The Bewitched (El Hechizado) by Francisco Ayala, 1944

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THE BEWITCHED (El hechizado)
by Francisco Ayala, 1944

"The Bewitched," by Francisco Ayala, originally published separately as El hechizado (1944), was incorporated into the collection Usurpers (Los usurpadores, 1949; English translation published in 1987). The seven tales in Usurpers are unified by a common theme: all power exercised over others is a usurpation. Ayala's first collection after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) never mentions the war in which his father and brother were executed by Fascists under Francisco Franco, but several tales treat prior civil conflicts in the peninsula. Context is crucial to interpreting Ayala, whose subtexts must be divined by analogy—here, that Franco and his regime are the latest in centuries of usurpers.

With varying fidelity or fancy, the Usurpers stories present characters in Spanish history from the eleventh to the seventeenth centuries. All combine fictitious characters with historical ones, none better known to Spanish readers than the unfortunate King Carlos II (1661-1700), last of the Habsburg kings. The nickname "the Bewitched" originated when Carlos II became convinced he was possessed of the devil (or bewitched) and had himself exorcized—a shameful and degrading process. To appreciate Ayala's tour de force one must understand the background Spanish readers bring to bear. Generations of royal intermarriage intensified negative, recessive genes, and the king was malformed, sickly, mentally retarded—probably suffering from cretinism. Yet he reigned during Spain's greatest "glory" in extent of domain, the microcephalic head of a gigantic empire whose grandeur the traditionalist Franco regime exalted and hoped to emulate. Although married to a granddaughter of Louis XIV, Carlos II was either impotent or sterile; the degeneracy, therefore, was not transmitted.

Ayala achieves maximum impact by creating a "nonstory" (nothing happens but bureaucratic delays until the final paragraphs) with a startling ending despite readers' knowing the facts in advance. He employs a framing tale (story-within-a-story structure) and a device familiar to all readers of Cervantes—the "found manuscript." The narrator of the framing tale, whose name is a disguised form of Ayala's own, claims to be the editor of another's "historical" work, fooling many critics who believed him a genuine philologist. A professional Hispanist and Cervantine scholar in addition to journalist, diplomat, sociologist, novelist, and law professor, Ayala incorporated the "found manuscript" often in his fiction and utilized literary borrowing, intertextual allusions, or "updated" classical tales in contemporary, innovative contexts. The framing story in "The Bewitched," a pseudoacademic essay, comprises the editor's pedantic comments and speculations that the extensive folios will never be published. Questions raised by the narrator's reading completely miss the point of the manuscript (a self-referential or self-critical technique often used by Ayala to humorous effect). Another joke on readers is that they never see the manuscript in question (just as The Message, the sole topic of discussion in the novella by that name in The Lamb's Head, remains invisible).

The same narrator summarizes the lengthy manuscript, whose author (the "Indian" González Lobo) recounts a pilgrimage originating in the remotest Andes, an arduous and protracted journey including a three-year delay in Seville and ending in the imperial Spanish court following years of desultory, labyrinthine questing whose sole purpose is to pay homage to the great monarch.

Not to be forgotten is that Spain's Habsburg dynasty (Felipe II in the sixteenth century) invented bureaucracy, archiving the most trivial documentation; the Franco regime carried archival and bureaucratic detail to absurd extremes. That these fill González Lobo's manuscript is therefore no coincidence. This persona never criticizes or comments; supposedly a primitive, unworldly, mountain aborigine, he views everything with impassive detachment, resignation, and seeming acceptance. His feet trace slow, intricate patterns through a maze of corridors and antechambers as he silently, sadly, threads his way through moral, economic, and administrative roadblocks, interminable waits, repeated visits to the same secretariats and new clerics, adjutants, and ministers—all clearly baffled by his not requesting favors or emoluments but merely wishing to present his obeisance, to kiss His Majesty's feet.

González Lobo's account consists mainly of extensively detailed episodes repeated three or more times so identically as to be distinguished solely by their dates. Representative minutiae include the 46 steps in the stairway of the palace of the Inquisition, the exact description of a beggar to whom he gives alms before entering church, his confessor's Teutonic inflections, particulars of the liturgy each Sunday, and the luxuriant opulence of the church decor.

Years of waiting with other postulants (a bustling swarm of suppliants all trafficking in influence, with applications for exemptions, purchasing positions, petitions for pardons or procurement of privileges) suddenly end by chance—an encounter so absurd, a resolution so facile, that the entire system is trivialized without a word. González Lobo meets the king's dwarf, who demands a ring to introduce him into the royal presence. Traversing courtyards, gates, vestibules, guards, corridors, antechambers, galleries, stairways, enormous doorways, and halls lined with mirrors, he suddenly glimpses His Majesty: thin, limp legs richly shod, hair colorless, lace collar soaked with slobber, black velvet suit exuding a stench of urine because of lifelong incontinence. Although the monarch extends his hand to be kissed upon the dwarf's prompting, a monkey distracts him, demanding to be petted; González Lobo understands that the interview is over and withdraws in respectful silence.

"The Bewitched" begins and ends with silence and is filled with silences (a significant technique of the rhetoric of dissent under Franco), silences eloquent of Spain's centuries of censorship, a tradition of orthodoxy enforced by the Inquisition, and the Franco regime's silencing of political differences by imprisonment and execution. Although the head of state is so manifestly unfit to govern that no comment is necessary or even possible, the system is so entrenched that not a single voice is raised. The usurpation of power is absolute, Ayala implies, for its hypnotic fascination affects both those who hold it and those who submit to it.

—Janet Pérez