Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Madrid's Forgotten Nobelist

Cela’s novel warns that man endures irredeemably even after the revolution.


The Hive, by Camilo José Cela trans. James Womack, New York Review Books Classics, 290 pages.

A father and a daughter pass each other on the stairs of an assignation-house. 


Julita, when she gets down to the mezzanine level, bumps into Don Roque.

“Hello, hello! What are you doing here?”

Julita is flummoxed.

“I’ve... I’ve just been at the photographer’s. And what about you, where are you off to?”

“Oh, I’m... I’m... I’m here to see a sick friend; he’s very unwell, poor thing.”

It’s hard for the girl to think that her father is going to Doña Celia’s house; it’s hard for her father to think the same.

They fumble their excuses, believing and not believing what the other has said, the Spanish Baroque’s twin loves—grimy realism and ser y paracer, truth and appearance—updated for Madrid in 1943. The scene ends, the author shifts to another. We will see a slice of the denouement later, but not the whole story.

Camilo José Cela’s The Hive (1950) is a realist novel seen in a hundred facets, a nineteenth-century novel stripped down and shaken like a kaleidoscope, so that the 300 characters and score of plots come to the reader without connective tissue, a jumble connected by prose style, tone, and the loose association of subject matter. The style is punchy urban argot: “Don Leonardo es un punto que vive del sable y de planear negocios que después nunca salen” (“Don Leonardo is a guy who lives off scrounging money and planning business projects that never come off”).

The most important single character is Martín Marco, scrounger, semi-poet, sometime babbler of lefty-sounding effusions. Something bad happens to him at the novel’s end, but we’re never told just what. The novel isn’t really about him. The Hive is a portrait of a country, a class, a time.

The country is Spain after the Civil War; the time is the hungry years of World War II. The class is mostly the petit bourgeois of Madrid, the backbone of the Nationalists, and some of their poorer neighbors—working girls who take lovers for a square meal and a nice coat, gypsy boys singing on the streets all day and sleeping all night under a bridge. The time is the moment when the Madrileños, listening to the radio, are beginning to think their German friends will lose the war.


Cela fought for the Nationalists against the Republic, against the socialists, the anarchists, and the communists. He writes in the aftermath of the great victory—about the hungry people who borrow money and make love, whose lives aren’t amenable to any sort of ideological dream. They’re Spain’s desperate rogues, the Lazarillo de Tormeses who scramble through life with no time for the dreams of the Don Quixotes or the Saint Teresas—the winners of the Civil War, who want a duro for a square meal and a friendly body to share a bed for the night.

Cela’s pointillist sketch encompasses the café owner who bullies her employees but can be kind to the aging whore among her customers; the pious lady sending money to baptize in Chinese children; the middle-aged fairy called the Snapperette whose mother is killed by God-knows-who while he’s out cruising; the Galician policeman on the night watch who was in the Nationalist army during the War and wanted a cushy job when the fighting ended; the lady who as a girl conceived a child in a field with a seminarian, and when she had to leave the village the baby died on the road, and then she was a whore in Madrid, and now she’s getting older so she cleans the beds each morning at a whorehouse.

Cela’s unsparing portrait of Nationalist Spain is the more effective because it comes from a Rabelaisian Nationalist, not from the party-line Left. Nor is it a wonder that Cela eventually received the Nobel Prize for Literature. His Lazarillo-cum-Runyon prose style, newly and very well translated by James Womack for New York Review Books, and the acuity of his bitter vision, merit that honor.

Cela is not a feel-good writer. There’s delight to reading about straight-talking Madrileños because we can contrast them with the neo-Stalinist Eloi who rule in our own time and place. But Cela’s novel warns that man endures irredeemably even after the revolution. Say we Make America Great Again. Say that after a civil war we drive the Woke from the ruins of Harvard and turn NPR into the 24-7 Wendell Berry Home Companion. Cela is the guy who fought for the hypothetical NatCon revolution and goes back home to Middletown, and he sees the people on the street are still parked on a barstool or on fentanyl, hooking up and raising the kids on welfare, kind or feckless or cruel as they’ve always been.

That’s not the only truth of the world. Our Don Quixotes and our Saint Teresas see other parts of it, and we need them. But we are also Lazarillos, and always will be. Read Cela because he’s a scabrously good writer—but also to remind ourselves that what Quixote and Teresa dream has to be lived by the Lazarillos, and their dreams can do only so much to change our lives.