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Belarmino and Apolonio
by Ramon Perez de Ayala (University of California Press)

Every few years this publisher or that offers a series of "great books," the hundred or so world's greatest in hand-tooled, gold-inlaid, leather-bound volumes that arrive one-a-month for a decade. The funny thing about such lists, of course, aside from the inherent absurdity of trying to choose the 100 best anything, is the way they underscore our cultural chauvinism. It's astonishing to realize how many of the world's greatest books were written in English (a trick that is accomplished by favoring Cozzens or Buck, say, over Turgenev or Celine). This jingoism keeps us from appreciating, often even from having in translation, excellent works from other cultures.

For example, “Belarmino and Apolonio,” a Spanish novel first published in 1921 and not available here until a decade ago, prompts some remarkable literary comparisons: not only to Joyce and Borges, but to Cervantes, Shakespeare and Dickens as well. It is the story of two shoemakers, one a philosopher struggling to revitalize the Spanish language, the other an epic playwright who believes in the social, political and moral force of blank verse. There is not a great deal of plot: we read this book not for the tail but for the telling.

The shoemakers encounter a gallery of delectable grotesques: "Scarcely five minutes had passed when the luminous and ruddy Don Rene Colignon, chicory and candymaker, burst into the shop. His ruddiness was so flammiferous it projected his reflections against the wall. His epidermis was tightly stretched and seemed to have been varnished. He looked like a greased bladder. He had a carefully constructed little goatee, the color of wheat, and his white chin rose out of it like an egg in a brass egg cup. He had Gallic almost Rabelaisian eyes -- blue and sparkling they were and they denounced him as a man who delighted in the pleasures of the table as well as of the bed."

The characters in this novel struggle to achieve both understanding -- acceptance of and for themselves -- and feeling, by which they mean the capacity to love. We understand them well, because the Spanish melting pot -- full of contradiction and dialectic -- is not so very different from our own. The contradictions are reconciled by the shoemakers’ children who, like Romeo and Juliet, are united by love. DeAyala’s characters speak to us, because, like us, they're fighting to preserve their singularity in increasingly ready-made world.

For all its energy, humor and appeal, “Belarmino and Apolonio” is not an easy read. Its heroes are not simple craftsmen, but a playwright and a philosopher, and its author wishes to consider formal questions of literature and philosophy from the Greeks to our own century. Woven into the story are social criticism, essays on metaphysics, jokes and ardent explosions of lyric poetry. It is a book that is impossible to read without coming away with a fuller understanding of life and language. (1983)

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