Camilo José Cela’s The Hive is an early work by a man who would later be considered a master. Published in 1950 in Buenos Aires, it was controversial at the time of release, even costing the author his job with a newspaper in his home country. Given the later Nobel prize winning status of his work, this represents an excellent example of standards changing over time while also helping to illustrate the capricous and viscious nature of a facist regime.
The plot, nonlinear and disjointed as it is, takes place over the course of a few days on the people who visit or connect to a small cafe in Madrid during 1943 and the changes in society as felt by the fairly wide span that might visit such a business. There’s a startlingly high character count and an attempted frankness that doesn’t always work yet often succeeds in provoking the reader.
The depiction of society as damaged, sick, and in general broken is probably the greatest key to this text. It is noted on page 159 that “The rot’s on the very top. Down here, there’s not much at all.” While not exactly a summary of the text, it’s an excellent example of the philosophical and situational underpinings of the book. A society shortly after a civil war is going to feel that way regardless, and the resulting dictatorship encouraged some of the worst parts of the national psyche.
The Hive seems significantly less edgy and disturbing now than it might have in many circles when originally released. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have its share of surprising, disturbing, or uncomfortable moments. Instead it helps to illustrate that standards change, and in one way or another a society at it’s worst manages to show humanity. While much of the moment by moment conversation might seem that it could fit into a BBC sitcom, the larger picture is more than disturbing.
The multiple introductions by the author include his thoughts on the book from the decades following origional publication, and it is a boon that they are included in this collection. While the main starring piece is still of course the novel itself, these notes from the author provide their own odd and humorous narrative.
Some elements will make this book slightly more comic for a current American reader than was the intent. On the other hand there is a dark comedy to the book as a whole which is difficult to deny, and the added laughability might help to highlight that for some.
The Hive is very much not a book to be read casually. Its narrative is extremely multifaceted and barely connected at times, with the nonlinear expression of its ideas make this even more complicated. It is often vulgar, strange, or even insulting. Yet it produces a fascinating and dizzying image of a culture trapped in a particularly rough situation. Students of Spanish literature, in translation or not, should track down a copy of this book. Those who are curious about it and enjoy more experimental work would do well to pick it up.
(NYRB Classics, 2023)