Friday, March 26, 2010

Red Dawn discussion

Red Dawn by Pío Baroja
Translated by Isaac Goldberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 1924, 347 pages

This would be the dawn of a new day, the dawn of justice, the cry of an entire people, which for so many years had been downtrodden, martyred, exploited, reduced to the wretched plight of a beast of burden. It would be a bloody dawn in which, by the light of the universal conflagration, the old social edifice that had been sustained by ignominy and special privilege would crumble and vanish, without leaving behind so much as a mound of ruins or a heap of ashes. (page 310)

“Let us keep in our hearts the memory of the friend whom we have just interred. He was a man, a strong man with the soul of a child…. He could have attained to the glory of an artist—a great artist—yet he preferred the glory of a human being. He might have dazzled humanity with his accomplishments; he preferred to help it…. Of us all, dispirited and discouraged as we were, he was the only man who was filled with great hopes. He had the serenity of those who are born to wage battle with great tempests. He was a great, a noble, a loyal heart…. He was a rebel, because he wished to be just. Let us all preserve in our memory the recollection of the friend whom we have just buried…and that is all.” (page 347, ellipses in original)

Originally published in 1904, Red Dawn can be a difficult read in many areas, especially involving the integral part that politics plays in the novel. The book transcends its time and place (and politics) thanks to Baroja’s focus, looking beneath what the characters believe in order to understand the forces driving their beliefs. This final book in The Struggle for Life trilogy departs from the detached view of the first two volumes as Baroja interjects himself with passionate language and direct judgment. As with Weeds, I will point to the online resources for The Quest since I can find no additional resources on this book. I cannot find an English translation available online so I will spend more time than usual on the story.

One of the issues raised by Baroja in The Struggle for Life trilogy centers on the emptiness of idealism when not backed up by action. The quotes by Manuel at the end of The Quest promise an attempt for self-improvement, something he constantly fails to do in Weeds. In Red Dawn, Jesús undermines his vision (from the end of Weeds) of man’s potential superior state by doing nothing productive (unless stealing from cemeteries or trying to seduce his sister’s friends counts in that area). Red Dawn, through the character of Juan, takes a deeper look at what happens when such idealism is backed up by certain types of action.

The prologue takes place at about the same time as the end of Weeds. The reader is introduced to Juan Alcázar, Manuel’s brother, as he leaves the seminary for good. Introduced to what he views as real life through reading forbidden books, he intends to strike out on his own in order to live and work for something he believes. He doesn’t know what that is yet, other than it has nothing to do with religion. Despite hardships and rough encounters, his motto for travel and life is “Forward ever!”

Part One
The story picks up a few years after the end of Weeds and the prologue. Manuel now lives with his sister Ignacia as well as Salvadora and Enrique. Salvadora and Engrique are the brother and sister urchins that La Fea had brought into her home in Weeds. Manuel has matured quite a bit in the intervening years. He realizes his own limitations and tries to avoid temptation, such as moving away from Jesús or by staying home at night instead of going out. Unfortunately he still has some distance to go in the maturation process. One stumbling blocks revolves around Salvadora and his inability to recognize or profess his love for her.

Juan appears in Madrid and stays with Manuel, filling him in on his life and ramblings. Juan wants to become an artist and begins to make waves in the Madrid art scene. One night at the theater with Juan, Manuel runs into an old friend who details what has happened with many friends from his golfo days, a depressing reminder of the direction his life could have taken. Juan later sees Roberto, who has married and has a child. Roberto’s trial was resolved in his favor so he is now wealthy. Impressed with Manuel applying himself in work, Roberto lends money to Manuel so he can buy his own print shop. Manuel is a little hesitant at this step but his sister and Salvadora pressure him to take the offer. In moving the press and setting up his own shop Manuel’s funds are depleted by seedy businessmen. With no business on the horizon, Manuel becomes ill from the overwhelming pressure. Salvadora nurses him back to health, opening his eyes slightly to his feelings for her. Unfortunately he hires Jesús to help him at the print shop during his illness. The conflict between his former carefree life and his current responsibilities cause an irreparable break with his old friend who calls him a “filthy bourgeois who thinks only of money.”

Part Two
This section may seem tedious to some readers but there resides a method behind Barjoa’s insistence on delving into the political scene. At a local tavern called The Dawn, a group of anarchists begin meeting each week. Calling themselves The Red Dawn, Baroja gently pokes fun at the group and their wide range of anarchistic flavors. Juan represents the idealist in the group, seeing the struggle between the have-nots and the haves as a necessity while describing actions in semi-religious tones. Other members participate simply for the violence. Most of the participants fall somewhere between the extremes, each certain of the superiority of his beliefs. The one thing theyall have in common is the lack of any positive results. Even though Manuel is constantly put down as bourgeois, he combines some of the sillier parts of the anarchists’ speeches with his distaste for the group:

“Anarchism’s all right enough for me if it only comes at once and assures everybody the means of having his own home, a little garden and three or four hours of work per day; but this for ever talking and talking, without anything else, the way you fellows carry on, and this calling yourselves Comrades, and greeting one another with ‘Salud!’—it’s so sickening that I prefer to remain a mere printer.” (page 110)

Juan acts as one of the leaders of the group, believing “The deeds of Anarchists are all the more valuable because they are born of one’s own conscience and not of an outside mandate.” While initially eschewing violence, he ultimately embraces it as necessary when he sinks into physical and mental exhaustion. Having always been sickly, the toll his idealism extracts continues to mount throughout the book. While treating Juan relatively gently, Baroja takes aim at the other anarchists. Many of these characters are caricatures, with Baroja’s disdain staying close to the surface. He describes one character (Malonado) as “a presumptuous fellow, puffed up with that Jacobin pride which knows how to conceal base passions beneath pompous phrases.” (page 114) After one vacuous meeting, Baroja drily notes ” one might discern in all of them a certain pleasure in playing at revolutionaries.” (page 116)

Up to this point in the trilogy, Baroja has provided heartbreaking examples of cruelty with the disparity in Spanish society at the time, yet he also doesn’t pull any punches in showing how many characters sabotage their chances through their own actions (or usually inaction). The older Rebolledo, owner of a shop beneath Manuel’s residence, presents the only lucid argument at one meeting in his insistence that happiness is not a universal right. Roberto provides the counterpoint to the arachists for Manuel. Roberto has worked hard and become a self-made man in addition to helping Manuel succeed. His viewpoints on anarchism (“It’s pleasanter for a child to play truant than to go to school”) and society (“To live in society means to be either a creditor or debtor. There’s no middle course”) provide part of his overall philosophy that underlies his success.

Baroja doesn’t hold back on artists in Spain at the time, either. The first section of Weeds portrayed artists playing at being bohemian while not achieving anything. In all of Juan’s tramping across Europe, he has lived apart from artists until he came to Madrid. “Juan had met with intense disappointment upon closer acquaintance with artists” while in Spain. “[I]n Madrid he became somewhat intimate with painters and sculptors, and was astonished to discover a petty, brutal crowd—a clique of schemers, hot in pursuit of crosses and medals, utterly devoid of any noble feelings, filled with the same evil passions harboured by the rest of the bourgeoisie.” (pages 107-108)

The rest of this section outlines some of the meetings held by the anarchists as well as provides updates some of the characters from the first two books of the trilogy. During meetings, exploits by anarchists are detailed and celebrated by the group even though nothing productive has come from their performance. I found Alex Butterworth’s book on 19th-century anarchists timely in reading Red Dawn.

Part Three
The final section shows Baroja at his most scathing and prescient while continuing to show Manuel's development. His independence of thought, bolstered now by a love of reading, still needs some work. He loves reading revolutionary works without considering the outcomes of their actions. Manuel does reach a key insight about the group around him: “There’s a touch of madness in all of them,” said Manuel to himself. “I’ll have to break loose from these fellows.” (page 250)

While Baroja acknowledges that conditions in Spain foster an anarchistic mindset, he eviscerates the vocal poseurs. During one extended walk where several anarchists expound their political ideas, they stop to watch a farmer seed his field. The farmer accomplishes more with his simple action than all the empty talk of the boasters.

The Anarchistic dogma, with its network of principles, was headed for bankruptcy, and in the same measure that its dogma fell into disrepute, so did its defenders and propagandists. After the Quixotes of Anarchisms—the Nihilist philosophers, the learned men, the sociologists, the dynamite brigade, came the Anarchist editors—the Sancho Panzas of Anarchism, who battered on the dogma and exploited their comrades through insignificant sheets in whose columns they paraded as moralists of vast importance.

These good Sanchos filled their diatribes with the platitudes of pedestrian sociology; they spoke of aboulia, of bourgeois degeneration, of amorality, of profiteering; instead of quoting saint Thomas, they quoted Kropotkin or Jean Grave; they defined what was permitted and what not to the Anarchist; they were the exclusive proprietors of the holy doctrine; they alone sold the genuine Anarchist cloth in their shops; all the others were vile imposters who had sold out to the government. They had a mania for proclaiming that they were strong, smiling, and that they lived beyond all worriment, when in truth the greater part were poor domestic animals who spent their lives scribbling articles, bundling packages of their papers for the mails, and wheedling money out of subscribers in arrears.

Every one of these fakirs had a public of dolts who admired him, and before whom he would strut through his paces like a peacock. (pages 229-230)

Juan’s health, mental and physical, continues to deteriorate. He manages to convene a symposium for various strands of anarchists to present their arguments, giving a stirring speech outlining some of his ideals. He believes man is essentially good and free. Society should focus on human dignity instead of wages, with anarchism as the answer. Some of his outlook is shattered when he mingles with some homeless kids, failing to find anything redeeming about them. Herein lies the difference between Manuel and Juan. Manuel has already lived that life, seeing mankind when grappling for survival. He does not share Juan’s illusions that man is necessarily good by nature. To some extent, Manuel’s previous experiences highlighted that a type of anarchy already exists and it failed to resemble any pompous pronouncement of The Red Dawn group.

An upcoming coronation provides an opportunity for the anarchists to make themselves felt. Juan allows himself to be manipulated, allowing a bomber stay in Manuel’s house. Manuel and Salvadora discover the bomb and, with help, are able to destroy all traces of it.

Manuel felt all his Anarchistic ideas crumbling to bits and his instincts of normal humanity returning. The thought of such an apparatus being put together in cold blood incensed him. Nothing could condone the death and destruction which that could wreak. … There was no force compelling them to commit the crime. On the contrary, everything conspired against their committing it…. And yet, they were impelled by a barbaric fanaticism, overcoming all obstacles, to scatter death among unfortunate victims.(pages 305-306, second ellipses in original)

Juan has changed, his physical sickness mirroring his adoption of violent methods. The quote at the top of this post shows his fanaticism driving him to desire a “bloody dawn” in order to bring about revolution. Yet he is gloomier than ever, realizing his sacrifice has brought about nothing. The coronation occurs without a hitch while many of the anarchists get drunk. Their impotence shows how feeble they really are, all posture and talk with no substance.

Roberto makes one last appearance, signing the printing shop over to Manuel. Roberto provides a counterpoint to Juan, recognizing that society cannot be radically changed for the better. “One prejudice is destroyed; at once, another is born. You can’t live without them.” (page 319) While the trilogy highlights conflicts between rich and poor, the tension isn’t always where you expect it. Manuel, in running his business, barely scratches by while the printer’s union dictates to him what he can and cannot do, usually undermining his business.

Manuel and Salvadora marry, thanks to some prodding by Roberto. Juan’s health worsens and he dies. The moving speech given by a friend (the second quote at the top of this post) conceals Juan’s meager contributions. The irony couched in the statement that Juan could “have dazzled humanity with his accomplishments” as an artist resides in the fact that his contributions would have been vastly greater if he had pursued his art. Manuel’s lament, prior to the funeral, justly calls Juan’s quest an illusion. Nothing will change. There is hope to be found among the hardship and privation but not from Juan’s idealism, but rather from characters like Manuel and Roberto.

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