El mar

A novel by Blai Bonet, published in 1958.

Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium, this first novel by Blai Bonet describes, in the monologues of four characters, a series of events which occurred in the Spanish Civil War and the not very imaginary harsh post-war conditions in the imaginary village of Hostili. The main voices are those of the patients Manuel Tur and Andreu Ramallo, punctuated by the memories of Sor Francisca Luna, nun and warden, and Gabriel Caldentey, priest. The crux of the novel is the murder of Don Eugeni Morell by Andreu Ramallo, his protégé and lover.

The novel is divided into thirty-two chapters, each one titled with the name of the narrator: twelve by Manuel Tur, thirteen by Andreu Ramallo, three by Francisca Luna, and four by Gabriel Caldentey. They are almost monologues, some addressed to a you, who is the narrator himself, along the lines of a technique made popular by William Faulkner. Like the early poetic works of Blai Bonet, this novel is a kind of whirlwind of different and, at times, opposing influences. Bonet, with varying intensity, draws on the modern universe of Faulkner, the American behaviourism of John Dos Passos, the misnamed “Catholic novel” of Graham Greene, and the French writers Mauriac and Bernanos, Parisian existentialism—especially of Albert Camus—Italian neorealism, Iberian tremendismo—especially of Cela, and basically his novel Pabellón de cáncer—and even the then recent French école du regard and nouveau roman.

Some criticisms made of the novel at the time it appeared, for example the scant difference in the voices or the gruesome cruelty of some of the scenes, are annulled by the fact that they are part of the tremendous telluric energy which makes El mar a unique experience, a plunging into evil in a way few authors have dared to do. Crudely realist, it also has, however, a symbolic side, focused in particular on the diabolical figure of Andreu Ramallo, a forerunner of the Judases who will appear in many of Bonet’s works.

Memory and Violence in Blai Bonet’s Novel El mar

Xavier Pla

The novel El mar is a surprising, difficult, complex work which has always had its detractors in Catalonia. A landmark among post-war Catalan novels, it caused a certain moral uproar when it was published […]. Fifty years afterwards, El mar has not aged in the least and still deserves the reader’s full attention. […] Besides contributing his own religious experience, an existentialist Christianity also notably influenced by the figure of the French writer Georges Bernanos and the mystical exaltation of Paul Claudel, Blai Bonet skilfully integrated the best of the existentialist philosophical trends to write a daring, ground-breaking novel without the least intention of constituting a historical chronicle of post-war Mallorca. Rather, he offers an existential reflection on the human condition on the basis of the radical, subjective experiences of a group of adolescents who have been admitted to a tuberculosis sanatorium. For biographical reasons, Bonet did not suffer the maximum cruelty of the Spanish Civil War as he was only ten when it broke out, but he always wanted to declare himself a victim of the post-war years and of the moral repression and customs imposed by the Franco dictatorship. Although Bonet denied the autobiographical nature of the novel El mar, which certainly seems more like a collective drama than a tale of personal vicissitudes, one can easily divine his personal experiences in the literary representation of that sanatorium, with its male, female, and nurses’ pavilions. Accordingly, there are, in fact, very few references to the Civil War, so he only has a few uniformed Italians in Palma to refer to the fact that Italian fascist aviators came to Franco’s Mallorca preparatory to bombing Barcelona. In particular, it is the children who see the executions by firing squad against the cemetery walls who are clearly used to distinguish, on the one hand, present time (the post-war years) from the past (the Civil War) and, on the other, to create a still greater distance between the world of adolescents and that of their parents, the definitively corrupt realm of adults.

[...] What most concerned Blai Bonet were the destruction of the adolescent world and the irruption of the adult world. “In El mar I wanted to write about the most recondite corners of the lives of post-war adolescents.” It was in this synthesis of life in the sanatorium that Bonet began to write El mar. [...] Some scenes in the novel, especially those describing the violent deaths of animals like cats, are among the few examples of Iberian tremendismo in the contemporary Catalan novel. And all this fits with the main themes of the book: sex, fear, blood, adolescence, illness, mirrors and, naturally, the effects of the war.

[...] Perhaps we might try to highlight some of the stylistic features of Blai Bonet’s novel, in an approximation to the narrative lyricism which so fascinates his readers. In this novel, for example, what stands out most of all is the author’s determination to achieve linguistic and stylistic refinement so as to achieve the highest order of expressivity with a minimum of words. Condensation, concision and distillation are key elements for understanding a work which advances quite brusquely and with a certain penchant for repetition: “The path of Don Eugeni Morell’s death has very rough vegetation. The path of Don Eugeni Morell’s death has holm oak woods on either side. The ground beneath the holm oaks is bruise-coloured and pink.” Second, there is an absence of descriptions. Bonet opts to present to the reader a world that is neither complete, nor objective, nor exhaustive, showing instead a great concern to present a subjectivity or, better, a sum of subjectivities, drawing the reader closer to an evident desire for reflection and intimacy. Accordingly, there is almost no description except on the first page of the novel, which gives a painterly, exhilarating view of the landscape (running down to the sea) seen from inside the sanatorium, now dysphoric, and encased in a window frame. After these first few highly sensual and colouristic pages peppered with numerous adjectives the rest of the novel consists more of “saying” than “describing”. The inclusion of some poetic images, brief prose poems, and small metaphorical excursions with a lot of pictorial reminiscences, also enhances the book’s lyrical character [...].

Moreover, fragmentism is one of the structural features of the novel […]. Its division into thirty-two chapters breaks up the textual continuum and gives each chapter the status of a basic unit of meaning. […] The novel is also the result of an intense narrative reworking of time. The fact that Bonet gives total priority to the present tense favours the static, contemplative nature of the story which, seemingly not advancing, conveys a certain positive monotony to the reader. […] What he does is to present a single narrative voice and then to give the voice directly to his characters, a voice that can only be identified by the title he gives to each of his brief chapters. Although two characters, Manuel Tur and Andreu Ramallo soon emerge as protagonists, the narrative technique is simple but effective since it makes the reader realise that, in fact, Bonet has allowed only some of his characters to speak, without distinguishing them very much from the rest. What he aims to do is precisely to confront the reader with similar characters, ailing, hallucinating, delusional, feeling the pain of fear of death and, at the same time, the vigour with which they are endowed by their respective bodies as they evolve towards adulthood. These are characters that do not discuss things but engage in monologues, as if talking to themselves. Narrative discontinuity and multiple internal focalisations give this novel unforgettable emotional intensity. The characters in Bonet’s novel are constantly confronting themselves in mirrors, made to face their faded, protruding or sometimes sunken, almost extinguished eyes. […]

Immersed in a clearly dysphoric space, dominated by black and white, and the red of blood, the wan, greyish, sad adolescent protagonists of Bonet’s novel live with the anguish of God’s stern gaze and the notion of sin. […] This novel gives voices of a strange loneliness and desolation to these tortured, distressed characters, obsessed by guilt and the awakening of sex.

After the war there is no peace. Another kind of war arrives, the post-war period which, according to Blai Bonet, was a war that penetrated into the earth, into the pubis of the universe, creating dark caves and arousing lust. Like the sea.

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