By Francisco Ayala
199 pages
Madrid: Iberia, 1986.

Comments of Bob Corbett
November 2002

This collection of 8 tales is one long moral essay. Those who usurp the freedom of others will create situations in which they themselves are likely to be harmed as well as the others. The stories are set in Spain and Portugal’s history and mainly accounts of the activities of kings and others of great power. Each tale is rooted either in a known historical event, or at least is completely consistent with life at a particular time. While the historical precedents are not fully identified, they seem to range from the most recent story, set around 1700 (The Bewitched) and as old at the 12th century.

Francisco Ayala writes very well and the stories are gripping, especially if one likes history to begin with.

My two favorite stories were The Inquisitor, the story of the Chief Rabbi of a large unnamed Spanish city during the Inquisition, who converts to Christianity, and then, both because he is a genuine convert and because he knows he will be watched for his orthodoxy, sets out to prove the purity of his faith. He becomes a bishop and the Inquisitor himself.

Eventually his own brother-in-law comes before him accused of as “Judaizing,” that is pretending to Christianity while actually remaining faithful to Judaism. The Inquisitor’s own young daughter, whom he loves more than any other person, begs him to pardon the uncle. This leads the Inquisitor to suspect that the spiritual advisor whom he has carefully chosen for his daughter, believing him to be the best in Spain, is himself lax in dogma, and thus Dr. Bartolome Perez is himself arrested to be questioned for the purity of his doctrine. His daughter is bitterly angry with her father and denounces him as excessive, leading him to reluctantly sign the arrest order for his young daughter herself.

I was deeply moved by the convincing unfolding of the logic of suspicion and power of his faith to allow these brutal anti-human acts in the name of his God. Ayala’s narrator tells the story in a way that just shocks us, since it is told from the perspective of the inner thoughts of the Inquisitor. He sort of off-handedly suggests that his beloved wife, Rebeca, who didn’t convert when the Inquisitor did, was “no longer with us.” And later he has told us a good deal about the arrest and interrogation of the Jew, Antonio Lucero before we ever learn that, oh yes, this is his brother-in-law! The final shocking scene when he reaches for the paper to write the order for his own daughter’s arrest was utterly chilling.

I couldn’t help but think back to the Grand Inquisitor that Ivan Karamazov tells us about in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He was very much like Ayala’s Inquisitor, so filled with his role that he was even willing to kill Jesus himself when he turns up in Seville. The daughter of the Inquisitor in Ayala’s story alludes to the Dostoevsky story when she attacks her father’s fanaticism telling him that were Jesus himself to return he would condemn Jesus.

What was even more powerful and sad to me about Ayala’s Inquisitor than Dostoevsky’s is that Ayala’s is deeply sincere in his faith and that is his motive. Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor is much more cynical and doesn’t believe at all, he is just acting on his own notion of goodness, not a religious faith.

The second story which I found gripping was the opening story San Juan de Dios. In this tale set some 400 ago, we read of the soldier Juan de Dios who is converted from his life as a warrior by the preacher Juan de Avila. He is so on fire with his new faith that he begins to loudly confess his evils in the public square and denounce himself as a sinner. He just won’t stop and is soon locked up as a mad man. Eventually released, and a bit clearer about his faith, he resolves to spend the rest of his life running a hospital for the poor, caring for the poorest of the poor. It is rather hard to imagine that Ayala doesn’t have Mother Teresa in mind in the character of San Juan de Dios.

Juan is one day beaten by a young noble when he begs at the foot of the man’s horse. Later while Juan is cleaning himself from the beating he is befriended by a noble woman who sends alms of some sort to him every day. The man who had beaten Juan and woman who gives alms turn out to be in relationship and Don Felipe is to be engaged to Dona Elvira. But, Felipe, in order to win her, has first financially destroyed the man who was seeking her hand, Don Fernando, and then, in his hatred, conceives a plan to cut off the man’s hands and give them to Elvira as an engagement present. He sets up an ambush for this purpose, but he can’t help but brag of this coming present to Dona Elvira. She is utterly horrified and says she will have nothing to do with him if he carries this out, so he rushes out to stop the ambush, but is mistaken by his henchmen as being Don Fernando, thus Felipe’s own hands are cut off and delivered to Elvira.

Eventually Felipe has a conversion of heart in his new state as crippled beggar and goes to make his peace with Juan, confessing the beating he had given him and apologizing. He becomes the saint’s right hand man, or at least one of the two. The other is Don Fernando, who was destroyed financial by Felipe and then emotionally by the break with Dona Elvira who herself becomes a recluse after the engagement party evening. The two men work in the hospital.

In a macabre last scene they hear that Elvira is sick in plague time and the three men rush out to her mansion only to find her already dead.

The other tales are also quite powerful, but the two above especially moved me. What I come away from the book puzzled about is the moral message. Surely Ayala is not wanting to preach the obviously silly message that the good prosper and the wicked eventually get punished, even here on earth. I think that’s not it; it doesn’t quite fit the stories. But, he is arguing a somewhat weaker version of this, namely that when you take the freedom of others you (often? ; always?) set into motion forces which are destructive of self, others and the situation in which you live and operate.

But is even this true? Don’t the wicked, the worst usurpers often seem to prosper and succeed even long-term? I tend to think that history suggests this success of evil and if that is the case, then why am I moved and attracted to Francisco Ayala’s moral tales? I’m not too sure.

A significant part of the answer is, I think, the powerful writing. Ayala just has the power to bring these stories to you in ways that I, at least, could believe exactly what happens to THOSE INDIVIDUALS. I don’t have to go so far as to think these tales represent all of human relations and point us to a universal principle – though I do suspect Ayala of intending that universal principle. But, the individual stories themselves are enough to tug deeply at my emotions and my heart and to attract my own sense of fair play and unwillingness to so easily usurp the freedom other others.

Thus reading the stories as individual tales that have a common theme, but not necessarily conceding the truth of the theme as universal truth, I still come away from the book pondering the ideality of a deep respect for other persons, and a great hesitancy in consciously usurping the lives of others.

What is more difficult is: what is usurpation and what is simply convincing the other to your way? This is a more subtle and difficult distinction, but one not really at play in Ayala’s stories. His villains all use the most brutal physical violence, thus the question of their harming others unjustly is simply not in question.

At the end of the collection Ayala inserts a short nine page “A Dialogue of the Dead.” This was originally published in 1939 after his brother and father were assassinated by the Nazis. It is a conversation with the dead of the Spanish Civil War on the state of Spain and the world. It is inserted here as sort of transition to his next collection of stories, The Lamb’s Head, all of whose stories concern the Spanish Civil War.

Francisco Ayala is a writer of unusual power with a mesmerizing ability to tell a story, creating vivid, if often frightening images. This little volume is well worth one’s time to read and even more time that is likely to be stimulated by the book in thinking through the moral issues which his tales raise.

Bob Corbett

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