The Family of Pascual Duarte
(1942), a novel by the Spanish author and Nobel laureate Camilo Jose Cela, was the first novel in the tremendismo
vein, which stems from the word “tremendous, awful” in Spanish. This novel, and others that follow in the same genre, speak to the unspeakable violence, pain, and savagery of characters who live in the margins of society and have limited access to power. The novels are notable for their frequent, extended scenes of violence. The Family of Pascual Duarte
is narrated by one violent individual, Pascual, as he sits in his cell waiting to be executed for his third homicide – that of a local nobleman. The story is told from his perspective, in a rural Spanish dialect.
The narrative is structured as a transcript, which the translator claims to have transcribed from a collection of disorganized and sloppy passages he found in a manuscript in a drug store in Estremedura. There is a preliminary note by this transcriber, who says that anyone reading the book should behave in precisely the opposite way from Pascual, whose violence disgusts the editor.
From there, the novel moves into the real narrative as depicted by Pascual himself. Pascual was raised in Estremedua, a small independent part of the Spanish state that was particularly unstable during the years of Pascual's life, from the 1880s to 1937, when he was executed for his crimes. The area of Estremedura was extremely poor during this period, and predominantly rural. Pascual claims to have been raised on a small, rural farm, making pennies off his land and struggling to survive.
Pascual's family is notorious from the outset, and the environment in which he is raised is appalling to even the most seasoned readers. Pascual's mother and father are both alcoholics, who abuse their children. Pascual's father, Esteban, dies from a bite from a rabid dog two days before Pascual is born. Rather than seeking medical treatment for Esteban, the family locked him in a closet, and he died raving and screaming in that solitary, dark room, gone mad from the disease. Pascual's mother lives on, taking on other partners. Pascual has another half-brother and sister. Mario, his half-brother, is born with developmental disabilities, and rather than care for him, the family leaves him to crawl on the floor with their pigs and dogs. Mario is attacked by the pigs one day, who eat his ears; the family can't stand to look at him afterward because of the horrible disfigurement. After this incident, Mario is terrified of pigs, shrieking when they are around. Don Rafael, Mario's possible biological father, kicks him during one these fits, and Pascual's mother laughs. This is the beginning of Pascual's resentment of his mother. The only saving grace of the family is Rosario, Pascual's sister, who leaves the house to make a living as a prostitute.
Pascual learns at an early age that the only solution to his problems is violence. He finds a wife, Lola, whom he falls in love with and rapes, only marrying her after she gets pregnant. However, the marriage is cursed from the outset, when Lola falls off the horse they take to go on their honeymoon and miscarries their first baby. The second baby dies at one year old, and Lola is distraught.
Pascual's resentment of his mother grows, and eventually, he murders her, as well as a notorious pimp whom he accuses of disrespecting his wife and his sister, who works under him as a prostitute. For these crimes, Pascual goes to jail; he is only released because of the good graces of a prison priest and the director of the prison, who see through his violent exterior.
Once Pascual is released, he takes another wife, Esperanza, the niece of the local witch. She loves Pascual despite her knowledge of the violence he has done and even forgives him after Pascual gets into a fight with a nobleman and kills him. Pascual returns to the prison where he has served two sentences and is executed in 1937 for his crimes. He is largely unapologetic, up to his dying day.
Camilo Jose Cela was a poet, novelist, short story writer, and prominent figure in Spanish literary culture. He was raised in a rural Spanish community and finished his first novel during a stint in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. He went on to become a noted figure in Spanish literature, winning the Nobel Prize in 1989. He wrote dozens of books in all genres but was most noted for The Family of Pascual Duarte
, because of its riotous reception in 1942 when it was published and subsequently banned, and his book The Hive