Thursday, March 20, 2014

Angel Guerra, part 5: the monster in a box and more footnotes

Continuing with discussion of Angel Guerra by Benito Pérez Galdós, done mostly through footnotes so far. I’ll continue the trend in this post, but first a note about the story…

In the previous post on the book I ended with the death of Angel’s daughter, Ción. By the end of Part One of the novel Angel has had three major losses: the death of his mother Doña Sales, the death of his daughter, and the loss of his daughter’s governess, Leré. It is interesting to watch Galdós take Angel through stages of grief for two of these losses. The only grief he has on his mother’s death was his guilt at precipitating the fatal medical attack. With Ción Angel showed an initial denial anything was wrong followed by anger, mostly aimed at the family doctor Miquis. The previous post went into detail on Angel’s bargaining with God, asking the Almighty to take his mistress Dulce instead of his daughter. After Ción’s death, Angel withdraws from his mistress, friends, and previous activities.

Compounding his depression was Leré’s announcement that she was leaving the house to join an order of nuns in Toledo. The grief cycle starts again as Angel figures out how much Leré means to him, a strange attachment that has little definable basis. She’s saintly while he plays at being a revolutionary. There is a little bit of their joint attachment to Ción in the attraction, but that isn’t a major component. Angel can’t figure out why he is so smitten with Leré—he doesn’t necessarily want a normal relationship as a couple. He seems happy to have just as a friend and confidant, at least for now. The depression he feels after she leaves causes him to drop everything and follow her to Toledo.

One of the strangest parts of the novel so far is Leré’s brother Juan. She described him to Angel as a monster:
”You’ve never seen him, if you had you’d be horrified. From the waist down he’s all skinny and soft, like he didn’t have any bones; he’s got the head of a man and the body of a child, and his arms and legs are like empty pillowcases. He’s twenty-five, he can’t even crawl, and if you could see him at the table where they’ve got him, with his arms and legs all jumbled up and his head in the middle, you wouldn’t even think he’s human. He eats like there’s no tomorrow, and he can’t talk—all he can do is grunt and growl like some animal, though he can repeat any piece of music he hears and get it right on key. Once in a great while you can see a little glimmer of intelligence but it’s so small it’s not even what you might expect to see in a cat or a dog.” (130)
Early in Part Two Angel sees the monster for himself and the animal imagery/comparisons continue:
On a not very tall little table were to be seen two coiled-up legs forming a circle, looking more like the tentacles of an octopus than the limbs of a person, and in the center a human head the size of an adult’s, with features to match. The gaze, albeit idiotic, was not lacking in sweetness, and was fixed in a stare on the unknown person comtemplating it. Limp hair covered parts of its skull, and long coarse hairs—so sparse they could be counted—grew on its face. After looking hard at Guerra the head straightened up, revealing a rachitic neck and sickly bust from which hung flaccid, seemingly boneless arms, like the legs. (255)
The comparison continues as Leré feeds and treats "the monster" just as she would a dog. But on to the footnotes. While there is plenty of humor in Galdós’ novel (as well as strangeness), there’s even a joke about the writing of it. After Galdós mentions that Angel figures out that he might see Leré, who is at a retreat with nuns from the order she wishes to join, by hanging out along Santa Isabel street, we get the following footnote on page 257:
It was on Santa Isabel that Galdós supposedly lived while writing Angel Guerra, and there is a commemorative plaque to this effect at the street entrance, though no one currently living around the interior courtyard seems have the slightest notion as to which rooms he actually occupied; recent biographical studies, moreover, suggest that he may not even have been in Toledo at the time in question.
I’m not sure why I find that so funny, but I do. The “recent” part would have been in the late 1980s since this translation was published in 1990. Anyone who read (or even started) Fortunata and Jacinta will remember that Galdós had some fun with chapter titles. After starting off slowly on the irony, in Volume III he uses the chapter titles to tie the fortunes of the Juanito Santa Cruz household to that of the changes in Spanish government, with "The Victorious Restoration," "The Revolution Fails," and "Another Restoration."

The second chapter in Part Two is titled “Uncle Providence,” after Leré’s uncle, Father Mancebo. But what does it mean exactly? Is it referring to Mancebo stepping in to help his family when Leré’s Uncle Roque suffered a debilitating fall (which didn’t stop the annual arrival of a new child)? Is it his belief in winning the lottery? Is it his dreams of Leré marrying well so he can take it easy, a fantasy that includes her marrying Angel so he can administer property that had been taken away from the church? A combination of these things?

The third chapter of Angel Guerra is titled “Toledan Days,” providing this footnote on page 295 to spell out the ambiguity and possible irony in the title:
This is a remarkably good instance of the way Galdós plays around with his chapter titles. Una noche Toledana (a Toledan night) signifies a bad omen, due to an event which  supposedly took place in 803 a.d., when the Arab Governor took revenge for the murder of his son by inviting 400 Toledan nobles to dine one night. Each was decapitated as he entered the palace grounds. Galdós’ title is thus very ambiguous: a Toledan day could be just the opposite of a Toledan night, and thus a good omen; or it could be merely the precursor of that night.
As usual with Galdós, you never can tell.

All references are to A Translation of "Angel Guerra" by Benito Pérez Galdós. Lewiston (N.Y.: E. Mellen Press, 1990. translated by Karen O. Austin). Previous posts:


David said...

I have a dozen or so Galdos novels in translation, and have read most of them at least once. Now on page 500 of Angel Guerra. The world it creates is so vivid that I have been able to re-enter with no difficulty even after putting the book aside for several months. I love to savor Galdos' often sly humor! He is one of my favorite writers. Thank you for your posts.

Dwight said...

Thanks John. I enjoy his humor, too. When I pick up one of his books after a long break from his writing I always wonder why I waited so long!

I'll need to finish up with a few more posts on this book. He does create a complete world.