Obituary: Gonzalo Torrente Ballester

James Kirkup
Friday 29 January 1999 01:02 GMT

THE CONTEMPORARY literatures of Spain and Portugal are the liveliest, richest and most inventive in Europe, with their large, enthusiastic readerships and the generous attention of the daily and weekly press unequalled anywhere in a world bamboozled by cultural fashions, by television and Internet trivialities and pop-lyric doodlings.

In Spain, among the public's regular treats are those provided by the multi-page weekly arts section "Babelia" in El Pas, the literary journal Libros and the daily serious coverage of books and writers. This is because the Spaniards have a true passion for literature, and take pride in their writers - they love and revere them with an emotional fervour unimaginable in the British literary cliques.

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, adoringly known as "El Senor de las Lettras" and a great icon of Spanish literature, frequently appeared in the dailies and weeklies both as a spirited and original contributor and as the well- researched subject of essays, reviews and extended interviews. His obituaries, like those for the poet and artist Joan Brossa who died last month, covered several pages in all the papers, and will be followed by an equally impressive spread of post-funeral memories, assessments and eulogies.

Yet Torrente Ballester was hardly known outside Spain. As far as I know, there are no English translations of his works, and it was only in the last 10 years that he began to be translated into French by the energetic young Provencal publishing house Actes Sud, to the acclamation of critics and readers.

In a prologue to his 1977-82 collected works, he recalls that his first novel, Javier Marino, appeared in 1943, one year after another Galician writer, Camilo Jose Cela, published his first work, the ever-popular Familia de Pascual Duarte, and one year before Carmen Laforet's nihilist-existentialist Nada. The fourth novelist of this remarkable literary generation, Miguel Delibes, had an immediate success in 1947 with his La sombre del cipres es alargada ("The Lengthening Shadow of the Cypress").

Torrente Ballester's novel did not enjoy the immense triumphs of those three brilliant contemporaries. There were two main reasons why such a fine debut should have been totally ignored. It was a piece of fantastical semi-autobiography full of quirky language and esoteric references that found no place in the current literary tradition of earthy realism, and it was rejected even by the small but perceptive public of disabused intellectuals and critics.

It is the tale of a Spanish student living in Paris on a government stipend to the Sorbonne and trying to come to terms with youthful sex, religion and politics. The hero, Marino, decides to join Franco's troops in the Civil War - an attitude conflicting with the general republican sympathies of foreign intellectuals at the time, when the Fascist Phalange was rising to power.

But the real theme of the book is the inner conflict between scepticism and religious or political beliefs. Under the influence of Joyce, the long narrative is rich in cultural resources, and propounds a parallelism between Marino and Aeneas, Spain and Troy. There is a good deal of "experimental" language, which some critics have compared with Ramn de Valle-Incln's esperpentos - a sort of uninhibited nonsense that did not go down well with over-serious readers, also put off by the subtitle: "historia de una sin".

All these aspects of the work militated against it, and the author was isolated. The second reason for its failure was the intervention of the bigoted ecclesiastical authorities, who found the book too full of "lascivious images". Torrente Ballester recounts how all copies of the book were impounded by Franco's censors and so could not be distributed. It was the first of the author's attacks by the official humbug of censorship.

In a lecture to student fans, Torrente Ballester declared, many years later, that "the imaginary is quite simply part of reality". The whole of his work rejoices in the light-hearted use of imagination and fantasy, and his extraordinary language distils its peculiar savour from the strong influence of his native Galician, which is now regarded as a language in its own right. Ironically for one who was to suffer censorship and destitution under Franco, he was born in the same town as the Generalsimo, El Ferrol, on Spain's wild north-west coast. Even today, the town is still named, in full, after the Fascist leader's rank: El Ferrol del Caudillo.

Like his hero Marino, after studying law and philosophy at the University of Madrid, he had a passion for history. Politically he was close to the ideals of the Phalange, which had been formed in Madrid in 1933 by Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, and was of Fascist inspiration. But the writer later declared he had been "temperamentally incapable" of taking part in its activities.

During the Civil War, he was studying in Paris, and reading French authors, Baudelaire and Mallarme, as well as classic Americans like Poe and Melville. He also discovered Jean-Paul Sartre:

I am almost of the same generation as Sartre. I mention this French author because his experience of history coincides with my own, and above all because I've found in his work the expression of my own thoughts on the subject.

He returned to Spain towards the end of the Thirties as a professor of history. He wrote various unsuccessful works, including Don Juan (1963), a very individualistic portrait of the arch-seducer. His great trilogy of life in Galicia during the Republic and at the start of the Civil War, Los gozos y las sombras ("Delights and Shadows", 1957-63), found little response, but he became better known through his often savage theatrical criticism.

In 1962 his signing of a tract condemning police repression of striking workers in the mines of the Asturias led to his being excluded from teaching. He left with his already large family (he had 11 children) for the United States, where he accepted the specially created chair of literature at the University of Albany, New York, where he taught from 1965 to 1970.

With the meticulous precision of a dedicated scholar he wrote the false history of an imaginary town, Castroforte del Barella, Saga/Fuga de J.B. It is pure comic fantasy, with vibrant ironic undertones, about a town whose rebellious inhabitants, in order to escape from foreign invasion, unite to make their entire town enter into levitation. It was published in 1972, one year before his return to Spain, and finally brought him the wide recognition he deserved. Its success prompted him to write another novel about an imaginary Galician town, Dafne y ensuenos ("Daphne and Dreams", 1982). Jorge Luis Borges admired these literary figments of a nicely bridled fantasy.

Fruit of America, Torrente Ballester produced another resplendent comedy, about the lives of campus professors and their infatuations for their own students, La isla de los jacintos cortados ("The Island of Cut Hyacinths"), which came out in 1980. This author who called himself a "false witness" and "a master of misleading trails" tells of an elderly professor who has written a book proving that Napoleon never existed, that he was just a myth dreamed up by Nelson, Metternich and Chateaubriand to spare them the trouble of fighting the French Republic.

His wacky theory is exposed by a younger professor in love with a student, Ariadna, who is fruitlessly pursued by the older professor. It is a weirdly ironical yet fantastic farce. In his preface, the author writes: "I've never felt within me the soul of a reformer, and I long ago stopped being a utopist. What few beliefs I have left I observe with an ironic eye, or at least I try to."

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester inherited from his sea-going father and the environment of El Ferrol a taste for maritime adventures, naval history, islands, maps, dockyards, naval strategy found in most of his works. Such influences are reminiscent of the geographical fantasies of Julien Gracq, whose first novel, Le Chateau d'Argol (1938), he must have read as a student in Paris, and whose 1951 masterpiece Le Rivage des Syrtes would surely have appealed to him. The grotesque folk tales of Galicia, a region rich in wonderful legends, are also present, mingled with metaphysical considerations, erudite legal procedures and wordplay.

Torrente Ballester wrote: "There is within me an inexplicable force that makes me invent whole worlds and populations." We saw him doing just that on all the Spanish (and particularly Galician) television channels, as he laboured over an old-fashioned typewriter in Salamanca - real writers never use word processors!

James Kirkup

Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, writer: born El Ferrol del Caudillo, Spain 13 June 1910; twice married (11 children); died Salamanca 27 January 1999.

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