Saturday, February 25, 2012

Torquemada at the Stake

Torquemada by Benito Pérez Galdós
Translation by Frances M. López-Morillas
New York: Columbia University Press (1986), Hardcover
ISBN: 0231062281 / 9780231062282

The Torquemada novels:
1. Torquemada at the Stake (1889)
2. Torquemada on the Cross (1893)
3. Torquemada in Purgatory (1894)
4. Torquemada and Saint Peter (1895)

I am going to tell about the journey to the stake taken by that inhuman creature who destroyed by fire so many unhappy lives; some he skewered through the liver with a red-hot poker; others he popped, well larded, into a pot, and frizzled the rest on one side and then the other over a slow fire, with searching, methodical anger. I am going to tell how the cruel executioner became a victim; how the hatred he had aroused turned to pity, and how clouds of curses rained compassion on him: a moving case, a very exemplary case, ladies and gentlemen, worthy of being told for the edification of all, a caution to offenders and a warning to inquisitors. … Torquemada is the paymaster of that hell where debtors wind up, naked and scorched: men with more needs than means to satisfy them; clerks with more children than paychecks; others avid for a civil service appointment after long periods of unemployment; transferred army officers with huge families and mothers-in-law as well; weak-willed persons who have a good job but are nibbled away by a little wife who gives teas and pawns her very soul to buy pastries; tearful widows who draw a pension from the civil or military credit union and yet are in dire financial straits; people from all walks of life who have never succeeded in solving the numerical problem that is the basis of social existence, and others who are hopeless wastrels and never pay their bills, who either have a screw loose in their heads or are devoid of morals—the tricksters and liars. (pages 3 – 4)

The introduction of Francisco Torquemada in this short novel reminded me of what I loved about reading Galdós. “[O]fficers with huge families and mothers-in-law as well” indeed. While Torquemada is the namesake of Ferdinand and Isabella’s inquisitor general, the historical figure suffers in comparison. The more recent Torquemada of this novel is nicknamed, at least by the narrator, “the Worse.” I have found it helpful to keep a list of names when reading Galdós because you never know when a character will resurface, not just in the same book but in other novels. Some of Torquemada’s background was provided in Fortunata and Jacinta while Galdós fleshes out more of his history in Torquemada at the Stake. For a frame of reference, Fortunata and Jacinta specifically takes place between December 1869 and 1876. Torquemada at the Stake takes place sometime after 1881—its timeframe is imprecise (we’ll see if later novels gets more specific).

Dr. Rhian Davies provides a helpful summary page of the Torquemada novels. I'll try not to duplicate her comments on this novel (in the first paragraph) since it is an excellent recap.

Torquemada’s wife Silvia dies, leaving him with two children: daughter Rufina and son Valentín. The son proves to be a “prodigy of prodigies,” mastering math at a young age and making a name for himself with his abilities. At twelve years of age he contracts meningitis and hovers between life and death. In contrast to Torquemada's gradual change over the years, where he slowly became less stingy with himself and his family, his response to his son's illness is an attempt to instantly change and provide charity for others. Not because he's selfless, mind you, but because he views these acts as a bargain with God (or humanity, or whatever) to keep his son alive.

Galdós’ description of the torments of Torquemada (and those of his intended beneficiaries) provide the heart of the story, deftly balancing humor and anguish on both sides. Torquemada possesses only a passing acquaintance with scripture: “Doesn’t God command us to clothe the sick, give water to the sorrowful, visit the naked?” To be fair, it may be his grief that rattles him at this point. What isn’t in question is how he views his attempted good deeds—they are a business transaction with God. Torquemada never forgets his business acumen during his deeds, keeping score of the good acts, real or intended, as if accruing them in his ledger. He's not afraid to take things in return that may monetarily benefit him down the road, either. When someone refuses his help, Torquemada gets angry at the ungrateful person for participating in the swindle of the possible loss of his son.

One person stands up to Torquemada—the ragpicker of the household, Tía Roma. She understands Torquemada’s attempt to bribe religion too well. Tía Roma spurns his attempted help, reminding him of his cruelty to his wife over the years while Tía Roma, poorest of the poor, provided help to Silvia. She believes his so-called change of heart is only temporary because of duress, predicting he will return to his normal ways after the son’s illness passes. Even though Torquemada’s grief is real—he has an epileptic-type fit when his son is near death— Tía Roma’s prediction proves correct. Believing his goods deeds went unrewarded Torquemada throws a “sumptuous” funeral, happy to note the important attendees. The novel ends with his return to his “earthly business.”

Because it is such a short novel, Galdós only gets to work in a little bit of social, political, and religious commentary. His pointed remarks about “clients” of Torquemada and other moneylenders reduces wealthy and poor alike to the same base level. We meet José Bailón, a friend of Torquemada and a former priest, whose philosophy proves to be a strange brew of radicalism and religion, substituting “humanity” for “God.” Galdós notes that Bailón and Torquemada share a concern over public health, Bailón blaming “everything on ‘effluvia,’” possibly symbolic of a poisonous atmosphere in Madrid.

More Torquemada after a much-needed trip away from everything…

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