Benito Pérez Galdós
Translation by Robert Russell
Columbia University Press, 1987
I do not exist. And just in case some untrusting, stubborn, ill-meaning person should refuse to believe what I say so plainly, or should demand some sort of sworn testimony before believing it—I swear, I solemnly swear that I do not exist; and I likewise protest against any and all inclinations or attempts to consider me as being endowed with the unequivocal attributes of real existence. I declare that I am not even a portrait of anybody, and I promise that if one of our contemporary deep-thinkers were to start looking for similarities between my fleshless, boneless being and any individual susceptible to an experiment in vivisection, I should rush to the defense of my rights as a myth, demonstrating with witnesses called forth from a place of my own choosing that I neither am, nor have been, nor ever will be, anybody.Máximo Manso introduces himself this way in the opening chapter of Our Friend Manso. He also informs the reader that “in the home of all that does not exist” there are also social classes, animosities, and other things common to the world of the living. So what brings Manso to us? A friend who “has fallen under an infamous curse: he writes novels” came to Manso, telling him he wanted to write a novel “dealing with the great subject matter of Education.” The author, though, needed certain tools and methods to carry it forward. The author offers to buy Manso’s “simple and pleasant story” in order to complete the novel, willing to provide the character some tools of the trade: literary genres, outmoded ideas, sentimentality, and set phrases. Manso agrees to cooperate and after being plunged into a drop of ink and the page set on fire, the character emerges in human guise. “The pain I felt told me I was a man.”
I am—putting it obscurely in order for you to understand it better—an artistic, diabolical condensation, a fabrication born of human though (ximia Dei) which, whenever it grasps in its fingers a bit of literary style, uses it to start imitating what God has done with material substance in the physical world; I am one more example of those falsifications of a man which from the dawn of time have been sold on the block by people I call idlers—and by so doing I fail in my filial duties—though an undiscerning and overgenerous public confers on them the title of artist, poet, or something of the sort. I am a chimera, dream of a dream, shadow of a shad, suspicion of a possibility: I enjoy my nonexistence, I watch the senseless passing of infinite time, which is so boring that it holds my attention, and I begin to wonder whether being nobody isn’t the same as being everybody, whether my not possessing any personal attributes isn’t the same as possessing the very attributes of existence itself. This is a matter which I haven’t clarified as yet, and I pray God I never may, lest I be deprived of that illusion of pride which always alleviates the frigid boredom of these realms of pure thought.
This is the last we hear of Manso’s special status until the final chapter, the 48 chapters in between carrying out the story meant to educate. In the first and final chapter, though, a real person (the author) and the literary character interact. Galdós, a master of the so-called realist novel goes out of his way to call attention that a novel is, by definition, not the real world but only appear to be so. Galdós’ novel of education begins in the first chapter, highlighting his view on the novel. His autonomous character, fully formed at the age of thirty-five, will behave in a manner and with a logic that is fully his own. Unfortunately, he also has to “live” with those consequences, as we’ll see in further posts.