Today on Project Gutenberg #36

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

The Torrent by Vicente Blasco Ibañez

Ibañez was a Spanish journalist and novelist who lived from 1867 to 1928. This is another instance where you may not recognize the author by name, but you might be familiar with what he wrote — or at least the adaptations of what he wrote. His most famous novel, Blood and Sand, has been adapted for the screen four times, most notably in 1922 and 1941. The adaptation of another novel, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, propelled silent film actor Rudolph Valentino to superstardom. But we’re not here to discuss either of those books today. We’re talking about a book from an earlier and more unusual period of Ibañez’s writing career.

Ibañez was born in Valencia, a city on the east coast of the Iberian Peninsula (and also the name of the surrounding province). Valencia was also the setting for Ibañez’s 1894 novel Airs and Graces, considered his first “serious” work. It’s about a widow trying to marry off her daughters. The novel was a success, and Ibañez would go on to write four more novels focusing on life in Valencia. The Torrent, first published in 1900, is the third of these four books. It might also be called Between Orange Trees, but I’m going with the name that Project Gutenberg uses for the book.

The Torrent is about Rafael Brull, a young man from the Valencian city of Alcira (or Alzira, as it’s also known). The Brull family is the most powerful in the city, having risen from humble beginnings to form a rich and formidable political dynasty. Rafael’s grandfather and father essentially ruled the city, and Rafael is expected to do the same. But Rafael doesn’t feel that he’s cut out for politics, and things get more complicated when he enrages his religious mother by courting an opera singer named Leonora. Will love conquer all, or will the constraints of society push our heroes apart? Now, I could answer that question for you. But the most interesting part of this book isn’t the plot.

Ibañez was a realist — that is, he was associated with the literary movement of Realism. First rising to prominence in the mid-19th century, the goal of Realism is for writers to depict the world as it truly is, often by focusing on the banality of everyday activities. There’s an additional layer to this when it comes to Ibañez, because he was also taking cues from the Naturalism movement. Naturalism is related to Realism and was pioneered by the work of Emile Zola, which Ibañez would have read. Naturalism is a little more difficult to explain, but it basically focuses on the idea that a novel is something of a scientific experiment. The characters are being acted on by forces like family background, the conditions of society and the physical environment itself. The novelist is acting as the scientist by adjusting these forces to see what the characters will do. We can see this idea at work at a few different places within this novel, one of which I’ll describe in more detail soon.

But there’s a third literary component we need to learn about here. This category is by far the most specialized one that Ibañez falls into. It’s called Costumbrismo, and it takes ideas from both Realism and Romanticism. How so? Well, the idea of Costumbrismo is to depict local life and customs in Hispanic (i.e. Spanish-speaking) regions, especially in the 19th century. The focus on bringing these specific times and places to life is right out of Realism’s rulebook. But Costumbrismo also comes with an emphasis on folklore and the most picturesque elements of nature, as well as a veneration of the past, all of which come from Romanticism.

A good example of how The Torrent fits into this literary movement comes from Part 1, Chapter 4 of the book. Heavy rainfall causes the Júcar River, which runs close to Alcira, to flood. In response to this, the poor farmers march into the city to fetch a statue of a Catholic saint whose legendary deeds included dispelling floods. The people of Alcira take the statue to the banks of the river, praying for a miracle to save them:

The statue was making its way very slowly along the inundated streets, for the feet of the bearers sank deep into the water under their load; and they could advance at all only with the aid of the faithful, who gathered about the litter on all sides to help. A writhing mass of bare, sinewy arms rose from the water like tentacles of a human octopus to carry the Saint along.

Just behind the image came the curate and the political dignitaries, riding astride the shoulders of some enthusiasts who, for the greater pomp of the ceremony, were willing to serve as mounts, though the tapers of their riders kept getting into their faces.

The curate began to feel the cold water creeping up his back, and ordered the Saint inshore again. In fact San Bernardo was already at the end of the lane, and actually in the river itself. His guards of honor were having a time of it to keep their feet in the face of the current, but they were still willing to go on, believing that the farther the statue went into the stream, the sooner the waters would go down. At last, however, the most foolhardy withdrew. The Saint came back. Though the procession at once went on to the next road and to the next, repeating the same performance.

And suddenly it stopped raining.

A wild cheer, a shout of joy and triumph, shook the multitude.

Vitol el pare San Bernat!…” Now would the people of the neighboring towns dare dispute his immense power?… There was the proof! Two days of incessant downpour, and then, the moment the Saint showed his face out of doors—fair weather! Excuse me!

In fervent thanksgiving weeping women rushed upon the saint and began to kiss whatever part of the image was within reach—the handles of the litter, the decorations of the pedestal, the bronze body itself. The tottering structure of wood and metal began to stagger and reel like a frail bark tossing over a sea of shrieking heads and extended arms that trembled with exaltation.

Part 1, Chapter 4

There’s a lot packed into this particular chapter. Through the story of San Bernardo himself and the incident with the statue, we learn a lot about what the locals believe, why they believe it and how their beliefs inform their actions. And Ibañez conveys all this with vivid imagery of natural destruction and the emotion resulting from that. It’s impressive work.

This is a cool book! I found the rabbit-hole of research I went down to be somewhat more interesting than the plot or characters, but neither of those things are actually bad. If dramatic tragic romances are your thing, you might want to take a look at this.

And that’s what we found on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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