The Family of Pascual Duarte
Camilo José Cela
From the Dalkey Archive:
The Family of Pascual Duarte is the story of Pascual Duarte—a Spanish peasant born into a brutal world of poverty, hatred, and depravity—as told from his prison cell, where he awaits execution for the murders he’s committed throughout his lifetime. Despite his savage and cruel impulses, Pascual retains a childlike sense of the world and a groping desire to understand the blows of fate that led him down his bloody path.
Originally published in the same year as Camus’s The Stranger—to which it has been compared—The Family of Pascual Duarte is closer in tone to the works of Curzio Malaparte and Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
I AM NOT, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one. We are all born naked, and yet, as we begin to grow up, it pleases Destiny to vary us, as if we were made of wax. Then, we are all sent down various paths to the same end: death. Some men are ordered down a path lined with flowers, others are asked to advance along a road sown with thistles and prickly pears. The first gaze about serenely and in the aroma of their joyfulness they smile the smile of the innocent, while the latter writhe under the violent sun of the plain and knit their brows like varmints at bay. There is a world of difference between adorning one’s flesh with rouge and eau-de-cologne and doing it with tattoos that later will never wear off . . .
I was born a great many years ago, a good fifty-five at least, in a small village lost in the province of Badajoz. It lay, that village, some two leagues from Almendralejo, squatting athwart a road as empty and endless as a day without bread, as empty and endless — an emptiness and endlessness that you, luckily for you, cannot even imagine — as the days of a man condemned to death.
It was a hot and sunlit village, rich enough in olive trees, and (begging your pardon) hogs, its houses so bright with whitewash that the memory of them still makes me blink, a plaza all paved with cobblestone, and a fine three-spouted fountain in the middle of the plaza. No water had flowed from the three mouths of the fountain for some years before I left the village, and yet it was elegant, and a proud symbol in our eyes; its crest was topped with the figure of a naked boy, and the basin was scalloped around the edges like the shells of the pilgrims from Santiago de Compostela. The town hall stood at one side of the plaza; it was shaped like a cigar box, with a tower in the middle, and a clock in the tower; the face of the clock was as white as the Host raised during Mass, and its hands were stopped forever at nine o’clock, as if the town had no need of its services but only wanted it for decoration.
As was only natural, the village contained good houses and bad, the bad far outnumbering, as is usual, the good. There was one house, two stories high, belonging to Don Jesús, which was a pleasure to see, with its entranceway faced with tile and lined with flowerpots. Don Jesús had always been a strong believer in plants, and I suppose he kept after the housekeeper to watch over the geraniums, the heliotropes, the palms and the mint with the same loving care she might have given children. In any case, the old woman was always walking up and down with a kettle in her hand, watering the pots and pampering them with an attention they must have appreciated, to judge by the look of the shoots, so fresh and green. Don Jesús’ house faced the plaza, and yet it was different from all the other houses, not only in its several points of superiority, but also in one aspect where it seemed less than the rest: though its owner was wealthy and did not stint, its front was completely plain, its color was the natural color of the stone, and it was not whitewashed, as even the poorest houses were. Don Jesús must have had his reasons for leaving it that way. A stone shield was carved and fixed in the wall over the door; the carving was said to be of great value; the top part represented the heads of two ancient warriors wearing headpieces decorated with plumes; one warrior looked to the east and the other toward the west, as if they were keeping watch against any threat from either direction.
Behind the plaza, on the same side as the house of Don Jesús, lay the parish church, with its stone bell tower and the bell which was like a hand bell and sounded in a strange way I could never describe, but which I can hear at this moment as if it were clanging around the corner . . .
The bell tower was the same height as the clock tower, and in the summertime, when the storks came to nest, some went to one tower and some to the other, each of them remembering which of the two towers it had used the year before. One little lame stork, which managed to last through two winters, belonged to the church nest, from which it had fallen while still very young, when pursued by a hawk.
My house lay outside the village, a good two hundred paces from the last cluster of houses. It was a cramped one-story house: narrow quarters, befitting my station in life. I came to feel affection for the place, and there were even times when I was proud of it. In actual fact the kitchen was the only room that was really decent; it was the first room as you entered the house, and it was always clean and kept whitewashed. True enough, the floor was earthen, but it was so well trodden down and the small paving stones were set in such nice patterns and designs that it was in no way inferior to many other floors where the owner had laid down cement in order to be modern. The hearth was roomy and clear; a shelf ran around the chimneypiece, which was in the semicircular shape of a funnel, and on the shelf we had ornamental crockery, jugs with mottoes painted in blue, and plates with blue and orange drawings. Some of the plates were decorated with a face, others with a flower, others with a name, and others with a fish.
The walls were hung with a variety of objects. A very pretty calendar showed a young girl fanning herself in a boat and beneath her there was a line of letters which seemed like silver dust and read MODESTO RODRÍGUEZ. FINE FOODS FROM OVERSEAS. MÉRIDA, BADAJOZ, PROVINCE. Then there was a portrait of the bullfighter Espartero in his bullfighting costume, in full color. There were three or four photographs, some small and some medium-sized, of various unknown faces; I had always seen them there, and so it never occurred to me to ask who they were. An alarm clock hung on the wall, and, though it isn’t much to say for it, the thing always worked perfectly. And there was a scarlet plush pincushion, with a number of pretty little glass-headed pins stuck into it, all the heads of a different color. The furniture in the kitchen was as sparse as it was simple: three chairs, one of which was quite delicate and fine, with curved back and legs and a wicker bottom, and a pinewood table with a drawer of its own, somewhat low for the chairs to slip under, but which served its purpose. It was a nice kitchen: there was plenty of room, and in the summertime, before we had to light the autumn fires, it was cool to sit on the hearthstone at the end of the day with the doors wide open. In the wintertime we were warmed by the fire, and oftentimes, if the embers were well enough tended, they would give off a bit of heat all through the night. We used to watch our shadows on the wall when the small flames were dancing in the grate. They came and went, sometimes slowly and then again in little playful leaps. When I was very young I remember that I was frightened by the shadows; I feel a shiver even now when I think of how afraid I used to be.
The rest of the house scarcely deserves describing, it was so ordinary. We had two other rooms, if they can be called that merely because they were in the form of rooms and were used to live in. And there was a stable, though I wonder, too, why we called it that, since it was in reality empty and deserted and going to rot. One of the rooms eventually served as a bedroom for my wife and me. My father always slept in the other room, until God—or perhaps it was the Devil—wished to carry him off, and then it stayed empty most of the time, first ‘because there was no one who would sleep there, and later, when it could have been used, because the kitchen was always preferred since it was not only lighter but also free from drafts. My sister, for example, always slept there whenever she came to visit us. The truth is that the rooms were not very clean or well built, but neither was there much cause for complaint. They could be lived in, which is the principal thing, and they offered protection from the wet winds of Christmastide, and a refuge—as much as one had a right to expect—from the asphyxiation in the dry days of the August Virgin.* The stable was in the worst state. It was dark and dank, and its walls reeked with the same stench of dead beasts as rose from the ravine in the month of May, when the carcasses down below began to turn’ to carrion while the crows swooped to feed.
It is a strange thing, but if as a child I was taken out of range of that stench I felt the anguish of death. I remember a trip I made to the capital of the province to see about my military service. I spent the whole damn day wandering about as if I had lost my bearings, sniffing the wind like a game dog. When I went to bed back at the inn, I caught a whiff of my corduroy pants, and that brought me back to my senses. My blood began to run again and it warmed the heart of me. I pushed the pillow away and laid my head on the folded pants and slept like a log that night.
We kept a sorry little burro in the stable, skinny and covered with sores, to help us in the work. When we had a run of luck-which to tell the truth was not very often-we also kept a pair of hogs (begging your pardon) or even as many as three. Behind the house there was a kind of corral, not very large but which served its purpose, and a well. Eventually I had to seal off the well because the water became polluted.
Beyond the corral ran a stream, sometimes half dry and never very full, always dirty and stinking like a troop of gypsies. Still, sometimes, when I wanted to kill an afternoon, I’d catch some fine eels there. My wife used to say, and despite everything, what she said was humorous enough, that the eels were so fat because they ate the same as Don Jésus—only a day later. When the mood to fish was on me the hours slipped away like shadows, without my noticing them, so that it was always dark by the time I went to pack up my gear. Far off in the distance, like a fat squat turtle, like a snake hugging the ground and afraid to move, Almendralejo lay in the dusk, its lights begining to flicker.
No one in Almendralejo knew or cared that I had been fishing, that at that moment I was watching the lights in their houses come on, that I was guessing what they said and imagining in my mind the subjects of their conversations. The inhabitants of cities live with their backs to the truth, and oftentimes they are not even aware that only a couple of leagues away, in the middle of the plain, a country man may be thinking about them while he packs up his gear, folds his fishing rod and picks up his little wicker basket with its six or seven eels inside.
Still and all I never thought fishing much of an occupation for men, and I always preferred to devote my spare time to hunting. I had a certain fame in the village for being not altogether a bad hand at it, and, modesty apart, I must say in all sincerity that the man who started the rumor was not mistaken. I had a setter bitch called Chispa, half mongrel and half wild; the two of us got along well together. I used to go with her often of a morning to the pond, a league and a half from the village, toward the Portuguese border. We never came home empty-handed. On the way back, the bitch used to run on ahead and wait for me at the crossroads, There was a round flat rock at that spot, like a low seat, and I remember it as fondly as I remember any person, or really, more fondly than many persons I have known. It was broad and hollowed out, and when I sat down there I could fit my arse (begging your pardon) nicely into the groove, and I felt so comfortable that I hated to leave. I would sit there at the crossroads for a long time, whistling to myself, my gun between my knees, looking at whatever there was to look at and smoking cigarettes. The bitch would sit in front of me, back on her haunches, and gaze at me with her head to one side, from a pair of wide-awake brown eyes. I would talk to her, and she would prick up her ears, as if she were trying to get the full meaning of every word. When I fell silent, she took advantage of the lull to run around chasing grasshoppers, or maybe she would just shift her position a bit. When it was time to leave and I had to start off, for some reason I would always glance back over my shoulder at the stone, as if to bid it goodbye.
One day the stone must have seemed, somehow, so sad at my leaving that I could not fight against the urge to go back and sit down. The bitch trotted back with me and lay there gazing into my face again. I realize now that her eyes were like those of a priest listening to confession, that she had the look of a confessor, coldly scrutinizing, the eyes of a lynx, the look they say a lynx fixes on you . . . Suddenly a shudder ran through my whole body. It was like an electric current that was trying to discharge itself through my arms and ground itself in the earth. My cigarette had gone out. My gun, a single-barreled piece, was between my knees and I was stroking it. The bitch went on peering at me with a fixed stare,’ as if she had never seen me before, as if she were on the point of accusing me of something terrible at any moment, and her scrutiny roused the blood in my veins to such a pitch that I knew the moment was near when I would have to give in. It was hot, the heat was stifling, and my eyes began to close under the animal’s stare, which was sharp as flint.
I picked up my gun and fired. I reloaded, and fired again. The bitch’s blood was dark and sticky and it spread slowly along the dry earth.
*The canicular Virgin: Mary’s Assumption to Heaven, celebrated August 15.
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