I first heard of Benito Pérez Galdós many years ago when he was mentioned in an interview with the distinguished Spanish film director Luis Buñuel. Buñuel, who had thrice adapted Pérez Galdós’ work (Tristana and Nazarin, and Viridiana, which was based on the novel Halma), expressed surprise that his novels weren’t better known outside the Spanish speaking world, and claimed that at his best, he could be as intensely powerful as Dostoyevsky. Since then, I have become acquainted with some of Pérez Galdós’ novels in translation, and I, too, can but express my surprise that he is not better known. His novels are not easy to find in English: even his most famous, Fortunata and Jacinta, appears to go in and out of print. But they’re well worth hunting out. I have, so far, read Fortunata and Jacinta, Misericordia, the tetralogy of novels Torquemada, and, most recently, Nazarin; and they seem clearly to be the works of a master novelist.
Nazarin, written in the mid 1890s, was one of Pérez Galdós’ later works, and, as with Misericordia, written shortly afterwards, the author seems fascinated by the idea of sainthood – of what it is that makes a human being a saint. In Misericordia, the character who eventually emerges as a saint may seem a most unlikely candidate for the part: she is an uneducated, superstitious, and very un-other-worldly serving woman, who had not been above nicking from her mistress in better times, but who, now that her mistress is impoverished, is prepared to go begging on the streets herself to protect her beloved mistress from the sort of life to which she has not been accustomed. It is a sort of secular sainthood in a sense, but, as the title implies, Pérez Galdós sees it in quasi-religious terms. Here, the religious aspect is more apparent: Nazarin is a priest, but he is a priest who is determined to take Christ’s gospel at his word. He abjures not merely wealth, but even possessions; he abjures pride, anger, hatred. He seeks out poverty, and keeps to the truth at all costs, regardless of consequence. He looks forward to a sort of paradise on this earth, in the here-and-now, that can be attained once humans have banished all material possessions and desires – once humans disdain to wield power over their fellow humans. And the best way to this spiritual, communist paradise is to lead through example. And so he leads through example: he lives the life preached by the gospels, the life of meekness, poverty and non-resistance to evil that Tolstoy was advocating at much the same time as this novel was written. (It is no surprise to find that Pérez Galdós had read Tolstoy’s polemical works with keen interest.)
Such a man as Nazarin is, of course, an admirable man; but he is also a fool. As he sets out from Madrid to live out his unyielding principles, two parallels become obvious – one with Christ himself, and the other, somewhat disconcertingly, with Don Quixote. Like Cervantes’ hero, Nazarin is both remarkably sane – even remarkably intelligent – and yet, at the same time, a madman. Don Quixote had set out to seek the ideals of chivalry, and, leading by example, to practise these ideals himself, regardless of consequence; Nazarin, on the other hand, sets out to seek the ideals of Christianity, and, also regardless of consequence, leads by example. The results are doomed to failure from the very beginning, but, for Nazarin, even failure in pursuit of these ideals is preferable to any other course. The intense suffering that is entailed is accepted willingly.
Pérez Galdós was himself not a religious man in any conventional sense: he was a modern liberal, and was strongly secular and anti-clerical. And yet, on the basis of this novel and of Misericordia, his imagination was, in the widest sense of the word, religious. Like Cervantes, he is constantly aware of the sheer foolishness of his hero’s enterprise; and yet, he cannot help but admire, and even sympathise. As the novel approaches its end, some of the parallels to the story of Christ’s passion do seem a bit schematic at times, but nothing quite prepared me for the final pages. Here, Nazarin, feverish with typhoid, undergoes what can only be described as a religious vision. Now, Pérez Galdós knows well that this vision is no more than the product of a feverish mind; and he knows also that the fever is self-inflicted – that it has been brought on by Nazarin’s insistence on a life of poverty; yet I cannot think of anything I have read outside Dostoyevsky that conveys so powerful and so intense a sense of religious fervour. I can understand now why Buñuel had evoked Dostoyevsky in describing the work of Pérez Galdós. And yet, there is something very surprising about Peréz Galdós, a secularist and realist, writing something so imbued with what can only be described as religious mysticism; and it is perhaps, even more surprising that Buñuel, a militant atheist and surrealist, could respond to this so keenly.
Translations of Pérez Galdós’ novels are hard to come by, so any copy of any out-of-print translation found in second-hand shops is to be snapped up immediately, and treasured. He is clearly one of the major European novelists of the 19th century, and every work of his I read but increases my admiration.