Wednesday, December 12, 2012

His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas: Bonis as a character? Imagine a cross between Emma Bovary and Walter Mitty

Continuing the story of His Only Son…Part One can be found in this post.

Bonifacio Reyes finds himself in a dilemma. First he was unfaithful to his wife with Serafina, the soprano of the visiting opera troupe. His wife’s unexpected advances one evening cause him to be an unfaithful lover, too. Bonis didn’t know…no one knew…that Emma’s health had improved while during her hysterical and cruel actions. After she has let slip that she is feeling better Emma’s visit to the opera hooks her on the theater, not for the singing but because of the envy she sees and feels from the crowd of the third-rate capital. Most importantly, though, it added to her plan to torture her uncle (the estate’s bookkeeper) and her husband:
Her plan was to make fun of her uncle and her husband, to toy with them, to try to discover even newer ways to deceive and ruin them, ways that might offer her great entertainment. For some time she had known what methods to use against the uncle. She planned to throw, as it were, the whole house out the window by spending money wildly on herself. Bonifacio was another matter. Strictly speaking, she did not dislike him nearly so much as she disliked the uncle, nor until this moment had she decided on any specific form of punishment for him. She had only thought of keeping him on the rack for the rest of his days, of treating him like a slave subject to unknown torments; but when Minghetti’s smile [the opera troupe’s baritone], his look, smote her with a lightning flash, then she suddenly saw how she might punish her unfaithful spouse. Yes, she had guessed that he was unfaithful long before; yet when she would meditate in her bedroom alone (with hysteria for a Sybil), Emma had reached the same conclusions about all men: in her eyes, they were animals with only gross and cruel instincts. She could not conceive of a husband who was totally faithful to his wife. Further, the very existence of such a creature seemed ridiculous, and she freely admitted to herself that if she were a married man, she would not be satisfied with just a wife. She would not admit that women had the same right, except in extraordinary cases, because “it would appear ugly,” because “a woman is different.” However, once a husband’s infidelity was discovered, the case changed. Then there was a right to reprisal. This was true, too, if the husband were brutal. If Bonis hit me as I hit him, he would pay for it, Emma thought. This much was evident. And if he deceives me… Here Emma hesitated and returned to her considerations for excusable feminine infidelity. If he deceives me, I would deceive him as well, she mused…if anyone inspired great passion in me. Emma’s moral excesses had little to do with the decadent literary romanticism of her town and her time; she was original in her temperament.

And so everyone continues using or screwing each other, whether through infidelity, misappropriating funds, or some other deception. The uncle invests the family’s funds in a scheme destined to fail. The investment, though, does help his amorous cause with the schemer’s daughter. The family’s financial ruin is all but guaranteed when, out of the blue, Emma becomes pregnant. Everyone thought her earlier miscarriage made pregnancy impossible. The news electrifies Bonis, filling him with joy and resolve. He will have the son he has always wanted, someone to fulfill “all the clichés of fatherhood” for him. Like most other emotions Bonis feels, it is the ideal or concept of fatherhood that entices him. There are several more twists and turns before the end that make this the remarkable novel it is.

I read back through the overview and nothing about it sounds notable, and yet I think it is almost every bit as good as La Regenta. Almost. There are a lot of “little” things that make the novel difficult to describe or classify, as I mentioned in the first post. Let’s start with the central character, Bonifacio Reyes (Bonis) since his nature defines much of the ambiguity of the novel. Bonis was an “antihero,” or rather unheroic, before being an antihero was cool. Bonis, though, sees himself as a potential hero.

Alas uses names in His Only Son to add to the story's irony. Bonis wife may be named Emma, causing the reader to think of Emma Bovary, but that role is reserved for Reyes. His adultery is the obvious similarity but the more meaningful parallel comes from dashed expectations which were fed by literature. Bonis is a dreamer, a Walter Mitty-like character that cherishes ideals even though he eventually finds everything tainted. He believes in the ideals provided by literature and music even though fate cruelly dashes all his hopes for his happiness. He adheres to the role of husband (despite the adultery) long after his shrewish wife destroys the idylls he expected.

Usually called “Bonis” (can be loosely translated as'good'), he does little that could be termed good. In fact, Bonis does little at all. Most of his action is passive, allowing things to happen around or to him. His goodness, such that it is in the novel, comes from limited action—if he does little, he limits the amount of bad things he can do (especially in comparison to the other characters). Nobility lay somewhere in his lineage but he is a long way from that now. This deterioration over the generations is a common theme in the novel.

The narrator compares Bonis to Ulysses at one point, a man who has lost his home and wife. That may be the only apparent similarity since Bonis is far from kingly but he does make an inward journey, exploring his father’s and his own nature. That journey, though, comes after many flights of daydreaming, which he does frequently (especially when listening to music...the role of music in the novel deserves its own post). The daydreams aren’t just a coping mechanism for Bonis, it’s what he is—aloof and mediocre. Even the narrator heaps irony on the character by often referring to him as “poor Bonis” or “poor Reyes.” There is no sympathy in the epithet, though. Like Don Quixote, he pictures himself as a hero out of a novel. Unlike the older gent, though, Bonis is not mad, just self-deluded. He also abandons his delusions of heroism as he makes his inward journey, although he does replace them with daydreams of other heroic activity (writing, music, art). His dreams of heroism culminate in his raptures about fatherhood, one of the rare dream-come-true events for Bonis. Because of the importance of the fatherhood dream, though, Bonis will not allow any other reality to intrude on it after he realizes it. All of which makes the reader mutter “Poor Bonis” upon the closing of the book.

There is much more that can be said on Bonis, especially the father/son theme Alas explores in the final chapters, but I want to end with an excerpt that is more typical of the character during the novel. In the following passage the opera troupe is throwing a feast and Bonis is the only non-member invited. Of course the only reason they put up with him is so he will pick up the tab. Having had a little too much to drink, Bonis stands up to propose a toast but ends up showing he understands how he is viewed in the city while still idealizing the artist’s soul, at least as he sees it (ellipsis in quotes are in the original):

”I read novels. I am aware of the dog’s life I lead in this godforsaken town. I abhor it! Here everyone despises me! They look upon me as they would a useless mongrel, old and toothless. Why? Only because I am gentle-natured and detest worldly things: vile gold and, above all, industry and commerce. I know nothing of trading, scheming or exhibiting myself in society. Therefore, I am called a louse. Absurd! I understand, I feel, I know that there is something inside me, something… You artists, whom these sedentary shopkeepers, these barnacles, these provincial oysters ridicule, you understand me, tolerate me, accept my company, take me in, even applaud me, you…”

“Ah, my comrades! My dear friend Mochi, dear Gaetano (this to the baritone), you have no idea how deeply it affects me to know that artists such as you sympathize with and even love this poor Reyes, otherwise abandoned, despised, humiliated. If I had the courage, I would actually join you. I would, of course, bet the least of you, but an artist nonetheless: independent, free, indifferent to my income, dedicated to music alone. Do you think I don’t understand you? How often have I read in your faces the nagging preoccupations which afflict you, the worries about an uncertain future! But little by little, art draws you back to your peace of mind, to your carefree existence.”

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