Antonio de Trueba (1819-1889) was a Spanish reteller of folklore in the tradition of Gustavo Bécquer and Fernán Caballero (the pen name of Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl de Faber) — both of whom I’ve posted on before. Trueba combined the traditional stories of the Spanish campesinos with sophisticated literary style and humorous political and social commentary. I found this delightful tale in a back issue of the fairy tale studies journal Marvels & Tales, and it hooked me at the first paragraph:
There once was a king so avaricious that instead of spending his life making his subjects happy, he passed it running throughout his kingdom searching for mines of gold and silver, and leaving the devil in charge of the ship of State. A pox on such kings!
I have a feeling this one will speak to a lot of people.
I featured a couple of winter tales by Spanish author and poet Gustavo Bécquer this past December; this week I’m sharing my favorite Bécquer ghost story, “The Miserere“ , in honor of Holy Week (the week leading into Easter).
In the Abbey of Fitero, the narrator (presumably, Bécquer) discovers a curious piece of sheet music, an unfinished Miserere:
This was what got my attention at first, but when I looked more closely at the sheets of music, I noticed that, instead of the Italian terms they usually use, like maestoso, allegro, ritardando, più vivo, pianissimo, there were some lines written in fine print in German, some of which mentioned things that would be difficult to do, like: “they are creaking…, the bones creak and it should seem like cries that come from the marrow”; or this other one, “the chord moans without being out of tune, the brass thunders but does not deafen; therefore, everything is heard and nothing is lost, and all of this is Humanity that sobs and moans”; and then undoubtedly the strangest of all, at the end of the final verse it declared: “The notes are bones covered with flesh; undying light, the heavens and their harmony…, strength!…, strength and sweetness.”
Naturally, the narrator is curious, and asks the monks about this. An old man then shares with the narrator the story of a musician whose mission in life was to compose the ultimate Miserere (as penance for a youthful crime), and of the ghostly monks, murder victims who died without last rites, who return to the ruins of their monastery every Maundy Thursday (Thursday of Holy Week) to pray for redemption — by singing the Miserere. This is the creepiest of all Bécquer’s ghost stories; the scene where the monks and their monastery come back at the stroke of eleven is just awesome.
Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer (1836-1870) was born in Seville and later moved to Madrid, without achieving either economic success or artistic acclaim.
That’s from the introduction — my translation of it, actually — to the unit on Bécquer from an old undergraduate Spanish reader of mine (believe it or not, I have a Minor in Spanish Literature, though you’d never guess it now). And it goes on to say that Bécquer was sickly all his life, too. Isn’t that the perfect introduction to a Romantic artist?
Bécquer, who was a poet, prose stylist, and painter, was once referred to as “the Spanish Poe.” I’m not sure who originated that description, and honestly, I don’t see it myself. I like much of Poe’s writing (and adore some of it), but his horror and gothic work has the miasma of insanity to it, the sense of staring into an internal abyss. To read Poe’s horror is to breathe in sickness. Bécquer did occasionally write about lonely and obsessed young men (much like himself, maybe?), but those pieces feel more like E.T.A. Hoffman to me — though his protagonists are much less emo. The air is cleaner in a Bécquer piece than in one of Poe’s.
If we have to make an analogy, then I would say that Bécquer is the Spanish Lafcadio Hearn, at least with respect to his prose. That doesn’t have the same zing to it as “the Spanish Poe,” but it’s more accurate. Hearn also has a Romantic sensibility in his writing; in addition, he has a sense of wanderlust, of curiosity about other communities and their cultures, and a taste for folklore. Many of Bécquer’s supernatural tales are framed as stories that he picked up on his travels through Spain, and are often connected to specific physical landmarks. They remind me of reading Hearn’s In Ghostly Japan — except Hearn was writing about an exotic locale (even though he eventually chose to stay in Japan and become, as much as possible, Japanese), and Bécquer is writing about his own country.
But enough introduction. On to the winter tales:
Just a quick note to let you know that my review of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-language Fiction is up at The Mantle. Didn’t you wonder where my sudden plunge into Latin American fiction came from? Well, maybe you didn’t, but this is where.
It’s an enormous volume, but it was well worth the read.