Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós: Don Lepe

Happy new year! I’m looking forward to starting 2013 with yet another wonderful novel by Galdós.

Tristana: Buñuel’s Film and Galdós' Novel: A Case Study in the Relation Between Literature and Film by Colin Partridge (New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995)
I was able to obtain this book through an interlibrary loan—good copies are hard to find under $150. Colin Partridge provides a translation of the novel along with essays on the novel and Buñel’s movie. The focus of this post will be on one of the main characters of the novel but first a very quick synopsis of the novel. Don Lope, an aging lecher, becomes Tristana’s guardian after the death of her parents. He becomes her lover, awakening a sense of independence and rebelliousness in the girl. She falls in love with a painter, Horacio, who leaves Madrid to follow his sick aunt to the coast for the winter. The relationship continues in letters, and in these letters Tristana’s desire for independence drives her burgeoning intellect and curiosity. Tristana notices a pain in her leg which worsens, awakening Don Lope’s sense of responsibility for his ward. The leg worsens and has to be amputated, leaving Tristana a dependent cripple. Her desire for independence and learning decreases until she discovers an aptitude and interest in music. During her convalescence Horacio marries another woman. Don Lope’s finances worsen as he takes care of Tristana, but his relatives agree to bail him out if he will marry his ward. They marry, move to the suburbs, and experience something looking like happiness together.

The joy of the novel lies in the telling as well as the complexity and ambiguity lying behind the telling. Don Juan López Garrido shares the center of the novel with the titular character. There are several literary references in the name, providing an ambiguous literary mix of amorous reputation, noble spirit, and a common surname. He began calling himself Don Lope, “his own invention, which he used like an expensive cosmetic to enhance his personality.” Later in the novel Tristana and the house servant, Saturna, call him Don Lepe. Even the narrator begins calling by that name. From the notes—“The pun in the name-change infers that Don Lope is now the malicious devil of the Christian belief system.”

Even with Don Lope’s physical decline (he’s 57 when the novel begins), his wiles and experience are overwhelming for a ‘captive’ Tristana supposed to be under his care. His outlook carries more than just a little wistfulness at his faded prowess, though:
Now it must be stated at once, to whet the appetite, that Don Lope Garrido had once been a redoubtable strategist in amorous jousts and he prided himself on having assaulted more towers of virtue and overcome more ramparts of honor than he had hairs on his head. Although tired now and in his declining years, he couldn’t reject his lifelong waywardness whenever he met pretty women (and some who were not so pretty), he adopted a strategic stance and, with no malice whatsoever, directed meaningful looks, which now were more paternal than seductive, as if here saying to them: “You’ve been lucky to escape, my dears! You can thank God you weren’t born twenty years earlier. You must protect yourselves against those who can do today what I did formerly; but, if you really want my opinion, I think there’s no one today who can do what I did then. Nowadays, you won’t find young fellows, either self-proclaimed gallants or mature men who know what to do with a beautiful woman.”
Don Lope’s lechery coexists with an extreme sense of honor. He helps his friends regardless of the cost to himself. Tristana falls under his care after her parents’ deaths because he bailed them out, going deeper into poverty for his chivalric code to help friends. His code only overlaps with his lechery when it comes to friends—their wives are off limits. The code becomes quixotic through the extremes he takes it and the irony in its selective application. Don Lope’s code has no basis in social institutions since he doesn’t believe in the laws of man or God. His expertise regarding duels, as a participant and officiator, emphasizes his strong sense of honor on these points. His physical decline becomes mirrored in a moral decline, where chivalry becomes perverted for sexual ends.

Included in Don Lope’s distaste of social institutions is a lifelong distaste for marriage. His sexual conquests occur outside his home. This changes after taking Tristana in as his ward and seducing her. She is the exception to his rules, erasing the lines between his chivalric code and sexual desire and it shows in the mixed messages he feels and sends to her. Is he a father figure or her lover? In trying to have it both ways, alternating between the roles, the ambiguity of his character is highlighted.

Don Lope takes pride in his role of a lover, dismissing the capabilities in the men of Tristana’s generation. Yet his pride awakens an independence and determination in Tristana that effectively drives her into the arms of a lover. The ambiguity between Don Lope’s roles resolves only through Tristana’s illness and the amputation of her leg. His desire for control of her does not lessen, though, and he easily marginalizes the lover. Although it helps that the lover marginalizes himself. After all the twists of fate and changing dynamics, Don Lope and Tristana marry and appear happy. Or at least some version of happy.

In Colin Partridge’s essay on the novel he states “Throughout this grim mannered comedy Don Lope deploys two devices to achieve his strategic objectives: his skill with words and his ease in manipulating social rituals.” I would add a third device to his advantage, or maybe the second one is meant to include it—the vulnerability and lack of independence of women in Spanish society. More on this in the post on Tristana.

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