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By Camilo Jose Cela
Translated by J.M. Cohen in consultation with Arturo Barea
New York: The Noonday Press, 1900
ISBN # 0-374-55230-8
250 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
March 2013

Set in Madrid during WWII we follow a group of struggling people in modest to underclass situations. There isn’t much of a plot, virtually none, but author Cela treats us to bits and pieces of the lives of these struggling people, and in the process gives us a gut level feeling of life in that time and place. It’s a powerful, rewarding and very different reading experience. The list of “main” characters is simply huge, some commentators have suggested there are more than 300 characters, each one entering the limelight for a few minutes, revealing some of his or her struggle, and then just disappearing, at least for a while if not permanently.

Dona Rosa’s café in a run-down section of Madrid is somewhat of a center. Lots of people gather there, many regulars in two groups, the daytime and the evening group. They meet, sip a coffee, smoke a cigarette and talk, make plans and such while some eat dinner.

There are just too many characters to pick any out for extended comment, but just to have a sense and flavor of whom we do meet:

Martin Marco, would-be poet, writer, who thinks of himself as a persecuted intellectual.

Don Roberto Gonzalez keeps books for the baker and others. His wife Filo is home with the children and her brother, Flamenco, lives there too, but he really dislikes Roberto.

The little gypsy boy sings for small change and even SELLS change to cafes and bars.

Julio Garcia Morrazo is a policeman who was wounded in the Civil War and is now a respected but simple and lowly policeman.

Paco is a young man week and ill and needs medicines. Victoria loves him, but knows only by selling herself can she get the money for meds he needs. She has Janvier as her “man.” She earns little by prostituting herself, but it allows her to stay with sickly Paco.

Celestino Ortiz constantly dreams of heroic deeds he’s never performed

The list goes on and on.

The novel is filled with contrasts: Lots of hardship, hunger, illness, unhappiness, yet the people go on. They laugh, make love, raise children, have fun and survive. One gets the strong sense of their struggle but also one feels a confidence that despite the hardships and misery they accept life and so go forward. Their interests and problems are primarily immediate and local. Love, food, shelter, everydayness of the local scene dominates. There is very little mention of larger issues of politics, WWII, Spain as a larger setting. The reader comes away with a very strong sense of the LOCAL.

And yet from these little disconnected or weakly connected bits and pieces, a picture of life in Madrid during the middle of World War II emerges. Life is dominated not by WWII, but by the recent Civil War which tore apart Spanish society.

The overarching sense of the novel is that life, the meaningful life of this city is the daily lives of the mass of people, particularly the relatively poor people. It is not, on Cela’s account, the political life of the powerful and controllers of life, but it is the day in day out lives of the people in the café’s, streets, little apartments. Meaningful life is constituted by the daily intrigues and struggles for food, a bit of money, companionship, love and health.

The title, The Hive, reinforces this notion of the isolated local area. Dona Rosa and her café seem to be this hive of busy humans who come and go each with his or her buzz, but not much connection to anything outside the hive. They leave the hive, yes, most of them daily, but they come back to live and be. They leave only to secure the necessities for living in the hive.

The novel so reminds me of much of my own work for the past 20 years. In 1993 I moved back into the neighborhood in which I grew up. It is a working class area of St. Louis called Dogtown. I had moved back after some 40+ years away and didn’t know how to really “reconnect.” So, I decided I would write the history of the neighborhood and began with an e-mail list and 7 people. We began to talk of “old” Dogtown. At the same time I started researching and writing about the settlement of Dogtown from 1853 on.

Soon I was a bit disenchanted. The list of people on the mailing list was growing and my essays on a web page were growing. But it became more and more clear that the people were much less interested in “history” as we normally perceive it than they were with their own families’ histories, their memories of an idealized past, and their lives and struggles in the present.

I think that given that “connection” with the spirit of Cela’s gripping stories and verbal portraits, I was deeply drawn into his method of reconstructing the era. It is from the inside out; from the little people and not from the movers and shakers that much of history devolves upon.

It is a bit frustrating at times that he spends a few paragraphs on this or that person, gets the reader really gripped, then drops that person, if not forever, for perhaps 30-40 pages before we hear of them again. Nonetheless, I came away from THE HIVE feeling I had a deeper level of understanding of the area of which he wrote.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett