Monday, March 19, 2012

Torquemada and Saint Peter

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)
     a. Story
     b. Themes
     c. Characters
3. Torquemada in Purgatory (1894)
     a: Part One
     b. Part Two
     c. Part Three
4. Torquemada and Saint Peter (1895)

Galdós begins the last of the Torquemada novels with a description of the Palace of Gravelinas, the mansion Cruz was pushing Torquemada to buy at the end of Torquemada in Purgatory. While the narrator doesn’t immediately confirm the family lives there, the presence of the armor collection, library, and artworks Cruz had proposed obtaining leads the reader to believe the transaction happened. The focus on the armor and library provides the narrator a chance to delve into one of Galdós’ themes of appearance vs. reality—the splendid collections are really rotten or, in the case of the books, providing a mouse family a feast of royal letters.

This is my least favorite of the four Torquemada novels because, while good, it isn’t up to the same standard of the previous three books in the series. There are additions or changes, not necessarily inconsistencies, which have to be explained in detail to be believed. Much time is spent on the introduction of two characters, supposed close and long-term friends of the Aguila family, who have never been mentioned in the previous books. Augusta Orozco and Father Luis de Gamborena play important roles for the family in the novel but in spite of Galdós’ explanation of their prior absence in the series—Father Gamborena was overseas as a missionary and Augusta had been away due to some unspecified scandal—both characters have a “tacked on” feel to them. The narrator implies that Augusta and her scandal appeared in another Galdós novel, or maybe it’s an insincere reference to fictional annals. Torquemada’s son-in-law, earlier banished for calling his little brother-in-law a freak, proves to be a regular in the household now. Again, while not fatal to the story such changes as these make the novel feel strained in comparison to the previous ones.

Torquemada nicknames Father Gamborena “Saint Peter” since the priest reminds him (once removed) of the image of Saint Peter. Galdós paints the priest in glowing and flattering terms but he never loses his edge when describing something he doesn’t like. In introducing the reader to Father Gamborena, the narrator notes the priest “decided, after long thought, to leave for Paris and enlist in one of the missionary legions with which our cautious civilization attempts to tame the barbarous African and Asiatic hordes before unsheathing the sword against them.” (page 423) Even with this snide comment, Galdós believes things would be much better with true Christian charity, consistent with Father Gamborena’s message in attempting to convert Torquemada. Torquemada going up against Father Gamborena reminded me of his confrontation with Tía Roma in the first novel (Torquemada at the Stake), when the old ragpicker confronts the moneylender about his attempt to bribe God in order to save his son’s life. Old habits die hard—Torquemada views Father Gamborena’s message as a business transaction in which he wants a guarantee that he will be saved if he does as requested.

The moneylender expresses a longing for his old way of life, calling them “good times” despite the struggles it entailed.

I call the good times those times when I had less folderol than now, when I used to sweat gall and vinegar to earn money; the times when I lost my only son, well, not the only one; I mean… well… when I wasn’t acquainted with all this ridiculous pomp of nowdays, and when I haven’t had to grieve over so many vicissitudes. That was a terrible vicissitude when my boy died, but even so I had a quieter life, and was more in my element. I had sorrows there too, but I also had times when I was alone with myself, goodness, when I rested in an oasis… an oasis… oasis.” (page 415)

That wistful touch of repeating “oasis” highlights the magic Galdós achieves in these books—providing a very sympathetic look at a most unsympathetic character.

I found Galdós’ portrayal of the “new” Valentín, the son of Torquemada and Fidela, disturbing, as it was undoubtedly meant to be. He makes his appearance in this novel in “an arrangement of straps” meant to help him learn to walk, something he steadfastly refuses to do.

His childish savagery made terrible inroads on the crockery supply in the house, and on the many precious objects in it. They changed his clothes frequently and yet he was always dirty from dragging his tummy along the floor; his oversized head was full of bumps which made it even uglier than did its great size and his huge ears; saliva drooled in strings over his chest, and his hands, which were his only pretty feature, were always as black as if he knew no other amusement than playing with coal. (page 435)

It gets worse from there as the narrator describes him in more detail. In case the reader doesn’t get the symbolism of the offspring between the coarse nouveau riche like Torquemada and the poor nobility of the Aguilas, Galdós pounds it home: “What reasons must God have had to give them that sad and distressing little beast as an emblem of the future!” Even though I don’t believe Galdós believes all of the future must turn out the way of the younger Valentín, the boy provides a warning for the combination of the unbridled or unchecked worst traits from both sides.

One of the funniest and most poignant moments in the novel occurs when Torquemada slips out of his mansion unseen in order to visit “the places he had spent the best years of his life, working like a slave, certainly, but in tranquil independence”. Returning to one such neighborhood, Torquemada visits an old friend at his tavern. The simple fare served at the tavern tasted heavenly, yet Torquemada throws it all up (“The whole floor of the room was too small for everything that came out of that miserable body”)—he no longer belongs in either his old milieu or his new world. His health, declining rapidly before this outing, will not recover from the visit. Even though Torquemada is on his deathbed, he never stops thinking of new ways to make money and comes up with an idea to convert the government’s debt. Torquemada’s last word was “Conversion,” but whether he was accepting salvation or thinking of the public debt is left unresolved.

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