rural community in Galicia (the author's home territory), Cela's creation is in many ways like a contrapuntal musical composition built with varying themes and moods. In alternately melancholy, humorous, lyrical, or coarse tones he portrays a reign of fools.

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