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Camilo José Cela’s The Hive Revisited

By Montague Kobbe.


On February 6th 2014 the Spanish National Library presented a partial manuscript of The Hive, comprised of over 180 pages and dated in December 1945, which was donated to the institution last May by Annie Salomon, the daughter of French Hispanist Noël Salomon. She found the folder with the manuscript in a drawer in her parents’ country home in 2011 and two years later decided to place it in the hands of those who would best be able to safeguard and disseminate the Spanish Nobel laureate’s legacy. The document contains duplicates of alternative manuscripts found in the Camilo José Cela Foundation, in the writer’s home town of Iria Flavia, Galicia, as well as previously unknown material, primarily from chapter V, and vast sections crossed out in red crayon by the censors.

When Camilo José Cela presented his final draft of The Hive to the Spanish censors on January 7th 1946, he already had a history of trouble with the authorities: his hugely successful debut novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte (Burgos: Aldecoa, 1942), was banned and its copies sequestered in 1943. But after working as a magazine censor between 1943 and 1944 and earning his accreditation as a licensed journalist, Cela contrived to have two books of poems and three novels published in 1945, including the fourth edition of Pascual Duarte.

If Cela hoped his growing reputation might earn him the authorities’ favour, though, he was wrong. A letter from June 11th 1946 by the General Director of Media Tomás Cerro Corrochano to the recently appointed General Director of Propaganda Pedro Rocamora describes Pascual Duarte as an “utterly intolerable” work. Rocamora’s answer five days later is unequivocal: he dubs Cela “an abnormal man”, echoes Cerro’s indignation upon reading what he found to be a physically nauseating novel, explains that he has personally prohibited the publication of Cela’s latest book, and reassures Cerro, telling him that he has had the satisfaction of suspending Cela’s civil rights. [1]

The prohibition to which Rocamora alludes came to Cela in the form of an official letter dated March 9th 1946, which informed him that he had been denied authorisation to print The Hive. The criteria used to reach this decision boiled down to three questions: does the work represent an assault on the current regime? The censor’s answer was “No”; does the work represent an assault on dogma or morality? “Yes”. Does the work have literary merit? “Scarce”. The Hive would have to wait until 1951 to see the light of day.

Modern readers of Pascual Duarte might find it surprising that the Spanish censors deemed the novel “intolerable”. To be sure, the work deals with unsavoury circumstances—the protagonist endures abuse as a child, loses his disabled brother at the age of ten, rapes his future wife, murders her lover and, finally, commits the climactic matricide towards which the narrative has been building up from the start—but Cela’s introspective first person narrator is sufficiently troubled to shift the focus of our attention from his gruesome actions to the circumstances that have prompted them: Pascual Duarte is perhaps not a victim but he certainly is not a monster, despite his monstrous deeds. He is, instead, a man living in full the consequences of the rampant deprivation prevalent in the Spanish countryside at the beginning of the XX century: a deprivation that far exceeds the economic realm; a deprivation that is most sharply felt on a moral scale, estranging people indiscriminately and definitively; a deprivation that ultimately forebodes or perhaps seeks to explain the human bankruptcy that must necessarily take root in society for a civil war to break out.

That this interpretation of the Spanish reality in the years leading up to the National Movement’s revolt in 1936 failed to appeal to the authorities, however, follows quite naturally from the regime’s glorification of the struggle through which it reached power. And yet, while both Pascual Duarte and The Hive were banned in quick succession by the Spanish censorship in the early 1940s, the two novels remain drastically different, not least in the evident contrast in their depiction of the countryside and the metropolis, the periphery and the centre.

In the preliminary notes to the first edition of The Hive, published in Perón’s Argentina by Emecé Editores, the same publisher that in 1943 provided an outlet for Pascual Duarte after the novel was banned in Spain, Cela describes his book as “a pale reflection, a modest shadow of the everyday, harsh, lovable and painful reality … a portion of life narrated step by step … in the same way that life flows, exactly in the same way that life flows”. This seemingly trivial assertion seeks to set the tone of the readers’ experience from the outset, placing us in a context of extreme normality while at the same time referring those familiar with his previous work—and there is every reason to believe that in 1951 a large proportion of his readers would have been repeat customers—to the tremendously realistic style of Pascual Duarte.

But in Cela’s vocabulary “life” is a term richly loaded with idiosyncratic meaning. Almost echoing the popular saying, Cela claims that life is that which takes place—which lives, he would unhelpfully say—through us, who are “its vehicle, its excipient” (notes to the first edition). Time, in turn, passes inexorably, impassibly, almost imperceptibly, hand in hand with “history”, and here again his peculiar use of everyday terminology must be scrutinised. History, in Cela’s conception of reality, is a natural process that flows, like our blood, indefectibly “against the course of ideas” (notes to the third edition). In other words, life, history and time all point in the same direction, one that stands in contraposition to that of ideas, or at least is totally alien to it.

Nevertheless, life, history and time are not interchangeable terms to be used indiscriminately. For Cela, The Hive is “a history book, not a novel” (notes to the fourth edition), that is, a chronicle of life, not of the characters in The Hive, who are ultimately nothing other than life’s vehicle. For Cela “[e]verybody’s life is a novel by itself”, but The Hive chronicles the lives of more than 200 characters and therefore is more than a novel, it is more than 200 novels, it is life itself, not in its entirety, of course, but a portion of it. [2]

Boldly structured into brief snippets, The Hive is narrated at a staggering pace, contrasting sharply with the seemingly normal circumstances told. Only the first chapter of the book contains 44 discrete segments, mostly connected in one way or another to Doña Rosa’s café, La Delicia, played out over the course of 46 pages. Thus, for instance, the life of Señorita Elvira, “[a]n unmarried woman who is getting a bit long in the tooth” (p. 6) unfolds by stages. First we see her questioning the cigarette boy (ibid):

“Did you give him my letter?”

“Yes, Señorita.”

“What did he say?”

“Nothing, he wasn’t at home …”

Two segments later, we witness how a man (p. 8)

already advanced in years tells a story about a joke he played on the notorious Madame Pimentón nearly half a century ago.

… A fat glossy cat is running about between the tables. A cat full of health and good cheer, a pompous, self-important cat. It makes its way between a woman’s legs, and the woman jumps.

“You blasted cat, get out of here!”

Cela still provides no clues about who the old man is, but just four segments later Señorita Elvira reappears, speaking to Doña Rosa (pp. 11-12):

“Did you settle that thing?”

“What thing?”

“The affair with…”

“No, it didn’t work. He went around with me for three days and after that he made me a present of a bottle of hair lotion.

… Doña Rosa comes closer and speaks almost in her ear. “Why don’t you make it up with Don Pablo?”

“Because I don’t want to. After all, Doña Rosa, one has one’s pride.”

And finally, two segments later, we learn that Don Pablo is actually sitting in the café that very moment, just a few tables away from Señorita Elvira (p. 13):

While Don Pablo, a miserable fellow who sees everything upside down, is grinning over his tale about Madame Pimentón, Señorita Elvira drops the butt of her cigar and stamps on it. Now and then Señorita Elvira has the gestures of a real princess.

“What harm was the nice little cat doing to you? Puss, puss, puss, come here!”

Every segment of The Hive establishes lateral connections with parallel segments, contributing to the progression of the narrative, introducing new characters or developing existing ones. The woman who chases the cat, a Gypsy child singing on the pavements, Señorita Elvira, her failed conquest, her former lover, even the cigarette boy, are all conduits of this tale of sordidness, constantly re-emerging to drive it forward. Thus, Cela’s hi/story bounces almost from page to page in what today would be described as pieces of entwined flash fiction organised in a seemingly arbitrary though coherent order. That this exercise fails to grow tedious over the course of 250 pages is indicative of the writer’s capacity to constantly reinvent the same technique, turning his readers into unwitting (and at times even unwilling) accomplices in an act of voyeurism that uncomfortably (but fascinatingly) blurs the boundaries between innocent curiosity, clandestine scheming and institutional surveillance.

The Hive explores the reality of men and women trapped by their condition, by circumstance, by life itself. In doing so, Cela evidences remarkable observational skills (not for nothing did he put himself forward as an informer to the nationalist faction in 1938, after being declared unfit for duty due to the serious wounds he suffered on the Logroño front) complemented by his ability to get to the very core of his characters in two or three lines. Thus, in Cela’s universe middle-aged men, like Don Pablo above, are wretched:

Don Jaime is undoubtedly an honest man who has bad luck in money matters, simply bad luck. Admittedly he is not a hard worker, but then he has never had the chance. (4)

That “beast” González, as his brother-in-law called him, was a poor little man, an honest family man, a miserable sod, who was quickly prone to tenderness. (My translation).[3]

Nor is Cela kinder in his depiction of women of the same age bracket:

Doña Soledad is not happy. She invested her whole life in her children but they neither knew nor cared about making her happy. (195)

Don Obdulio’s widow, poor woman, ekes out her existence by letting several small, shabby-genteel rooms in a “Cubist” style, painted orange and blue, to a few discreet men friends. (126)

The young fare little better: helpless, sentimental and idealistic, “with their minds full of golden dreams” (p. 182), young women are incapable of improving their situations by means other than sexual. Consequently, they all have to fight (mostly unsuccessfully) against harlotry, as is made evident in the example of Nati Robles, a “slender and elegant young girl”, who sees the need to swear to her old friend, Marco Martín, whom she has not seen since university, that she is “not a tart” (p. 139). The implication, of course, is that if Nati is doing so well, it must be through a man’s favour.

But if young women are caught in a world that renders them powerless and, quite frankly, spineless, in The Hive young men are pushed into a race without reward—not even solace. Such, precisely, is the case with Marco Martín, one of the most recurrent characters, a poor writer with a bohemian spirit and a social conscience, perennially on the move, much like the very prose of The Hive, looking, hunting, seeking a purpose, only to find it when—unbeknownst to him—it is already too late.

This is the portion of life that concerns The Hive, a portion that overlaps that of Pascual Duarte only in its sordidness: Cela, like Goya, chooses to highlight the grotesque. But life in The Hive spins into a spiral of frustration that points emphatically toward the dejection of a broken society: if Pascual Duarte lays bare the moral shortcomings of rural Spain in the years leading up to the civil war, The Hive denounces the spiritual bankruptcy of urban Spain in its aftermath.

And this is where the material recently unveiled by the Spanish National Library becomes especially edifying. While Cela’s chronicle must necessarily be incomplete, the criteria used by the government’s censors shed light on additional aspects of Spanish life at the time. Most by far of the vast sections of the manuscript crossed out in red correspond to the copious sexually charged scenes in a book that, with all certainty, did little other than depict the habits of a cross section of the Spanish middle class living in Madrid in the last week of November 1943.

But in 1946, just seven years after the official end of the civil war and at the peak of guerrilla antifascist resistance in the country, the government was more concerned with form, upholding the order imposed by its Catholic and military institutions, than with addressing the needs of—the real malaise affecting—its population. Governments often take a long time in identifying the sentiment of their people, and the Salomon manuscript reveals just how far off the mark Franco’s regime was concerning itself with morality in an age of deep spiritual decay.

Yet this is not the only value in Annie Salomon’s folder, because together with the pages marked in red crayon are others untouched, not even stamped by the censorship office, with previously unknown material. It corresponds to an episode from the end of chapter V, recreated in four different versions and labelled “Historia de una fotografía” (Tale of a photograph). This material is graphically explicit about an encounter between a young girl, Lola, and a salesman, followed by a lesbian scene between the insatiable Lola and Don Obdulio’s widow, Doña Celia. Cela never presented this part of the manuscript to the Spanish authorities.

The discovery of the Salomon manuscript with both censored and previously unknown content raises two interesting questions: the first one concerns the place of erotica and/or pornography in “high” literature: undoubtedly, had The Hive been published in 1946 without the sections we now know were rejected by the authorities—in other words, had it been censored rather than banned—the quality of the work would have been drastically diminished, and therefore the subsequent discovery of the original would have much enhanced it. That is unlikely to be the case with the current discovery because the key scenes crossed out by the censors in 1946 have been available to us since 1951, while the literary merit of the previously unknown, far more explicit scenes unearthed now remains questionable , simply because they seem to dwell unnecessarily on lurid details which are more scandalous than memorable, which contribute little to the whole and which ultimately serve only the purpose of painting a rather crass picture of the sexual behaviour (or perhaps even fantasies) prevalent in Spain at the time.

Nevertheless, merely the fact that this additional material is presented side by side—physically sharing the same space—with other sections which once were deemed to be excessive, immoral, with “scarce” literary value, almost forces us to question our own aesthetic criteria and wonder whether in seventy years we will be judged (and judged as harshly) for what we deem to be of questionable value on grounds that might owe more to moral hang-ups than we would like to admit.

The second question raised by the Salomon manuscript concerns the reasons why Cela might have excluded this material from the version he presented to the Spanish censors in 1946, from the published version in 1951, and from all subsequent editions. The general assumption is that Cela knew his work stood a better chance of getting published without these scenes, therefore censoring himself even before presenting his work to the authorities. Self-censoring is, of course, the ultimate goal of any form of government in which there is limited freedom of speech. A government that successfully ingrains in its citizens what is right and wrong, what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t utterable is a government that controls its citizens from within, ultimately (and ideally) rendering censorship redundant.

In the case of Cela there is no doubt that, if indeed he chose to censor himself, he did so for more practical than scrupulous reasons. But Cela made continuous amendments to The Hive throughout its period of clandestine publication in the 1950s and early 1960s (between 1955 and 1962 three editions of the novel were secretly printed in Barcelona and readily available in the black market, albeit ostensibly published in Mexico by the publishing house Noguer), adding new preliminary notes and footnotes with every new edition and correcting mistakes that went from simple grammar structures to confusions in the profession of some of his characters. For some reason, however, he never deemed it appropriate to include the more sexually explicit scenes in any of the final versions. Not even in 1963, when he was finally granted permission to officially publish the book in Spain. Not even after Franco’s death in 1975.

Why? Unfortunately we can only speculate about this but there is a possibility that maybe, just maybe, he edited these passages out of the final version of The Hive on purely aesthetic or literary grounds. Perhaps, instead of self-censoring, Cela was simply editing his book.

In 2016, the year of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, the Spanish National Library will publish a special edition of The Hive with all the additional material included in a bulky appendix, making the full extent of the earliest version of the novel available to the public at large. How readers react to it will likely be determined by how they answer these two questions. What is at stake, though, is something far more significant than the reputation of a single work of literature: what is at stake is the validity of some of the basic principles that determine the way in which we look at art, at the world and, consequently, at ourselves.


[1] This correspondence is reproduced in Sinova, Justino, La censura de prensa durante el franquismo (Barcelona: DeBolsillo, 2006). These and all further translations mine unless otherwise stated.

[2] Cela, Camilo José, The Hive, translated by J.M. Cohen and Arturo Barea (USA: Dalkey Archive, 2001, first edition 1953), p. 33. All further references to the text are taken from this edition unless otherwise stated.

[3] Cohen and Barea translate the Spanish expression “más infeliz que un cubo” (literally, “unhappier than a bucket”) as having “the worst luck in the world” but the connotations of infeliz go far beyond luck. I have adopted the colloquial term “miserable sod” to convey both the meaning and tone of the description, although the Australian idiom “as miserable as a bandicoot” might be the closest English equivalent.


Montague Kobbé is a German citizen with a Shakespearean name, born in Caracas, in a country that no longer exists, in a millennium that is long gone. He is the author of the novel The Night of the Rambler and the bilingual collection of flash fiction Tales of Bed Sheets and Departure Lounges. He has kept a column in Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald since 2008 and has translated over twenty photography books with Spanish publisher La Fábrica. His new novel, On the Way Back is due out in February 2016.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, January 22nd, 2016.