Book Review: Niebla by Miguel de Unamuno (1914)
There is a famous anecdote about the Basque-born writer Miguel de Unamuno (b.1864), which Hugh Thomas documents in his excellent book, The Spanish Civil War. Much to the horror of his socialist friends, Unamuno, a rector at the University of Salamanca, had supported the Falangist uprising - but was then left in a state of shock by the growing canon of atrocities inflicted on Republican friends and intellectuals. It all came to a head at a poisonous public celebration of Columbus Day at Salamanca's Town Hall on 12 October 21 1936.
At the event were Franco's wife, the Archbishop of Salamanca and a number of important Falangists, including the crippled general Jose Millán-Astray. After speeches by several Falangists and repeated rabble-rousing cries of 'Viva la Muerte!' and 'España!' by General Millán-Astray, Unamuno, unable to remain quiet any longer, stood up and addressed the crowd: 'General Millán-Astray is a war-cripple...he wishes to create a new Spain, a negative Spain no doubt, in his own image. Which is why he desires a mutilated Spain...Venceréis - you will win, because you have too much brute power. But no converenceréis - you won't convince! Because in order to convince you need to persuade. And to persuade you need something you don't have: reason and right in the struggle.'
Having caused a riotous atmosphere in the hall with his words, Unamuno knew he had announced himself a traitor and that the official response would be swift and merciless. He managed to leave without being shot, thanks, curiously, to the protection of General Franco's wife, Carmen Polo. But Unamuno was immediately relieved of his position as rector of the University of Salamanca, and by the end of the year, the writer had died.
He left us with hundreds of essays, poems, origami animals - a passionate hobby of his - and novels. Perhaps his best-known work of fiction is Niebla, or 'Mist'. Written in 1916, it's a cornerstone of the Spanish modernist movement. It tells the story of an indecisive, rich, young man-about-town (Augusto) who falls in love with a hot-headed piano teacher (Eugenia) and a submissive cleaning lady (Rosarito). Eager to impress the beautiful, but manipulative piano teacher, Augusto helps her financially, and manages to win her over. On the eve of their wedding, however, Euegenia runs away with her other lover, the dandyish brute Mauricio.
Broken and intending to commit suicide, Augusto, in what is an early anticipation of metafictional, post-modern narratives (most obviously, The Truman Show) now learns that he is a fictional character and begins a series of conversations on death and immortality with his creator, the writer himself, Unamuno. The Basque writer believed that fictional characters, once planned, should evolve organically in their own right, giving them a metaphysical existence independent of the artist's act of creation.
A Kierkegaarde-inspired existentialist exploration of love and class prejudice, Niebla is full of the kind of philosophical paradox that illuminated its author's life as an academic: 'The dream of one alone is that of illusion, of appearance; the dream of two is that of truth, of reality. What is the real world but a dream which we all dream, the shared dream? Later I will sleep, as on other days, and she will sleep. Will Rosarito sleep? Won't I have disturbed the tranquility of her spirit? And that nature of hers, is it innocence or malice? But perhaps there is nothing more malicious than innocence, or more innocent than malice.Yes, yes, I already suspected that in truth there is nothing more...how shall I say it...more cynical than innocence.'
Unamuno, contrite to the idea of realism prevalent in the contemporary spanish novela, called his own works, nivolas, of which the story of Augusto Perez is a trigidy.
Niebla is rightly prized as a landmark in Spanish fiction, announcing a clean break from the expressive constraints of realism and a shift towards a new understanding of the possibilities of the novel. It is notable for the same eloquence and the characteristic courage of purpose with which Unamuno signed the death warrant of his career on that fateful day in October1936. As Unamuno says in Niebla:
“Beneath the current of our existence and within it, there is another current flowing in the opposite direction. In this life we go from yesterday to tomorrow, but there we go from tomorrow to yesterday. The web of life is being woven and unraveled at the same time. And from time to time we get breaths and vapours and even mysterious murmurs from that other world, from that interior of our own world. The inner heart of history is a counter-history; it is a process which inverts the course of history. The subterranean river flows from the sea and back to its source.”