Wednesday, May 04, 2011

The Lord of Labraz: baptizing the wine

The Lord of Labraz by Pío Baroja, translated by Aubrey F. G. Bell, Alfred A. Knopf, 1926 (originally released in 1903 in Spanish)

I’ve discovered Pío Baroja recently and have enjoyed what I’ve read. To say he’s inconsistent in many areas would be an understatement but part of his writing has appealed to me. So until I find The Tree of Knowledge in translation for less than several hundred dollars I’ll be content to read his other (I hate to say lesser) works. Hopefully I can capture some of the better aspects of this book with a few extended quotes for anyone interested in Baroja.

In the preface of The Lord of Labraz, a nameless narrator meets an Englishman in Labraz, “a terrible town, a town of the Middle Ages”. The Englishman, Samuel Bothwell Crawford, tells of his enjoyments and preferences:
”And now, as Swiveller says, let us drink the rosy wine of friendship and sing the old melody “Begone, dull care.’”

I remembered that this Swiveller is a character in Dickens, in The Old Curiosity Shop, and I asked the Englishman if he did not consider the author of Pickwick an admirable novelist.

“Yes,” he answered, very seriously, “he was a good fellow. Let us drink his health.”

“The health of one who no longer exists?” I inquired.

“Does he not exist in his books far more than the majority of living persons, more than so many an insignificant wight?”

So we drank Dickens’ health in the rosy wine of friendship.

The narrator takes a copy of a novel that Bothwell Crawford has written, copying it unchanged for us to read…which makes up the novel that follows.

At the inn of Goya in Labraz, we’re introduced to a former worker at the inn who married the owner’s daughter:

Ten years after his marriage Domingo Chiqui died, possibly from having lived too well, and left the Goya with two daughters. There was no memory in the town of an illness and death so gay as those of the hostess’ husband. His friends would go to visit him in the room where he lay in bed, and his illness seemed to have sharpened his wits and added to his facetiousness, for at every instant he made some witty remark in his intricate language, so that laughter filled his bedroom instead of lamentation and where one would have expected sad long faces were only cheerful looks and gleaming merry eyes. In his last moments his wit made even the priest who had gone to confess him laugh; he consoled his friends with a grotesque account of the road of purgatory he would have to tread and how he would tell St. Peter that, although a tavernkeeper, he had not often baptized his wine.

Literature seems to play an enhanced role in the book, not just in allusions but with characters in it as well:

The Goya [the hostess of the Goya Inn] raised her head and, pointing with her finger to the greasy book that she was reading, exclaimed, as though she were speaking to someone who was not present:

“This scene fills me with greater enthusiasm each time I read it. The Duke Rodolfo is about to enter the room of the dressmaker. I think he is her lover; yes, he must be her lover, I have no doubt of it.”

The muleteer seated in the dark, bent forward towards the old man and said: “I say, Preacher, perhaps the book reminds her of some of her own past, eh?”

The old man whom the muleteer had addressed as Preacher exclaimed in a fine bass voice: “What a brute he is! Yet the wretch speaks sooth!” The Goya, who had half heard the muleteer’s remark, asked dryly: “What did he say?”

Blanca, who had also understood their allusions, murmured, looking severely at the Goya: “I don’t know why you read these novels, Mother: they are nothing but lies.”

“Lies? Yes, a strange kind of lies.”

While Baroja can be sublime, he can also be sloppy. Bothwell Crawford leaves the inn at one point, magically reappearing unannounced just a few lines later. Another feature I’ve enjoyed with Baroja lies in his development of supporting characters, such as the Captain of the Keys:

The Captain watched the arrival of the late-comers, and would say in the kindly tone of one set in authority: “Come along; it is time to close.” He then shut the smaller door, and after that a palisaded double-winged door facing the town; he then went up a staircase to a wooden balcony ensconced in the recess of the gate, above a large crucifix. That was where the Captain of the Keys lived. Often in the middle of the night he would have to get up, much against his well, to open for some townsman or for the doctor. The Captain of the Keys was a very important personage in the house of the Goya. According to his own account he represented for the whole town the family and the tranquility of the home. In his hands was the key in which securely rested the whole life of the town. The Captain could never understand, and one can well believe it, that there should be towns mad and imprudent enough to pull down their walls. This seemed to him the greatest absurdity.

Sloppy or not, Baroja makes it enjoyable…

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