Book Review: The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela

Camilo Jose Cela crafted an outstanding novel about the results of a sorrowful life. He presented his tale through the writings of the protagonist as he awaited a death sentence. It enabled me to really connect with Pascual Duarte and understand his mindset and motivations. I applaud the author on his excellent choice of narration.

I found the beginning of The Family of Pascual Duarte the best I’ve ever read. Cela opened with a “Preliminary Note from the Transcriber”. He followed up with “Duarte’s Letter to the First Recipient of His Manuscript”. The author wrote both of them so convincingly that I initially thought this a work of non-fiction. That’s not an easy feat to achieve.

While Duarte freely resorted to violence, I could still empathize with the character. During his youth, his father died from rabies. (Page 41) When his 10 year old brother passed away his mother didn’t cry. This event fueled his anger and resentment. (Page 46) Things didn’t get much better for poor Duarte. A horse threw his pregnant wife off its back. This caused his first child to abort. (Page 80) His second son passed away at 11 months. (Page 88) Before killing the man who seduced his wife, the victim asked if Duarte thought his wife still loved him. (Page 129) You’ve got to think the guy had it coming to him just for being stupid.

The blurb on the back of the book mentioned that critics have compared Pascual Duarte to the narrator in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I disagree. While the author told the story through the protagonists’ eyes, I could understand his motivations for his violent behavior. For instance: Duarte returned to his wife after an absence of several years. Upon his return he discovered the same man who “ruined” (Page 122) his sister impregnated his wife. While I don’t condone violence, I can understand why the narrator resorted to it in this case.

From my reading, it seemed as though Duarte felt some regret over his violent actions throughout the story. At one point he wrote, “A past spent in sin is a heavy burden.” (Page 102) Later he commented that he longed to “put ground between many things.” (Page 150) I didn’t get a sense of that from The Stranger’s protagonist.

With that acknowledgement, the narrator also delivered the following chilling thoughts on conscience.

My conscience did not trouble me. There was no reason why it should. Consciences bite and prick only when an injustice has been committed, such as a drubbing on a child or potting a swallow on a wing. But when hate leads us by the hand, when we are in the throes of an obsession which numbs and overwhelms us, we need never feel the pangs of repentance, and our conscience need neither bite nor prick us. (Page 153)  

I did have an issue with Anthony Kerrigan’s translation, though. I caught a number of clichés in the text. Some of the most egregious included “thorn in my side” (page 37), “turn tail” (page 65) and “if the shoe fits…” (pages 74 – 75). He even wrote three clichés in a row in one paragraph. It read: “Fish get in trouble for opening their mouths, as they say, and whoever talks much errs much, and a shut mouth swallows no flies…” (Page 74) I understand the narrator wasn’t a Nobel Laureate in Literature; but the author was. Cela earned a more dignified translation than this one.

The Family of Pascual Duarte deserves to be more widely read. I’d strongly recommend it to fans of great literature. I encourage others to read it along with Camus’ The Stanger and draw their own conclusions regarding “similarities”. Whether one sympathizes with Duarte or not, I’m sure they’ll admire Cela’s awesome story telling ability.

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