When Time Was Measured in Decades
Viejas historias de Castilla la Vieja (Old Stories of Old Castile) is a short novel about Old Castile, the historic region and birthplace of Spanish author Miguel Delibes (1920-2010). The novel was published in 1964. Castilians revere their language, which they refer to not as Spanish but Castellano (Castilian). Castilians think of their language as the purest and most traditional form of Spanish. This is motivated by two factors. In the thirteenth century, King Alfonso designated Castilian the official language of the government. Castilians still take pride in this prestige. In addition, the Renaissance scholar Antonio de Nebrija wrote the first book of Spanish grammar, the Gramática Castellana, and also created a complete Spanish-language dictionary, both in 1492.
Castilians are known to have a singular outlook on life and the world. Their steadfast convictions enable Castilians to live by Saint Augustine’s saying, festina lente: “more haste, less speed.” There is much wisdom in this, for it means embracing life with resolve, but also with calmness and caution. In Delibes’s work, Castilians are presented as the last line of defense of rural values and the way of life in the region where Cervantes lived when he published the first part of Don Quijote in 1605, as well as several of his twelve Novelas Ejemplares (Exemplary Novels).
Miguel Delibes was born in Valladolid, the capital of the region of Castile and Leon. He began his career as a journalist, writing for the newspaper El Norte de Castilla. Delibes served as editor in chief from 1958 to 1963. He went on to publish over sixty-seven books and was awarded over twenty-three literary prizes. Delibes was awarded the Premio Nadal in 1947 for his first novel, La sombra del ciprés es alargadá (The Shadow of the Cypress is Long). He also won the Principe de Asturias Prize, Premio Miguel de Cervantes, and the Premio Nacional de Narrativa. Delibes was made a member of the Royal Spanish Academy in 1975.
Delibes’s writing is about his love for his native soil, which acts as a sort of mirror to the soul of the inhabitants of Old Castile. Delibes writes about the changes that his beloved Castile has undergone, especially in the rural areas, and how these changes affect the values and customs of its people. The character of the Castilian people that Delibes writes about, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, is marked by existential vitality. His travel and hunting books exhibit a profound link between the Castilian people and how they view the world at large. Viejas historias de Castilla la Vieja is not a travelogue, even though it does resemble Miguel de Unamuno’s Paisajes Del Alma. Both works describe the character of people in several regions of Spain and are apt to describe the land in vivid, lyrical detail.
The protagonist of Viejas historias is a young boy who leaves his native village in 1914, “the year of the great war,” to complete high school in a larger town. After repeatedly being told that he wears the look of a village boy on his countenance, Isidoro becomes ashamed to be from a village. He goes to the city in the hope of becoming urbane. For Delibes, exploration of a given place is conveyed as the existential reflection of a character’s passage through time. What follows for Isidoro is a journey of self-discovery. The novel is about a young man who cannot forget his rural childhood. His memories sustain him as he travels through other regions. Most importantly, Isidoro’s memories enable him to find meaning and purpose as he grows older. The seventeen chapters of the novel paint a vivid picture of the people and places that have influenced Isidoro’s formation as a man. Isidoro narrates stories from his youth in Old Castile.
From distant venues, Isidoro comes to appreciate the world of his childhood formation, which no new place that he discovers can substitute; the memory of which time cannot erase. Delibes builds up this narrative of time and subjectivity throughout the novel. Isidoro eventually comes to the realization that, try as he may, he cannot shake his rural upbringing. It is at this point, the author suggests, that a man begins to recognize the importance of being rooted in a tradition. Delibes combines exploration of a given place with a passage through time to convey the existential reflection of a character’s journey of self-understanding.
Several aspects of Viejas historias de Castilla la Vieja make this a lyrical reflection on home and the passage of time. A sense of all that has been lost and a melancholic sensitivity for fleeting life make Delibes’s work lyrical. Delibes reminds us that space and time are nothing, if they do not serve as the horizon for the life of the individual. Isidoro may find himself in what, to him, are distant lands, yet he cannot fully detach himself from his early life in Old Castile. Isidoro discovers that an individual’s spatial orientation—the actual, real places to which one turns to understand the self—is commensurate with his character.
Miguel Delibes was an avid hunter. His book Diario de un cazador (1955) was awarded the Premio Nacional de Literatura. Other of his works on hunting are La caza de la perdiz roja (1963) and El libro de la caza menor (1966). Delibes spent considerable leisure time in the outdoors, in the natural landscape that surrounds his birthplace. He describes these places with relish. When he was not hunting, he enjoyed walking through fields and villages. Delibes suggests that the universe begets meaning and purpose when man is rooted in a place that nourishes us. In addition to signifying an important portion of Spanish history, Castilla la Vieja (Old Castile) is significant because “old” also connotes an unchanging cultural stability. This is why for a writer like Delibes, who is moved by the slow-moving patterns of rural life, Old Castile is a place of recognizable enchantment through time. Delibes stresses the importance of home and cultural roots. He wrote that he is “like a tree, wherever it is planted, there I grow.”
The 1964 Editorial Lumen edition of Viejas historias de Castilla la Vieja contains twenty-eight photographs by the renown Catalan photographer Ramón Masats. The black and white photography showcases the landscape and villages and, most importantly, the weathered faces of many inhabitants of Old Castile. The widows wear black and photographs, presumably of dead family members, adorn the walls of humble houses.
In a book such as this it is easy to conflate the passage of time—which brings about changes that no person or culture can evade—with physical changes that towns and cities undergo. Delibes’s writing evokes profound respect for a region of northern Spain that, as he tells us, had only seen gradual changes up to the time of the novel’s publication. If the passage of time teaches us anything, then the French Catholic writer, Jacques Cretineau-Joly is right that “truth is the only charity allowed in history.” The creased faces of the oldest of the Castilians, whose pictures grace the pages of this novel, remind the reader of this truth. The sense of melancholy that readers encounter in Delibes’s writing is a reflection on the passage of time and the ruthless truths time conveys. Ironically, this form of melancholy is felt most when few changes take place and time is seemingly slowed down, for this is what cements a region’s history and tradition.
Delibes observes that cities are constantly changing; things don’t stay still. He laments that the forces of change eradicate history and tradition. In cities, time quickly makes us forget how things once were; the bustle and hurry that fuels city life proves to be anathema to such sentiment. In cities people become uprooted. This, Delibes advises, can lead to the creation of values that favor change and consumption over stability and preservation. In other words, Delibes believes that people’s values and beliefs become plastic in big cities. He understands that the perceived anonymity of a city is an attraction for some people. The author cautions that reverence for becoming makes the soul a prisoner of the changing tides of popular values. The big losers in this rural exodus to urban centers are people for whom time and place turn out to matter more than they once realized; urbanity can prove to be merciless to this type of person.
Delibes is poignant in his observations: “In the city there remains no witness to our birth.” In big cities people must reaffirm themselves constantly to others. This means continually having to explain oneself; assuming that genuine communication is valued. In other cases, people simply reinvent themselves, as the need arises. The latter paves the road for inauthenticity of character and convictions.
Yet in the village of one’s birth, Delibes emphasizes, there are always people present who can validate our existence to ourselves. This implies that life is placed in historical context.
Of equal importance, in villages people pay homage to the dead. Villagers are responsible for stitching together the archival knowledge of subsequent generations. Part of the success of the latter has to do with keeping vital the memory of the departed. Delibes questions what has more longevity: the trendy and timely, or the vitality he encounters in his beloved Old Castile? In a shock to postmodern sensibility, the author admits he does not understand how the disintegration and rebuilding of cities can be considered progress. The strength of rural values, as far as Delibes is concerned, is that they are substantive and vital. Vital means lived. In villages, Delibes suggests, people live by the strength of integral values.
Through his formative years, interacting with the land and other people, Isidoro learns much about himself. One of these lessons is that people from Castile guard their convictions with zeal. Not easily molded by the tides of passing fashion, their beliefs act as the ground of their lives. This is part of what Delibes means by being rooted in Castilian values. Castilians, he informs us, are simple, yet hardy people. Combining a strong will with fortitude in order to attain a coveted end; Castilians are not fazed or put off by limitation. This is beautifully conveyed by Delibes’s attention to the idiosyncrasies of Castilian Spanish.
Part of the Castilian temperament is reflected in stark and often black humor. Isidoro reminisces how people in his village go to the fountain of health to take in its alleged curative power. However, when Isidoro’s father gets a rash on his back and visits the fountain, he contracts pneumonia from being immersed in the cold water. The young man also remembers the time when his uncle Rimigio, the priest, received his call from God while hunting quail.
Isidoro has a great zest to learn, but does not like the petulance of the teachers. Teachers, he believes, talk in abstractions. What Isidoro truly loves is being in the outdoors. When the village priest, Don Justo del Espiritu Santo, asks the boy if he wants to work the fields, the boy answers with an emphatic “no.” Instead, Isidoro wants to hunt. He keeps his eyes on the ravens, which prey on the pigeons and the planted fields.
Isidoro explains that as a child he felt an inner contemplative inquietude. He believes that teachers disrupted his reflective mood. For this reason, he dislikes school. At first, the boy thought he was moved by pride and an ill-conceived idea of dignity. As he came to know himself better, he realized that it was simply a matter of vocation. Another reason Isidoro does not like school is because he is intent on understanding the world on his own terms. Viejas historias celebrates a culture and tradition that finds comfort in the concrete. This is what makes the lives of the villagers in the novel vital. Traditionally, Castilians have been a pragmatic people. Delibes distrusts abstraction because more often than not, this misses the point of vital existence altogether.
After forty-eight years away from his native village, Isidoro returns home. To his pleasant surprise, the town has barely changed. The people are still recognizable, even though weather-beaten. They are warm to him. They recognize him as if he had only been gone a short while. In rural Old Castile, Delibes suggests, time was once measured in decades. In Viejas historias de Castilla la Vieja, Delibes reaffirms his conviction that the permanent things must be saved through value of place and through time.
Pedro Blas González is a professor of philosophy at Barry University.
Posted: January 23, 2017 in Essays.
Thomas F. Bertonneau