Skip to main content

Black Valley and the Tree of Life

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928
The Tree of Life. By Pio Baroja, translated by Aubrey F. G. Bell, New York: Alfred Knopf. $3.00. Black Valley. By Hugo Wast, translated by Herman and Miriam Hespelt. New York: Longmans, Green & Co. $2.50.

A wider contrast than that between these two novels would be hard to imagine, if one fixes only upon their superficial aspects. Pio Baroja describes the Spain of the upper middle classes, while Wast devotes himself to aristocratic rural life in Argentina. Baroja’s style is that of an impersonal clinician who sets down exactly what he sees in the shortest, baldest words possible. Wast is more emotional and tends at times to fall into that grandiloquence of style which is the bane of so many of the writers who use the Castilian tongue. Baroja views Spain as a biologist might view an acquarium filled with interesting but incomprehensible life. Wast studies the life of his gentlemen farmers of the Argentine hinterland with the absorption and feeling of a painter who strives for the emotional fixation-point of an immense composition.

Yet at bottom, the books are much alike, and both are true to the Spanish spirit of today. Baroja is a cosmopolitan—a genuine European—but for all that, the intellectual and spiritual environment of present-day Spain moulds his genius. Unlike most Spaniards—or better said, unlike most Spaniards who write—Baroja is not in any, degree polemic. He wields the scalpel, or the axe sometimes, with indifferent impartiality, and he finds at the same time much that is noble and humanly dignified in every person that comes under his notice. Wast, on the contrary, is at times inclined to project himself and his convictions into the picture. He does it very rarely, it is true. Baroja never does. But in spite of their vast differences in method and in point of view, both men are, in the novels under review, studying the same human phenomenon.

Whether one finds them at home on the desolate plateaus of Castile or the scorched plains of the South and East; or whether one finds them in the midst of an infinitely varied American scene—the Spaniards seem to be the most disillusionized people in the western world of today. Baroja I believes that their mental state is due, in part, to the persistence of a sort of degenerated romanticism, which leads to the corruption of every element in Spanish society by severing the links between reality (as reality appears to the present-day occidental), and a world fantasy and impossible ideals that are peculiar to the Spaniard. And since the experiences of the centuries have demonstrated that such fantasies and such ideals are hopeless of achievement in this world, the Spaniard despairs of This despair, in turn, produces three of the several spiritual types that are characteristic of Spain: the mystic who seeks in religion and in his hopes of another world the realization of the ideals that he knows can never be realized in this life; the cynic who believes in nothing, values nothing save his own pleasure, and who spends a lifetime trying to squeeze out of every one and everything he encounters as much sensuous enjoyment as he can, without giving anything in return for it; and, last and most numerous, and most piteous of all, the men and women who are wholly without will-power, who believe that nothing in this life is worth while, and who lack the faith of the mystic or the ruthless cruelty of the cynic to act as steadying and stimulating forces to give some kind of orientation to their existence.

The greater novelists of Spain, since the time that Pereda and Galdos appeared on the scene, have devoted much of their effort to the depiction of the various types suggested. Pereda believed that the solution for the evils of unrestrained mysticism, cynicism and loss of will-power was to be found in the recreation of an aristocratic society, based on blood and intellect, and a reformed religion of decidedly austere type that would compromise with no weaknesses, whether of the individual or of society. He believed that modern “progress,” especially the element thereof called industrialism, with its attendant development of a mechanized city life, would destroy Spain, and he opposed to it an ideal of a sort of feudal rural society, governed by men of the very best education, austerely Catholic, and whose moral and social code rested squarely upon the Old Testament. Pereda tended decidedly toward mysticism (as it is understood by the Spaniards), but he did not in any way despair of this world. He believed, apparently, that society could save itself if it succeeded in translating into social action the religious forces of mysticism.

Ricardo Leon is Pereda’s true successor among living Spanish novelists. He is more reactionary than Pereda, and would like to see Spain go back—at least, so far as religion is concerned—to the days of Santa Teresa, San Juan de la Cruz, and Molinos.

Galdos, in the past, and Perez de Ayala, among the living, believe that if Spain’s educational system were radically reformed, most of her evils would disappear. Both fiercely attack the evils of religious mysticism and political reaction, opposing to these a spirit of scientific and social liberalism. Both are true democrats in the sense that they advocate a social organization in which men of true intellectual merit shall have every opportunity to make themselves felt and to command.

Pio Baroja, on the other hand, is not a polemic novelist. He strives to stand apart from human passions. His task seems to be to set down impartially and almost without color exactly what he sees. One may read a dozen of his novels without gaining any idea of what he himself believes about anything. When Baroja writes about Spain, he writes as a physician would write who has to prepare a diagnostic report after examining a beloved friend: no matter what the report must be—whether it describe a normal individual soundly healthy in body and mind and spirit, or whether it describe someone ravaged by disease- -it is written out with cold and exact objectivity. In Baroja, if there are errors, they are always errors of observation. There are no exaggerations, no distortions, no heat of passion, no pity. His style is as hard and as plain as that of the best scientific treatises on astronomy or applied mathematics. Many people have to learn to read Baroja as they learn to eat olives. Baroja puts down what he has to say without attempting to please anyone. He scorns all literary devices for capturing and holding the reader. He is accused by, his enemies of scorning grammar, even. Perhaps he does. He does not care, if he has produced his effect. He is constantly guilty of every crime in the black books of the professors of literature. But he is a great genius, nevertheless, and—strangely enough—a master stylist. When he desires to do so, he can manage the refractory Spanish language as Anatole France managed the much more flexible French.

But all these novelists—whatever their intention, whatever their method—seem to delight in taking as their heroes (and sometimes their heroines) individuals in whom willpower is lacking to an extraordinary degree. With such a person as a centre, each novelist strives to show what caused the catastrophe, and to trace out the fate of the victim. This is a method unknown to American writers, for here a real hero has to be a he-man and a go-getter. Only O’Neill has the courage to show publicly that there are plenty of men and women in America whose will has been destroyed and whose morals have been corrupted by 100% American institutions. The method has much to recommend it, and the Spanish novelists are able to use it with telling results.

In “The Tree of Knowledge” Baroja is concerned with the career of an ordinarily intelligent and moderately well-to-do young Spaniard who tried to find a rule of life in modern science and modern philosophy. But his inheritance, plus the devastating force of Spanish traditionalism acting through social pressure, made such a dream impossible. As a result, the young man’s will power slowly decayed, and in the end, with his hopes ashes, he took the easiest way out, suicide. The novel is magnificently handled, and despite Baroja’s coldness of presentation and brutality of style, it is very moving. It gives as good a picture of present-day Spain as can be found anywhere, and it is heartily recommended to all who wish to know something about the real virtues and the real defects of the Spanish people. When one finishes reading it, one iinderstands a little better why Primo de Rivera is not a Spanish Mussolini. It is a great novel—though not one pf Baroja’s greatest, by any means.

When we turn to “Black Valley,” we naturally, expect to find a work of quite different genre. But we do not. Despite the fact that the scene is laid in Argentina, there is the same atmosphere as in the works of the great Spaniards. Here the study is one of a rural aristocracy dying of old age and uselessness in a modern world. The hero is a young man wholly without will-power, and almost without courage, either physical or moral. His life develops and flows along to a tragic climax simply because he never can make up his mind to do anything. He allows himself to be captured by whatever thing lies nearest to hand, and in the end, loses all hope of happiness for himself and wrecks the lives of several other people besides.

The novel is well written and interesting, but it has several defects which detract a great deal from its excellence. In construction it is faulty, because it lacks the single viewpoint: there are four characters of first importance, and two of secondary importance, and upon no one of them does the author focus his efforts. The result is that the novel lacks coherence and force, and has none of the “totality of effect” that Poe insisted upon. The group of people living in Black Valley are the actors in and victims of a family feud that is sustained by, an almost grotesquely corrupt idea of that fantastic “honor” which has plagued the Spaniards for lo! these many centuries.

It is a curious thing that the South Americans have not yet developed, to any appreciable extent, a literature that reflects their infinitely rich and interesting environment. “Black Valley,” though it has the mountains of Angentina for its scene, might just as well have taken place in Don Quixote’s Sierra Morena, on the edge of Andalusia. There is no feeling for landscape, no distinctive local color, none of the interpenetration of spirit and locale that is characteristic of European literature. Pereda’s or Baroja’s or Leon’s novels are as characteristically Spanish as the plains of Castille or the Cathedral of Burgos. But “Black Valley” tells us nothing whatever of Argentina. The same thing can be said of almost all novels yet written by Latin Americans.

The translators of both novels deserve high praise—especially the translator of “The Tree of Life.” In “Black Valley” there are a few bad spots, and one or two very dubious readings. But in “The Tree of Life” there is not a single slip, so far as the reader could tell, and the book does not read like a translation at all. To accomplish so fine a piece of work is very difficult when the language translated is Spanish, which bristles with traps and snares for all who do not command it absolutely,


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading