Friday, May 06, 2011

The Lord of Labraz: he was a stomach rather than a man

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

Labraz is a much simpler story than his Struggle for Life trilogy but that doesn’t make it less pleasurable to read. Structured (so far) like a romance, it’s fun to watch him work on techniques that I saw more polished in the trilogy. For example, Baroja loves to “introduce” a character without providing much information about them, letting the reader fill in the gaps or guess as to the character’s context with the rest of the story. Eventually he gets around to revealing how the character fits into the story, which the reader has probably guessed by that point. In later books this technique appears effortless while in Labraz it stands out (although to some extent maybe it had to given the romance nature of the book).

Themes from the trilogy also show up here, such as the general decay of society and the struggles of the underclasses. His feelings toward much of religion aren’t hidden or softened as this extended quote makes clear:
All had a certain air of mourning to suit the occasion: only the abbot who presided, without considering whether it was a wedding or a funeral feast, set the bad example of devouring with a barbarous voracity and without even listening to the conversation. The lord abbot, president of the collegiate church of Labraz, deserves to be described. He was a stomach rather than a man; he was now all stomach. His father had been coachman to a marquis, and his mother was the marquesa’s maid.

The coachman and his wife had intended their son for the priesthood, although his real vocation was the art of digestion. The following answer he gave as a boy proves his capacity in this respect: “What would you like to be?” he was asked.

“I? A pig.”


“In order to eat my hands.”

This Napoleon of digestion became a priest; owing to the influence of the marquis he became a canon, and as he was out of pace among men of higher culture they sent him to Labraz and made him abbot of the collegiate church there. He was a man of scarecely any culture at all, rather coarse, rather disgusting and extremely dirty. Don Diego de Beamonte used to relate how once in the Botanical Gardens at Madrid he had met a young man of exceptional talent called Miguel de los Santos Alvarez. They were walking up and down talking and looking at the scientific names of the trees and plants on the white labels, when a priest chanced to pass; his expression was dense, his cassock unbrushed and his hat greasy. Miguel de los Santos pointed him out to Don Diego, and if his cassock had a label attached to it like the plants and trees, said:”Clericus catolicus hispanicus.” Of this species of clericus the abbot was a magnificent specimen, but as the species comprises many types it should be said that he belonged to the manducatorius or digestivus class. He seemed to be determined to be perpetually dirty. His mantles and cassocks were a kind of atlas, in which the islands straightway became archipelagos and the archipelagos continents; his hat, of huge size, seemed rather than silk over felt to be grime over grease; not the shard with which Job scraped his flesh could have been dirtier; but he had a biretta which far outshone even his hat in this respect. The abbot was of enormous size, with protruding belly, thin legs, large strong hands, while his huge feet, flat and deformed, issued from beneath his cassock like two boats. His eyes, dull beneath the half-closed lids, were on the surface of the flesh, as though they were sewn on to it; his nose was long, thick and rubicund, his face was narrow, his jaw prominent, and his large yellow teeth resembled those of an old horse. The good priest had a mortal hatred of water; he shaved very occasionally and never washed, so as not to waste his time. Although his brain was deranged by the nitrogen of his rich food and his head was as empty as his stomach was full, he had a certain success as a preacher. His oratory was on a level with the meanest intelligence and could be heard by the deafest ear, for if he did not possess the brain of a St. Augustine or of an Origen he had a throat which might vie with all the Fathers of the Church. He would spend three or four hours shouting and vociferating, for the most part of the time crying out insults against the Liberals and Freemasons. His style was the most picturesque and absurd that one could imagine. He cultivated the burlesque manner with eminent success, and sometimes his strange remarks would cause shouts of laughter among the congregation. He was fond of comparing Espatero with God, only to draw the moral that he was not worthy so much as to unloose his shoe-latchet.

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