Book Review

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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Book Review – Promise and Power : The Life and Times of Robert McNamara by Deborah Shapley

Many called Robert McNamara the “greatest management genius” of his era and yet today his name is synonymous with failure, mismanagement, and deceit. In this book, Shapely narrated this “whiz kid’s” meteoric rise to the heights of respect and prominence, through his downfall and disgrace as the architect of “McNamara’s War”: the tragedy that was the Vietnam conflict.

 

Shapely described McNamara’s education as the formative years of his life. He received an undergraduate degree in Economics from Berkley and later received his MBA from Harvard. McNamara was driven to do so by an idealistic belief that management was the key to solving the problems that plagued his society. He was an ardent believer in the capability of business to benefit society.

 

In school, McNamara learned the concepts of statistical controls and “throughput” which were pioneered by Donaldson Brown at du Pont and later adopted by Alfred Sloan at General Motors. These ideas were to shape American industry and make the 20th Century the “American Century.”

 

McNamara rigorously applied these ideas to first the U.S. Army and later to Ford Motor Company. For his efforts, he rapidly rose through the ranks of both organizations: he left the Army as a Lieutenant-Colonel and eventually rose to the Presidency of Ford. The later was a post he held for only a month as he was summoned by newly elected President John F. Kennedy to accept a position of even greater responsibility to society: that of Secretary of Defense. Because of his belief in public service, it was a call he couldn’t refuse.

 

The majority of Shapely’s narrative focused on McNamara’s seven years as head of the Defense Department. It was to be a tumultuous time as McNamara’s unshakable faith in statistical controls was to alienate many members of the military, and later the American public as a whole.

 

Shapely sharply criticized McNamara’s management of the Defense Department. McNamara took the ideas of economies of scale he leaned at Ford and contracted to design a plane that could be used both by the Navy and the Air Force. Both services didn’t like this concept, but it went forward anyway as McNamara believed, “the more important the decision, the fewer people should be involved in making it.” The plane never got off the ground and the project was later scrapped.

 

McNamara’s intractable belief in his brand of management blinded him to larger political considerations. Shapely described the cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a “political issue” as opposed to a matter that jeopardized U.S. national security. She also disparaged how McNamara tended to promote people in the military who were “numbers crunchers” instead of individuals with “operational” proficiency. And then there was the Vietnam War…

 

McNamara has been pilloried by many historians and journalists for his conduct of the Vietnam War. Shapely emphasized the duplicitous way in which McNamara was positive about the way the war was going in public and yet expressed grave reservations in private. The biggest criticism of McNamara was his “gradualist” approach to the war; in other words, his belief that the war in Vietnam could be a war fought with limited means for limited ends.

 

This may seem like an inordinate amount of criticism for the “greatest management genius” of his age, but Shapely had more to come. Shapely disparaged McNamara’s presidency of the World Bank. Through his emphasis on “throughput” McNamara made development the Bank’s primary mission. While this was a well intentioned move on McNamara’s part, it led to the developing world becoming overloaded with debt.

 

Shapely painted a very tragic portrait of our longest serving Secretary of Defense, but there’s a larger point that she missed. Robert McNamara was a brilliant man who received the best education this country had to offer. He studied and mastered the conventional management theories of the time and applied them rigorously in every organization he worked. He did exactly what he was trained to do and did so better than anyone else in his time. He applied these lessons in some of the most powerful public and private institutions in the world: and today “the computer with legs” is regarded as the epitome of hubris and failure. That is the tragedy of Robert McNamara.