Thursday, January 07, 2016

Benito Pérez Galdós: Trafalgar (1873)



[Image source: http://articulo.mercadolibre.com.ar/MLA-593006426-trafalgar-benito-perez-galdos-editorial-salvat-_JM]

This is the first of that stupendous series, the Episodios Nacionales. It eventually ran to 46 novels, covering the period 1805-1880; Galdós had intended to write 4 more novels (to complete the fifth series, which like the others was to consist of ten novels)  but he finally abandoned work on it in 1912 when he became blind.

Like its successors Trafalgar is a documentary-novel; one of its main aims is to provide an accurate narrative of historical events, and the details of the battle, e.g. of ships sunk, captured, or wrecked are reliable; the novel could be used, and was used, to inform the young in history classes. Galdós' researches were thorough and to some extent original; he sought out oral testimony.

Given the date of composition, there's a certain old-fashionedness in the book; its fictional plots and characters do not seem to belong to the era of Zola; they rather recall Scott or 18th century fiction - Galdós had in fact recently translated The Pickwick Papers and his way of forming characters by comic mannerisms or catchphrases does recall the early Dickens. In the first half of the book, the detail of the debates is presented as comic pedantry, e.g. between Don Alonso and his indefatigably pacifist wife Doña Francisca. A long section deals with the hopeless love of the 14-year-old hero for his master's daughter; again, it looks a bit old-fashioned - we miss the social detail that would be automatic in serious English novelists of this date.

All the greater the shock when the battle finally begins. It is salutary to read of Trafalgar from the perspective of the losers. Their position is hopeless and the decimation of the Santisima Trinidad is bloody and prolonged. Things do not get any easier when the battle is over and in subsequent days we pass with the wounded from ship to ship in the terrible weather, and eventually to shipwreck. As this material takes over, the characters from the early part of the book - the hero, Don Alonso, Marcial and the Malespinas disappear into a turmoiled crowd, and when they emerge are transformed from the sedentary and garrulous comic characters of earlier pages into an insanity of combat. The effect of the eventual death of Marcial, after such heroic effort, is surprisingly powerful. 

Here are the hero and Marcial while the fighting is still going on:

Rendido el Bucentauro, todo el fuego enemigo se dirigió contra nuestro navío, cuya pérdido era ya segura. El entusiasmo de los primeros momentos se había apagado en mí, y mi corazón se llenó de un terror que me paralizaba, ahogando todas las funciones de mi espíritu, excepto la curiosidad. Esta era tan irresistible, que me obligó a salir a los sitios de mayor peligro. De poco servía ya mi escaso auxilio, pues ni aun se trasladaban los heridos a la bodega, por ser muchos, y las piezas exigían el servicio de cuantas conservaban un poco de fuerza. Entre éstos vi a Marcial, que se multiplicaba gritando y moviéndose conforme a su poca agilidad, y era a la vez contramaestre, marinero, artillero, carpintero y cuanto había que ser en tan terribles instantes. Nunca creí que desempeñara funciones correspondientes sino como la mitad de un cuerpo humano. Un astillazo le había herido en la cabeza, y la sangre, tiñéndole la cara, le daba horrible aspecto. Yo le vi agitar sus labios, bebiendo aquel líquido, y luego lo escupía con furia fuera del portalón, como si también quisiera herir a salivazos a nuestros enemigos.
Once the Bucentaur had surrendered, all the enemy fire was concentrated against our own ship, whose loss was already a certainty. The fervour of those first moments had died out of me, and my heart was filled with a paralyzing terror, which suppressed all the functions of my mind, except curiosity. But this was so irresistible that it compelled me to go to all the places of greatest danger. My official duties were of little use now, because they were no longer bothering to move the wounded into the hold, and the guns preoccupied all of those few who still retained any strength. Amongst these last I noticed Marcial, who seemed to transform into a multitude, shouting and whirling about, as far as his limited agility allowed, at once boatswain, sailor, gunner, carpenter and anything else needed in those dreadful moments. I would never have believed that so much could be done by what was now only half a human body. A shell-splinter had wounded him in the head, and the blood, staining his face, gave him a horrible appearance. I saw him shake his lips, tasting this liquid, and then spit furiously out of the porthole, as if he wanted to wound our enemies with his spit.

Galdós' intent to combine accurate history with the trappings of a novel produces an effect that may strike us as un-integrated. The combination is not seamless; for example, we never quite understand on what basis Don Alonso, his boy-servant and his old seafaring friend have all been taken into service on the same ship; their duties appear no more clearly defined than to lend a hand and to serve their country. On the other hand it's already clear in this first volume that the method has potential; Galdós triumphantly delivers a panorama of the whole battle and its aftermath (bolstered by narratives of other encounters, when the wounded mix with people who were on other ships), and he does so from the point of view of mere participants, not strategists or politicians. It must have been immediately clear to his readers that a new kind of national epic was in the making.

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