Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Lord of Labraz: leaving no stone unturned

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

From’s August 30, 1926 book reviews:

The Spanish hail Señor Baroja as their most popular living talespinner. He writes a little like Dickens, a little like Stevenson, always like a Spaniard—that is, with bold light, harsh shading. His story here is quite simple—a blind nobleman in a priest-ridden hill town quixotically shoulders his brother's misdeeds, earning only calumny and spite from the populace, renouncing society and going to wander, Lear-like, over the bleak table-lands with a wronged barmaid for his Cordelia, a Basque beggar for Poor Tom. It is fiction with strong bones.

Today we have an even better shorthand available for the this book, which would be to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens combining to write telenovelas.

Baroja can be deft in his descriptions—all you need to know about the “priest-ridden” description can be supported in one sentence:

This church was endowed with forty-eight benefices, but as the salaries were very small, those favoured were naturally men of limited education; according to the chronicler Alizaga, they were simple modest persons who spent their time gambling and drinking, courting and coursing.

There are many more episodes that help describe the town, such as the madam of a brothel threatening to post a list of the priests that visit her house. The town seems to attract its share of eccentric or flawed characters that blend in with the locals. An exiled roué returns to Labraz and picks up right where the reader imagines he left off. The Englishman Samuel Bothwell Crawford, whose novel we are supposedly reading here, absurdly (but effectively) defends the honor of his innkeeper’s daughters. Life in Labraz…well, let’s see another example:

A single occurrence paints the town. Once during Holy Week, while the procession was going through the streets, a strolling gipsy with a monkey arrived and begged for alms. He avoided the streets through which the procession passed, and made the monkey dance to the sound of a drum. Suddenly the sky became overcast and presently it began to rain. The people, those who were returning in the robes with which they had played a part in the procession, those who had carried the canopy, the standards and the image on its platform, were of opinion that the gipsy’s ape was responsible for the rain. A canon, with the face of a pig, sad that for the gipsy to have gone about the streets on that day was in very truth an insult to the Divine Majesty, and forthwith all those bullies of the procession hurled themselves on the monkey and stabbed it all over. The gipsy ran away and was pursued with stones till he was lost to sight. All these things Perico, the Liberal of the town, explained by the following poem, which he had probably invented:
In Labraz you must not expect
Many Liberals to collect,
Labraz where nine of ten at least
Are sons of canon, monk or priest.

While the story continues to be established Baroja weaves in more literature:

One day Micaela, turning over and sorting things in the upper rooms, found in a closed case, wrapped up in cloths, a patined harp lavishly adorned. In the same box were some books yellow with time; there were French novels, Matilde, and Sir Walter Scott’s Rokeby and The lady of the Lake, Lamartine’s Graziellta, and other novels; the rest were devotional works with images and certificates of confession in their pages. Micaela had the harp brought down to her room, and read the novels. Despite her natural calm and aristocratic coldness, all that mass of languid love affairs and tender complaints made an impression o her, and her mind fell a pretty to the poison of romanticism.
The young man hired to teach Micaela how to play the harp, Raimundo, falls hopelessly in love with her. As the nephew of the organist of the church and himself the back-up organist, his timidity and respect, not to mention his vows, lead him to remain quiet of his desire although he tries (and succeeds) in expressing himself through playing the organ.

The visiting roué, Ramiro, focuses his skill to seduce Micaela. “Don Ramiro left no stone unturned: he lent her Faublas and the Liasons Dangereuses in hopes that they might influence her; but Micaela read these books and returned them with the comment that she had found them dull and silly.” Subtle, isn't he? I’m sure we’ll find out if the effort pays off or not in the next book titled “The Sacrilege.”

No comments: