Lecture Notes by Dr Rosemary Clark
Unamuno’s second last novel, San Manuel Bueno, mártir, was published in 1931. In that year, the Spanish King abdicated and fled the country after a sweeping republican victory in General Elections had made it glaringly obvious that the Spanish people were utterly disillusioned with monarchy and with themilitary dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, who had effectively governed for the last seven years, since 1923. By 1937 another dictator with an even more iron hand than Primo de Rivera – Francisco Franco Bahamonde – would take and hold power for almost forty years. In between lie the six startling, revolutionary years of the Second Republic leading to civil war in 1936. The willingness ofmany Spaniards to submit to Franco may well have been a panic-stricken response to the chaos and violence of those intervening years – chaos and violence that were spiralling even as Unamuno wrote this brief and startling novel.
Conditions in Spain had been worsening for a long time – arguably three centuries – but its slow decline had speeded up over the 19th century, marked bycivil wars and abortive coups, by demands for a constitution to control an incompetent monarchy and politicians, by the French invasion, wars in Morocco and – most cataclysmic of all – the loss of an overseas empire that had once provided jobs abroad and provided a market for industry at home. The Mexican Revolution in 1810 had started a process that culminated in the loss of Spain’s last vestiges ofempire in 1898. Unamuno was a member of what came to be known as the Generation of 1898: writers of all kinds who charted and questioned and sought to understand and explain their country’s disastrous fall from greatness. By the 19th century, in France, Britain and Germany industry not agriculture was where money was to be made. In Spain there was ship-building in Galicia, mines and steel mills inthe Basque Country and textile mills in Barcelona, while railways were facilitating the drift of population from the country to the town. Spain’s industrial revolution had happened late and was patchy, but urban slums soon matched the rural poverty of landless labourers in the poor south – and centre... and north.
At the same time, the nineteenth century had seen new ideas sweepingaway old certainties. The scientific work of Darwin, Lamark and others had revealed in the human race an animal heritage: were we Sons of God or the latest in a line of monkeys? Physiologists and neurologists were opening up the human body and head, scanning its secrets and finding no soul but only organs and grey matter. The new science of psychology was trying a different approach, studying thebehaviour of hysterics, phobics, obsessives and in Vienna Freud was already working as a clinical psychoanalyst. New kinds of knowledge were challenging the old and making the world a more frightening place for some.
It was tempting to look back beyond recent disaster to what seemed to the nostalgic a more glorious past: on the one hand, to Spain’s rich medieval pluralistic culture,the glorious Christian Reconquest of the peninsula and the centuries of Empire; on the other hand, to the imagined peace of a rural existence – working on the land, in small communities, with traditional values. The first-person narrative of one of the inhabitants, Ángela Carballino, voices how many Spaniards still feel today about their pueblo or their patria chica, to which they return from theanonymity of the city to the family house and their roots. Ángela Carballino’s father had come to the village a generation before, married a local girl and never left. Angela went away to the town for her schooling but likewise came back. Her brother Lázaro has spent years in America, making his fortune, and he comes back. Even the priest is from the village (Q1):
Decíase que había entrado en...