Review of Zalacain the Adventurer

I first came across Pío Baroja y Nessi in connection with Ernest Hemmingway. A famous anecdote states that while on his deathbed Ernest visited him to state that he should have won the Pulitzer Prize for literature. Baroja’s response to him was to the effect of, “Claro, tonto.” After reading online reviews I decided to pick up Zalacain the Adventurer, the short, picaresque novel of Martin Zalacain’s exploits leading to and during the period of the Carlist Wars in Spain.

In the tradition of The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, Baroja introduces us to a anti-hero that through his wit, daring, and ability to address people at the proper social register is able to make a fortune while having a number of exciting episodes. While I don’t have as much knowledge of the period as the translator James Diendl has, from my having spent some time in the northern region of Spain (Catalunya) and reading about the political turmoil there in the 1930’s I would concur that Zalacain does seem to typify the “Basque character”. He is poor, living in penury at the beginning of the novel until his grandfather take him under his wing, but proud, is energetic, individualistic, has a resilient character in the face of obstacles to his wishes and is able to “pass” as a number of different identities because of his awareness of the social milieu. Diendl states that this characterization stems from Nietzsche’s influence and once again I trust him as it is clear within the text.

The reader is first introduced to Martin during his formative years in the small town of Urbia. Martin foregoes a traditional education and instead learns about the nature and the land around him. He is able to set and later inherits various gardens that allow him to forego entering into the market economy, but later decides that he will do so in part in order to win the affection of a girl in the town named Catherine. While not fully giving up the vagabonding life that Tellagorri, his grandfather, schooled him in he decides to get into trading. This is an especially lucrative business given the region is an intermediary zone between Castilian-Spain and France. The relative peace that he has, when not avoiding border agents and tax collectors, is shattered however with the crisis over who is to be the proper regent of Spain. The details of the Carlist Wars are complicated. As it relates to Zalacain, the conflict leads to many developments that upsets the lassitude of this otherwise sleepy, sheltered town.

The war makes the business of smuggling goods more dangerous and thus more profitable. As representative of various armed factions come calling for people to join them, this also leads to heightened tension between the various classes and the church. One highlighted conflict is between Charles Ohando, the fey-aristocratic brother of Martin’s love interest Catherine, and Zalacain. Three generations back, the great-grandparents of these men fought each other in the first Carlist war and Martin’s great grandfather was killed in the exchange. Thus while bad blood is the norm, during the period of peace Zalacain is able to come out on top and even avoid one of the traps Charles sets.

As might be expected by his being on the periphery of the exchange economy, Martin doesn’t really care about who wins and sees the exercise not based upon any grand sentiment other then disguised greed for power. When faced with antagonists to the Pretender, he and his friends fool the troops as to their political sympathies. This causes him to be briefly pressed into service, a fate far preferable to death.

From here a cat and mouse game ensues between those he’s escaped. Following his freeing he learns of his loves deliverance to a nunnery on the order of her older brother. Before leaving to search for her, however, he gets contracted by a merchant to get requisition documents delivered to a Pretender general. This while searching for Catherine, he must now also deliver these documents and obtain signatures without being recognized as a deserter or of being suspected as sympathetic and in collusion with the other side. I won’t provide any more plot points that might spoil it for the person that hasn’t read it other than to say that a number of funny and tense scenes entail that highlight the hatred that exists between the numerous regions of Spain and the conniving powers of Zalacain.

Interspersed throughout the travel narrative are jokes and songs and poem fragments. In the taverns I found some of the characters described to be quite funny and the dialogue to be especially compelling. Here is an example of one that exemplifies Zalacain’s realpolitik worldview:
“You shouldn’t talk, Capistun, because you’re a trader.”
“So what?”
So you and I steal with our account books. Between stealing on the road and stealing with an account-book, I prefer those that steal on the road.”
“If business were there, there wouldn’t be any society.” Gason replied.
“So?” Martin said.
“So there wouldn’t be any cities.”
“As I see it cities are made by the wretched and are used as objects to be sacked by strong men,” said Martin, violently.
“That is being an enemy of humanity”
Martin shrugged his shoulders.

The novel is short, I read it in two sitting, but I found it to be a quite enjoyable tale of a Basque individualist dealing with tragic/humorous situations. I’m not quite sure from this particular work that Baroja was correct in asserting that he should win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, but having read this I’m definitely interested in reading more of Baroja’s work.