The Spanish Riveter: From THE HIVE by Camilo José Cela, translated by James Womack

For the first time, The Hive is available uncensored, unabridged, for English-language readers. Set in the early years of General Francisco Franco’s regime, this scabrous and scandalous novel was first published in Buenos Aires in 1951 because in Spain it could not be published at all. Opinions differ on whether the suppression of The Hive is attributable to its ‘profane’ content, its grim portrait of life in Francoist Spain, or both. Widely considered Cela’s masterpiece, this formally innovative novel is exemplary of the outsized role that Cela played in shaping post-war Spanish literature. 

The novel explores a web of more than three hundred characters across Madrid over the course of a few days in December 1943. Though fragmented in chronology and perspective, the characters are linked by a chain of exchanges and debts, shared moments and common struggles, creating a whole that is socially rich and continuous.

A young man with long hair is writing verses in the midst of all this uproar. He’s away with the fairies, doesn’t pay attention to anything; it’s the only way to write beautiful poems. If he looked left or right then he’d lose his inspiration. Inspiration must be like a little deafblind butterfly that shines very bright; if not, then there’s a lot of things that are difficult to explain.

The young poet is writing a long poem titled ‘Fate’. He had wondered if it wouldn’t be better to call it ‘Our Fate’, but in the end, and after consulting with other, more experienced poets, he thought no, that it would be better to just call it ‘Fate’, straight up. It was simpler, more evocative, more mysterious. Also, calling it ‘Fate’ meant it was more suggestive, more … how shall we put it? more imprecise, more poetic. This way you don’t know if he is talking about fate, or a particular fate, or an uncertain fate, a desperate fate, a happy fate or a blue fate or a pink fate. ‘Our Fate’ tied things down too much, left less room for imagination to fly free, unbounded.

The young poet had been working on his poem for several months now. He had just over three hundred lines set down, a carefully drawn mock-up of what the book would look like, and a list of possible subscribers to whom, when the time came, he would send a press release, asking if they wanted to cover the costs of publication. He had also already chosen the typeface (a simple, clear, classic font; a font one can read with ease; you know what we mean – a Bodoni), and had written the copyright information for the verso of the title page. Two doubts, however, still assailed the young poet: whether he should or should not finish off the colophon with a laus Deo, and whether he should write, or get someone else to write, the biographical note for the dust jacket.

Doña Rosa was definitely not what one would call a sensitive soul.

‘You know what I’m saying. If I want layabouts, then I’ve got my brother-in-law. What a useless bastard he is! You’re still very green, you get me? Very green. When have you seen a lout with no manners and no morals come in here, coughing and stamping like he was God’s own gift? Never! Not on my watch, I’m telling you!’ 

There was sweat on Doña Rosa’s forehead and in her moustache.

‘And you, you dope, heading off to buy your newspaper. No one’s got any respect here, no one’s decent, that’s the truth! If one day I get properly angry, I’ll give you something to moan about, that’s a promise!’

Doña Rosa locks her ratty little eyes onto Pepe, the old waiter who came here, forty or forty-five years ago, from Mondoñedo. Behind the thick lenses, Doña Rosa’s little eyes look like the stunned eyes of a stuffed bird.

‘What are you looking at? What are you looking at? Idiot! You’re just the same as the day you got here! There’s no power on earth that can get the straw out of your hair! Get out of here, run along and leave us alone. If you were even a tiny bit of a real man, I’d have kicked you out into the street already! You get me? Don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes!’

Doña Rosa feels her belly and calms down a little.

‘All right, all right … Back to work. Don’t let’s lose our sense of proportion, for pity’s sake. Don’t let’s get disrespectful, you get me? No disrespect.’

Doña Rosa lifted her head and took a deep breath. The hairs of her moustache quivered aggressively, with a solemn, proud movement, like the little black horns of a cricket in heat.

By Camilo José Cela 

Translated by James Womack

The Hive by Camilo José Cela, translated by James Womack, New York Review of Books, 2023, £16.99


By Camilo José Cela

Translated by James Womack

Published by New York Review of Books (2023)

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Spanish Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Spanish Riveter page.

Camilo José Cela was born in Galicia and during the Spanish Civil War fought on the Nationalist side and briefly held a position as a Francoist censor. His debut novel, published in 1942, was chastised for its immorality, and his novel The Hive was banned in Spain. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989.

James Womack is a poet and a translator from Russian and Spanish. His most recent poetry collection,
Homunculus, was published by Carcanet in 2020. His translations include Manuel Vilas’s Heaven and a collection of poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky.

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