Friday, March 05, 2010

Weeds discussion

Weeds by Pío Baroja
Translated by Isaac Goldberg
Alfred A. Knopf, 1923, 344 pages

With Weeds I will link to the online resources for The Quest since I can't find additional information that seems relevant or helpful. Fortunately the text can be found online here.

Weeds came out in 1904 shortly after The Quest was released. We find many of the same characters from the initial volume of The Struggle for Life trilogy struggling for survival in turn-of-the-century Madrid. Baroja's colorful characters, whether central or peripheral, spice up his work. He often introduces them with a minimum of description but they are able to leap off the page. The Quest ended on a hopeful note as Manuel decides he should live with the working class in the sun and not with the shadowy figures haunting Madrid at night. Alas, not only is this easier said than done, Manuel lacks a will of his own. His inability to follow through on productive ideas results mostly from his nature but it doesn’t help that the cards are stacked against him. Baroja accentuates the deprivation of the lower classes in both The Quest and Weeds, but the reader is given a view of additional layers of society in this volume. In The Quest discussion I mentioned Manuel was more a spectator of life than a participant, but part of that was due to his age. The first volume of the trilogy takes Manuel up to the age of seventeen. Weeds covers parts of his life from age seventeen to twenty-one as Manuel tries to figure out his place in a sordid and vicious world. Because each of the three parts of the book have a distinctive flavor (as did each part in The Quest, something I falied to mention), I think a synopsis of each section along with some extended quotes offers a good introduction to the work.

Part One
Picking up immediately where The Quest ends, Roberto Hasting takes Manuel under his wing. Roberto’s tenaciousness in trying to succeed contrasts with almost every other character so far in the trilogy. At the start of the book Roberto resides with some artist friends, but his disdain for them is clear. He pulls no punches when talking to Manuel:

“But when a man can't get a real grasp upon anything, when he lacks will power, heart, lofty sentiments, all ideas of justice and equity, then he's capable of anything. If these fellows had any exceptional talent, they might be of some use and make a career for themselves. But they haven't. On the other hand, they've lost the moral notions of the bourgeois, the pillars that sustain the life of the ordinary man. They live as men who possess the ailments and the vices of genius, but neither the genius's talent nor soul; they vegetate in an atmosphere of petty intrigues, of base trivialities. They are incapable of carrying anything to completion. There may be a touch of genius in those monsters of Alex's, in Santillana's poetry; I don't say there isn't. But that's not enough. A man must carry out what he's thought up, what he's felt, and that takes hard, constant, daily toil. It's just like an infant at birth, and although that comparison is hackneyed, it is exact; the mother bears it in pain, then feeds it from her own breast and tends it until it grows up sound and strong. These fellows want to create a beautiful work of art at a single stroke and all they do is talk and talk." …

“Today you're nothing more than a loafer who has yet to become a workingman: a fellow like me, like all the rest of us who toil for a living. At present, activity is a genuine effort for you; do something; repeat what you do until activity becomes a habit. Convert your static life into a dynamic one. Don't you understand? I want to impress upon you the need of will power." (pages 20 - 22)

Manuel listens but rarely takes Roberto’s advice to heart. He will work hard for a while but the minute he has a little bit of money or an impediment is placed in his way his natural indolence takes control. The bulk of this section revolves around a hoax to pass Manuel off as the son of a Baroness so she can extract money from her suitor. Manuel is more than happy to participate in the scheme: “Little work, little to eat and clean clothes: these were the conditions that Manuel found in the home of the baroness, and they were unsurpassable.” (page 54) The plan fails and Manuel is once again on his own.

Part Two
Roberto assists Manuel again, this time getting him an apprenticeship in a print shop. Manuel performs well for several months, receiving a promotion and achieving something approaching security. Learning this trade would also help him out of some tough spots later in the book. Among the interesting characters at work, Manuel makes the mistake of spending the most time with Jesús. Jesús has an even weaker will than Manuel and, after the incest incident described below, they end up on “general strike”, skipping work and drinking their way across Madrid. During their month-long binge, they hit bottom and Manuel ends up briefly in jail. He happens to meet his cousin Vidal, who provides him with a clean place to sleep.

I have mentioned before that Baroja avoids the “noble poor” trope but he does show the destitute in a humane light. Urchins and beggars that chance upon some money are usually happy to share it with their friends. Those with little assist those with even less. There is a tension between rich and poor bubbling just below the surface, surfacing every now and then. Groups or people that provide charity are usually berated and criticized by those they are trying to help. One example—Jesuits visit the hostelry where Manuel lives and the residents roundly curse their generosity, some because it isn't enough while others mock their condescension. Baroja provides no comments on this behavior when it happens.

Jesús provides a diatribe on how he feels civilization has made the gap between the wealthy and the poor worse:

“Formerly, the rich man and the poor got their light alike from the same sort of lamp; today the poor man continues with his humble lamp and the rich man lights his house with electricity; before, if the poor man went on foot, the rich man went on horseback; today the poor man continues to go on foot, and the rich man rides in an automobile; before, the rich man had to dwell among the poor; today, he lives apart; he's raised a wall of cotton and can hear nothing. Let the poor howl; he can't hear. Let them die of hunger; he'll never learn of it.” (page 217)

Unfortunately the same sentiments in not caring can be said to exist among some of the poor. For every ragpicker or apprentice trying to make an honest living, there is a scoundrel trying to perpetrate some hoax or scheme to cheat people out of their money. In addition, Baroja highlights the plight of returning veterans of the war of 1898, ignored by the government and society. A soldier back from Cuba tells Manuel horrible stories about atrocities committed there. While stealing jewelry from a soldier that has committed suicide (in a Madrid suburb), he drives home the point on how he views the situation for the poor in the city: “In war times, war methods.” (page 231)

I have mentioned the appearance of incest in Spanish-language literature (The Maias and Baroja’s The Restlessness of Shanti Andia are just two examples). Often (but not always) this theme is raised in conjunction with thieving and plundering among a close-knit group and the object can be money or spouses. Jesús and his sister La Sinforosa sleep with each other, taking money and the bed from their pregnant, sickly sister Joaquina (called La Fea, or “ugly”). Yet La Fea is the one who provides not just for her own family but for other urchins she brings into her house. Baroja seems to add his imprint to this motif, showing that the literal act is as damaging as the symbolic exploitation of others in poverty.

Manuel meets colorful characters scrambling to make a living, but one of the most lively has to be Alonso de Guzmán Calderón y Téllez. Alonso goes by several nicknames, most relating to his previous occupation as circus proprietor/owner. I enjoyed this passage that reminded me of one way smut used to be peddled:

"What are you doing now?"
"I've been selling smutty books. I ought to have one here," he added, showing Manuel a pamphlet, the title of which read: The Wiles of Women on The First Night.
"Is that a good one?" asked Manuel.
"Oh, so so. Let me warn you beforehand that you're supposed to read only every other line. To think of me, fallen to such things!”

Part Three
The final section begins with Manuel’s initiation into an upscale gang that includes his cousin Vidal. Manuel runs into Justa, the ragpicker’s daughter he fell in love with at the end of The Quest. After an engagement to a butcher’s son, she is now a ruined woman, abandoned by her father. Her fall and subsequent turn to prostitution provides only the first of several intense dramas in this section. Manuel and some of his friends attend the public spectacle of a soldier’s execution. Vidal is murdered, probably by a ruffian with whom he had an acrimonious split in The Quest. Justa abandons Manuel just before he is arrested for questioning about Vidal’s murder. His despair, which has been building, reaches a critical point:

Manuel sat down upon the bed and pondered. How many excellent projects, how many plans cherished in his mind had come to nought In his soul! Here he was, only at the beginning of life, and already he felt himself without the strength to fight the battle. Not a hope, not an illusion smiled at him. Work? What for? Set up one column after another of type, walk to work and then back to the house, day in and day out, sleep,—all for what? He was bereft of plan, idea, inspiration. (page 299)

Because Manuel started to provide information to the judge about his gang, which is well connected, the judge is pressured to drop the investigation. Manuel is released to Ortiz, the one honest policeman (it seems) in Madrid, provided he helps the cop track down Vidal’s killer. The reader has seen the seamy side of Madrid many times during Manuel’s ragamuffin days and the depressing scenes continue as he tags along with Ortiz:

“It was a mild afternoon and the sun was glorious. They took chairs just outside La Blasa's tavern. In a lane opposite to them the men were sprawling in the doorways of their houses; the women, with their ragged skirts gathered about them, were skipping from one side to the other, their feet splashing in the stinking sewage that ran like a black stream through the middle of the street. Here and there a woman had a cigarette in her mouth. Big grey rats darted about over the mud, pursued by a number of gamins with sticks and stones.” (page 333)

Manuel, by threatening the leaders of the gang, is able to extract himself from the search for Vidal’s killer, but he has reached a breaking point. The extended quotes that follow, which end the book, seem to encapsulate some of Baroja’s outlook and philosophy (ellipses in original):

Manuel was filled with a gnawing irritation against the whole world,—a hatred that up to then had lain dormant was now awaking in his soul against society, against mankind. . . .
"Let me tell you," he concluded, "and I mean it. I wish it would rain dynamite for a whole week and that then the Eternal Father himself would fall from heaven, a heap of ashes." In his fury he invoked every destructive power, that this miserable society of ours might be reduced to a mound of smouldering ruins.
Jesús listened attentively to his diatribe. "You're an anarchist," he said.
"Yes. I'm one, too."
"Since when?"
"Ever since I've seen the infamies committed in the world; ever since I've seen how coldly a piece of humanity is given over to death; ever since I've seen how men die friendless on the streets and in the hospital," answered Jesús with a certain solemnity. (pages 342-343)

Jesús did not answer the question. Then, in a calm voice he spoke of a vision of an idyllic humanity,—a sweet, pious, noble and childishly simple vision. In this dream, Man, guided by a new idea, attained to a superior state.
No more hatred, no more rancour. No more judges, nor policemen, nor soldiers, nor authority, nor fatherland. In the vast prairies of the world, free men laboured in the sunlight. The law of love has surplanted the law of duty, and the horizon of humanity becomes ever wider, ever a softer blue. . . .
And Jesús continued speaking of a vague ideal of love and justice, of industry and piety. These words of his, chaotic, incoherent as they were, fell like a solacing balm upon Manuel's lacerated heart. (pages 343-344)

No comments: