This week in Book Club: Spanish realist Pio Baroja’s semi-autobiographical account of a medical student in an existential pickle in turn-of-the-Century Madrid. Baroja's most acclaimed novel, The Tree of Knowledge is a fiercely critical portrait of late-19th Century Spain and the frustrations of a young progressive trying to make a career for himself in its languishing society.
El Árbol de la Ciencia is Pio Baroja’s study of the career and attitude of a late 19th Century medical student trying to make ideological and professional progress in a stagnating Spanish society. Struggling for his own ‘camino propio’ as a thinker and man of science, but finding only a kind of state-sponsored determinism which has everyone in a moral and philosophical rut, Baroja’s autobiographical protagonist Andres Hurtado is an incorrigible pessimist and cynic going through a protracted metaphysical crisis. Man is, he claims, ‘one millimetre above a monkey, when not one centimetre below a pig,' and he e is gripped by a nauseating sense of disorientation in life; ‘the anguish, the desperation of not knowing what to do with life, of having no plan, of feeling lost.’
The novel takes up with Hurtado finishing his studies in Madrid, where he paints a damning portrait of bourgeois society. Having graduated, he next takes up a post as a doctor in a small provincial town, where he becomes anti-social and quite ill with the lack of intellectual stimulae on offer, as well as isolating himself from the community as a result of his idealism. The town leaves him with the impression of a Spain still labouring under the same old caciquism of medieval times, with the ignorant masses quietly and apathetically dependent on their decadent – and equally ignorant - landowning patrons.
On his return to Madrid he works as a hygiene doctor, and begins a doomed marriage with a prostitute called Lulu, drawn to her frank manner and refreshing mordacity.
Having faced years of slow deterioration in his prospects, the book ends with him facing one final anguish.
Baroja’s is a uniquely unromantic voice commentating on the cultural and ideological stagnation of late 19th Century Spanish society. On the politics of the era he is brazenly indifferent; ‘a politician is a rhetorician one must ignore, and a government that does nothing is the best.’
On old age, he states; ‘when one is old one does nothing but repeat.’ In fact, he appears to view his contemporary Spain as a country which old age has fossilized into dreary repetition. Even friendly people are driven off with a stick. ‘Only idiots have lots of friends. The greater number of friends marks the highest reading of the thermometer of stupidity.’
Like the Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewelyn Davis, El Arbol de la Ciencia sensitively chronicles the minor triumphs, tragedies and stunted aspirations of the idealistic outsider too stubborn and angry to achieve what he set out to. That it’s loosely based on his Baroja’s own career in medicine, only adds a sense of authenticity to what is a frank and engaging novel. The tragic death of the protagonist Andres Hurtado symbolizes Baroja’s own real-life rupture with the medical profession, which would set him on his path into the world of literature.