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Farewell to Delibes’ rural dissent

The death of novelist Miguel Delibes has robbed Spain of a unique literary voice.


Delibes critiqued Spain's disregard for its natural resources.

Miguel Delibes, who died on March 12 at the age of 89, was born in Valladolid, the capital of Castile, where he lived his entire life. He was typically Castilian in many ways: serious, courteous and unostentatious to the point of austere; less common in this conservative region, he was also a liberal democrat.

Delibes described his work as “Castile speaking”; he spoke of the lives of rural people and the disappearance of rural communities as Franco tightened his stranglehold on the countryside in the 1950s and 1960s through an unholy alliance between landowners and the Catholic Church.

Like many other artists who lived through the Franco years, Delibes spent his life fighting a low-level rearguard cultural resistance, pushing the limits of the regime’s tolerance as his literary stature grew.

He had started out as a reporter and cartoonist on Castile’s main newspaper, El Norte de Castilla in 1944, and his career as a novelist was launched by winning the Nadal Prize for his first novel, La sombra del ciprés es alargada (or The Long Shadow of the Cypress), in 1948. A claustrophobic portrait of post-civil war life in the walled city of Ávila, the book is also a powerful metaphor for the confines of life after a decade under Franco, and at the same time an exploration of the darker side of the Castilian psyche.

Two years later he published The Path, (available in English) the wonderfully sensitive story of a young boy, “The Owl”, who must leave his village to go to secondary school in the city. Over the course of the night before he is due to leave, he recalls the episodes of his rural childhood.

A rural rebel

Delibes kept out of politics, preferring to criticize the military regime indirectly through the characters in his novels. That said, he set up an arts club in Valladolid in the mid-1960s that became a forum for intellectual dissent. But he did run into problems with the authorities over his stance on environmental issues.

Indeed it was his exposure of the ravages that corrupt local officials, landowners, and businessmen were inflicting on the countryside through uncontrolled building, expropriations of land, and pollution that led him to resign as editor of El Norte de Castilla in 1963 after four years.

But by then, following the success a year earlier of The Rats (available in English) he was able to make a living from writing, and support his wife and fast-growing family (he had seven children in all).

Delibes would go on to win all the major literary awards in Spain: Nadal (1948), the Academy’s Fastenreuth Prize (1957), Crítica (1962), Prince of Asturias (1982), National Arts (1991), Cervantes (1993) and the National Prize for Fiction (1999).

The Rats explores most of the main themes running through Delibes’ work. The ambiguous title refers both to the profession of its main character, the rat catcher Ratero, as well as to the authorities who cynically try to evict him from his cave-home and force him into the modern world. Delibes deftly depicts the landscape and human and animal life of Castile, contrasting age-old customs and ways of life that are in balance with the environment with the corrupt reality the authorities want to impose. The civil governor is told by his superiors in Madrid that Spain’s image will be tarnished if tourists learn that people still live in caves. But of course, as Delibe’s subtly points out, no effort is made to address the real hardships suffered by rural people.

Delibes’ other outstanding novel exploring the same themes, and mystifyingly unavailable in English, is Los Santos Inocentes (or The Holy Innocents), which was adapted to superb effect for cinema by Mario Camus in 1984, and won at Cannes.

As in The Rats, a rural family is seemingly offered a way out of the grinding cycle of poverty when they are moved from their remote village in Extremadura to live on the estate of a wealthy landowner. But their hopes are soon crushed as we see them put to work in the big house and on the estate. This is now the 1960s, and Franco’s ruling classes have to find a way to appear to be modernisers while maintaining the rigid social relations of a hundred years earlier.

Delibes illustrates this impossible contradiction again and again through the landowners’ seemingly genial, yet intrinsically contemptuous and exploitative interactions with the all-too-obliging Paco (outstandingly played in the film by Alfredo Landa, a comedy actor in one of his few serious roles).

On one occasion the master of the house uses Paco to track the scent of the game birds shot at weekend parties (blithely telling his foreign guests that the man’s sense of smell is superior to that of a hunting dog). Extolling the virtues of the government’s rural literacy campaigns he then parades Paco and his family before the same guests, telling them to write out their names. As in all his books, Delibes’ country folk share animals’ ability to retain their dignity at all times, regardless of the humiliations and privations they are put through. Needless to say, it is the authorities and landowners who betray their brutishness as they try to appear modern and sophisticated.

The downside of “progress”

For those who think that Spain has thrown the baby out with the bath water in its headlong rush toward modernisation, Delibes’ work (several of his novels were filmed, and many of them are available with subtitles) offers a measured, well-argued, and above all, unsentimental argument.

For Delibes is no Romantic, and there is nothing sentimental about his portrayal of country life or his warnings of the damage being done to the environment. His is no simplistic dream of returning to a mythical rural utopia, nor does he reject the material and social benefits brought by modernity. Instead, his work reflects an environmentalist ethic, a pointer toward a new way of living.

For Delibes, the reality of progress is that it also imbues us with a competitiveness that diminishes our solidarity, our sense of community, and pushes us to control the environment and our fellow humans. The progress that Delibes saw around him was both dehumanizing and damaging to the environment. Far from being a reactionary, he was a progressive. The success of his books, and the near-universal esteem he was held in, shows that many Spaniards understood his message, but also knew, as in his books, that the last people who would act on it were the politicians.

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Published: Mar 19 2010
Category: Culture
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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