The World's Best Unknown Books
28 08 2013

Parent book: Álvaro Cunqueiro - Merlin and Company

From the Preface

Colin Smith

“Some critics concerned to define literary trends and schools and to attach neat labels have linked Cunqueiro into the ‘magic realist’ school of his times, whose creation - with whatever antecedents going way back in literary history - was indeed the work of Latin-American writers in Spanish. This is unsatisfactory and largely erroneous. He was concerned to recreate for modern readers a variety of ancient myths and settings in a series of very personal perceptions. He repeatedly said that they resulted from a sort of disciplined day-dreaming or imagining of the kind which enriches life or indeed without which our life is impoverished and meaningless. The experience of listening to tales as a child and, a little later, of reading tales for oneself, provides the basis for a never-ending process which the eventually disciplined or consciously directed adult imagination, equipped now with confidence and a breadth of reading experience and a style of expression and a sense of literary structures, will express, partly for the satisfaction of the author (that obsession with Shakespearian themes comes to mind), partly to stimulate and enrich readers. The word ‘fantasy’ has been used above, but any association with the twee world of faerie or the technical extravagances and pseudocosmology of sci-fi is wholly out of place.

The settings and themes chosen for Cunqueiro’s fiction coincide happily with very generalized experiences of western mankind in myth-making and in literary tradition: Celtic (Merlin, Arthur, Ireland in a variety of aspects, Brittany as a land of ghosts); classical (Ulysses, Orestes); the fresh new innocence of the Renaissance; even oriental (Sinbad). None of this is romanticized or falsely archaized or viewed with starry-eyed ingenuousness, but is shot through with an entirely modern sense of regretful powerlessness and humorously expressed distrust: Orestes never secures his vengeance but fades away in a mist of self-doubt; King Arthur suffers from an awkward, debilitating, and thoroughly unheroic complaint; Sinbad is an agreeable liar; Fanto dies bereft of his triumphs; and, most tellingly of all, Paulos cannot sustain his dream. There is inadequacy, frailty, defeat, the perpetual sadness of the human condition (alleviated where possible by rueful good humour) everywhere. This gives an answer to those critics who, when not concerned with ‘magic realism’, have classed Cunqueiro as a writer of ‘literatura de evasión’, escapist literature of the kind which in a dull world might provide an hour’s diversion.

In Merlin e familia as in As cronicas do Sochantre Cunqueiro sets himself within one of the most ancient literary traditions of western peoples and indeed of oriental ones too: that of storytelling within a framework. From India and Persia the mode spread (as chess did at the same time) into the Muslim empire in Arabic, and thence into Latin and medieval vernaculars. The Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and many other collections come readily to mind. In some the framework intrigues the listener or reader as much as any of the tales being told, and in these and others the storyteller emerges as a rich personality. If one feels one knows Alice, Wife of Bath, as well as one’s next-door neighbour, and probably remembers her better than the tale she tells, that is a bonus which Chaucer offers. In the same way, Cunqueiro’s old boatman who recounts memories of his boyhood and early life - with what embroiderments (fictions within fictions) we can only guess - surely has a full and rounded personality of his own. Cunqueiro himself must have been aware of this because he much extended the old boatman’s life in the Appendix he wrote for the later Castilian edition: his creation refused to fall silent the moment his tale-telling function was concluded. Within the fiction - here the best comparision is with Don Quixote - the characters appreciate a good story, may comment on the style of the telling, and seem authentically within the now vanished world of the art of the spoken word. Cunqueiro even shows us a professionai story-teller, Elimas, giving a virtuoso performance.

As for the geographical setting of Merlin, it is identifiably one not far from Mondoñedo. As a boy Cunqueiro went often to stay with relatives in a large house at Riotorto, with balcony, small rooms in the attic, a large yard closed by a big outer gate. This house he calls ‘Miranda’ and places Merlin in it. Miranda - if Latin neuter plural, ‘things-to-be-wondered-at, wonderful things’ - is in fact the name of the large surrounding area, still one of the divisions of the diocese of Mondoñedo. Some of what the boy Felipe sees and hears from Merlin’s house, especially at night, are doubtless what the boy Alvaro Cunqueiro saw and heard, but others are dreamed and invented, which is why certain unimaginative modern critics are having poor results in trying to track down other Merliny place-names (such as Belvis, Esmelle), personages, and vistas. The eye of the boy-man Cunqueiro bore no resemblance, thank goodness, to the lens of the camera.

Readers of English may at this point understandably have in mind T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone of 1938. The comparison is valid but, if it is made, readers will find that Cunqueiro emerges as far superior. White’s book (with its continuations much reprinted, of course) enjoyed a triumph with many reviewers and readers, and it enchanted me in earlier days. Today it seems to have some good passages but quickly

produces embarrassment with its forced jokiness, pedantic minilectures on falconry and tilting and other matters, fingerwagging animadversions to the reader, and ponderous archaisms and technic isms. Cunqueiro’s touch is lighter, much more sensitive, the result more coherent and convincing.

In person Alvaro Cunqueiro was large, affable, generous and warm-hearted, greeted wherever he went (as I was able to observe) with respect and great affection. He enjoyed all kinds of company, food and wine (once declaring that any good dish is ‘a work of the human imagination’), country rambles, old buildings, his work. He was unashamedly old-fashioned, a traditionalist and monarchist who - as will appear in the stories that follow - would have been happy in almost any kind of nondespotic ancien regime, and who indeed lived in many of them in his dreams. He was a sound practising Catholic who revealingly declared to an interviewing journalist soon after Vatican II that he accepted its changes (and greatly liked the Mass in Galician) but that ‘Christianity is the religion of symbols and mysteries, and anything which destroys these troubles me deeply’. Perhaps he would like to be remembered as one who cultivated and cherished symbols and mysteries of every kind and wished to share his rich experience of them with his readers.”

by Colin Smith (Everyman Library, 1996)