Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer - Leyendas

The striking portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer painted by his brother, Valeriano Domínguez Bécquer. An iconic image formerly used on 100-peseta notes.

This was my holiday reading, bought at a beachside bookstall on the Playa del Cura in Torrevieja (Alicante). My book contained only seven of the twenty-eight legends; I imagine from the attractively minimal apparatus that it was a booklet supplied free with some newspaper or other.

Leyendas (1860-65) is a well-known book in Spain, and a regular on the school curriculum; Becquer's stories have also been adapted for children.  It is a collection of romantic tales in the tradition of Hoffmann and Heine. Most of the stories feature the supernatural. Another implication of the title is that the author doesn't consider any of the stories to be true. This creates a fertile arena for literary artistry; in effect, these are early exercise in the use of an unreliable narrator, because the author's commitment to the material is always uncertain. The artistry co-exists happily with a healthy simplicity for the most part, but sometimes the ironies become more restive. Bécquer is also, of course, an important poet, his poems speaking with a kind of direct freshness that was then new in Spanish literature.

Bécquer adapted for children

El cristo de la calavera (The Christ of the skull)

In the streets of Toledo at midnight, two fierce rivals for a beautiful woman search for a place to settle their differences, and eventually find a Christ on a wall that is illuminated by a torch. But every time they cross swords the torch goes out, plunging them in darkness. Eventually they get the message and make friends, and they decide to go together to seek out their lady and ask her to choose between them; but when they get to her lodgings they are disgusted to find another, unsuspected, lover just leaving.

El Gnomo (The Gnome)

An old shepherd describes finding a subterranean cache of incredible treasures guarded by the gnomes. Most of his audience dismiss the story as nonsense but it affects two sisters, Marta and Magdalena. The two sisters are very different from each other. They encounter the gnomes themselves and (after a protracted choral set of temptations), the idealistic Magdalena escapes the lure of the treasure while Marta is drawn in and disappears underground for ever.

Illustration by David Vela for "El Gnomo" - http://davidblogcartoon.blogspot.co.uk/

La cueva de la mora (The cave of the Moorish lady)

The Christians attack a Moorish stronghold. The Christian leader is captured but after some days ransomed. However he remains melancholic, having met a beautiful Moorish lady while in captivity. He gets together another force and re-attacks the fortress and is seriously wounded. The Moorish lady manages to get him into a cave, but he is dying from thirst. She goes to get him water, and is accidentally shot by Moorish soldiers. Before they both die, the hero baptises her in the Christian faith. The ghost of the lady continues to haunt the river-bank outside the cave.

La promesa (The promise)

A noble leaves his reluctant beloved to go to the wars, making a promise to return and save her honour. He returns successful but haunted by a mysterious hand that rescues him from dangers and is always visible to him. Eventually a mysterious troubadour explains to him that his beloved has died but will not allow her hand to be buried until he has come back to redeem his promise.

Sketch by Santiago Caruso for "La promesa" [http://santiagocaruso.tumblr.com/]

La corza blanca (The white roe-deer)

A nobleman, out hunting with his daughter and retinue, meets a half-crazed shepherd who tells them of his meetings with deer - including a white one - who talk in human voices. While most dismiss this as gibberish, one person does not. This is the daughter's servant, Garcia, who is in love with his young mistress (a pale girl with dark eyes and a somewhat mysterious history). He determines to hunt the white deer for his mistress's honour. She mocks him and tries to dissuade him, but he persists. He finds that the shepherd's story is true, he sees the deer, hears them talk, sees them swim and transform into beautiful women, one of whom looks a lot like his mistress. Time and again he decides not to shoot, but each time he draws back he hears the sound of jeering. Eventually the hunting instinct overcomes him and he looses his arrow at the white deer as it disappears into the shadows. Following up, he finds to his horror that he has slain his mistress.

El beso (The kiss)

The French army are occupying Toledo during the Peninsular War. Avoiding a resentful populace, they are compelled to bunk down in churches. Our hero, a French officer, finds himself in these strange surroundings. Wakeful, he finds himself falling for a marble statue of a beautiful woman on a tomb (accompanied by a statue of her husband). He invites his officer pals to a drunken party, and during the increasingly outrageous evening, mockingly addresses the husband and finally attempts to kiss the lady. At this moment, he is felled by a blow from the husband's stony fist.

Luis Buñuel used the climax of the story in the opening scene of The Phantom of Liberty (1974).

La Rosa de Pasión (The Rose of the Passion)

In old Toledo there is a Jewish metalworker (Daniel) with an inveterate hatred of Christians. He has a beautiful daughter, Sarah, who constantly rejects her Jewish suitors. One of them hints to Daniel that his daughter has a Christian lover. Daniel and his allies plan to secretly and gruesomely murder the Christian, and gather together instruments reminiscent of Christ's passion, but Sarah foils their plans and boasts to her father of her own conversion. Daniel kills her instead, and some time later a new kind of flower containing symbols of the Passion appears in the ruins of the old church where they carried out their evil deed. (Evidently this is the New World plant known to us as the Blue Passion Flower (Passiflora caerulea), now a common alien species in Spain.)

Obviously an example of a "blood libel" story (like Chaucer's Prioress's Tale), and it's uncomfortable that Bécquer should choose to tell this story in 1862, even though he frames the tale in ironies. The pious girl who, he says, told him the story, is both very good and very pretty; that is, naive and uneducated. And the story abundantly underlines the persecution of the detested Jews by a Christian populace addicted to just such anti-Jewish stories as this one seems to be.

The bald summaries I've supplied fail to represent the concise artistry of the author's presentation, and this story is particularly rich in that respect, but it doesn't make me feel much more comfortable. Can the story be re-focussed as one in which the father is only "said" to be a wicked bogeyman, and in which his sad sacrifice in honour of his religion balances his daughter's fervent martyrdom? (Hang on a minute, can I really be proposing this?)      

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