by Ramon Perez de Ayala (University of California Press)
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.