Rosa Chacel (1898-1994) sculptor, novelist, poet, essayist, feminist was born and died in Spain, with Brazil as a second home. She was a contemporary with the Generation of ’27, which included Garcia Lorca and Ramon Jaminez, and she was familiar with the writings of Freud and James Joyce and the philosophies of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. She claimed La sinrazón (Dream of Reason) (1960) to be her masterpiece and culmination of her fiction writing. This and much more can be found in Carol Maier’s helpful, thorough introduction. Maier is not only the translator of this Chacel book, which is appearing in English translation for the first time; she is the translator of two other Chacel novels that appear in the University of Nebraska’s European Women Writers Series; she is a scholar of Chacel’s entire writings, and she had the chance to know and explore the writer’s thought with Chacel before the end of her life.
This business of introductions presents a possible dilemma to the reader. To read the introduction first? In works of translation, or in bringing back into print a novel that has dropped out of sight (as with the excellent New York Review of Books) this decision is common. Often the introduction gives away more of the plot than one might want, or it takes away some of the enjoyment of discovery of style and thought. Why not begin reading the novel, skip the introduction; after all, if it is a worthy work of art then it should stand on its own, right?
Dream of Reason places this dilemma front and center. The writer is still a relative unknown to English speakers. At the outset the reader realizes that this novel is not plot driven. In her introduction, Maier gives a cogent explanation of Chacel’s intellectual project, that the novel tries to represent will and thought intimately joined to a person’s circumstances, a philosophical perspective from Ortega y Gasset. The voice of the narrator Santiago Hernandez is agreeable, but at times the ruminations can tax patience, unless the reader enters the novel forearmed. Not until page 268 of the novel does Hernandez explain, “One of our contemporary philosophers has said that the intimate life of ideas should be novelized. That is definitely what’s needed: the creation of a genre, a series of biographies of ideas, a thing very different from a novel of ideas.”
The novel is divided into two parts of almost equal length. In the first Hernandez is orphaned, taken in by his uncle in Madrid, has a relationship with a German dancer Elfriede who will return twice again at decisive moments to move the plot along; he attends university in Buenos Aires, marries Quitina, daughter of a wealthy Cuban. Hernandez finds an opening in his field of chemical manufacturing, which leads to his majority ownership of the factory and outright ownership of the hacienda in the country. He and his wife have three sons. Their family/social circle is expanded by the arrival as refugees of a distant cousin from Spain, Herminia, her adolescent son Miguel, and later Herminia’s husband Damien, a man troubled from taking the Republican side of the Civil War as a soldier.
The novel progresses through a series of crises, grounded in the world of action, but given real meaning and explained in the ruminations of Hernandez. In the dynamic world of people interacting we read how Quitina’s mother opposed the budding relationship and has Quitina shipped off with relatives in Cuba. Yet the more important action happens inside Hernandez’s head: he has a vibrant moment in the midst of the resulting turmoil as he focuses on a bothersome fly:
I tried countless times to hit the fly with my hand, but I’d always failed. . . . As I formulated my desire to see the fly annihilated, I did not try to hit it with the heavy instrument of my hand: I focused my intention on the fly and, and without breaking the spiral of its flight, I lead it toward the glass. There the fly fell and my energy collided with it on the glass. I heard it fry, because that was neither a buzzing nor a vibrating. . . . The blow reverberated throughout that uncommon limb of my will, the echoes of former convulsions. . . . For a few minutes, or rather, for one of those spans of time that seems impossible to divide into minutes I thought about the power that was within me, which had lived off my own life, without my noticing it.
At the same moment, as if related, Quitina’s mother is killed in a car accident, and the impediment to their relationship vanishes. Later Hernandez will repeat something of the same encounter, with different results. While in his study he notices a mounted butterfly specimen, and he sets himself the challenge that, if he would will it, he could make it flap its wings—only to end the ruminations with deciding he would will the butterfly not to flap its wings.
A second crisis that illustrates the inwardness of “action” in the novel occurs on an evening when Hernandez is staying in town at his work office and decides to tell Quitina that he has to stay too late that night to make the drive back to the country. He knows it is a lie as he tells it. The crisis he experiences is his expectation that Quitina not believe the lie. Instead Hernandez believes his relationship to his wife to be so profound that she should, she must, know that he is lying and then confront him. Her failure to do so is her failing. In uncovering the reality that he has idealized a perfect union of will and emotion between two imperfect people he asks, “And what’s left of love if love loses its sense of the absolute?”
The next move Hernandez makes in his narration is to turn to a moment of spiritual enlightenment, a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. In the modernist tradition in which Chacel writes though this leap is not one Kierkegaard would recognize. Referring to a moment of transcendence, Hernandez makes a claim that humans are self-deifying. Later he talks with Miguel about the withdrawal of God which allows all of humans to become divinized in each person’s moment of crucifixion, and the desire for each of us to become a Superman—not Nietzsche’s Ubermensch, dismissed as tiresome—but rather the Superman of the movies, a metaphor in some ways for becoming angelic.
The second half of the novel picks up the memoir six years later. While the first half of the book shows a building up of life—sense of self, marriage, work, relationships, the second half chronicles dissolution through a series of internal crises similar to those in the first, albeit with more conversation reported and events occurring in the world of action, helping to pick up the narrative pace a bit.
A significant tension remains at the end of the book. Hernandez is an ambiguous figure, intentionally presented as a not entirely likeable character. His crises of mind and spirit pale next to the war experiences of others, yet his own self absorption reverses the hierarchy of importance. His expectations of others in his life are unreasonable. The purpose of growing poppies, to produce opium, goes unstated, but reverberates. He is no everyman, nor hero. Yet he is the vehicle by which Chacel chooses to explore Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy, one toward which she was drawn.
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