The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere (El Bonito Crimen del Carabinero) by Camilo José Cela, 1947
THE NEAT CRIME OF THE CARABINIERE (El bonito crimen del carabinero)
by Camilo José Cela, 1947
The title tale of a collection published in 1947, "The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere" ("El bonito crimen del carabinero") dates from the early part of Camilo José Cela's literary career. Unlike his more mature, longer works that sacrifice narrative to discourse and content to form and unlike other early stories that merely sketch caricatures, "The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere" narrates a complete incident with closure. It apparently had a real-life basis, not involving the writer personally but probably a crime committed in an area where Cela lived during childhood. The story's basis in local history restricts the author's inventiveness, and the subject matter renders aesthetic refinement inappropriate. Thus, the principal language register is colloquial, with the narrative voice resembling a village storyteller who sprinkles his discourse with proverbs, folk sayings, clichés, and regionalisms.
The prevalent narrative mode of "The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere" is realistic, although Spanish commentators of the day probably associated it with tremendismo, the label given to the existentialist-expressionist variant of neonaturalism in Cela's first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte (La familia de Pascual Duarte). Similarities include unforeseen outbursts of brutality, predominantly lower-class characters and ambients, caricature or deadpan understatement, pervasive vice, and senseless cruelty. But "The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere" falls short of tremendismo, for there is no indication that Cela deliberately exaggerated the already ugly to make it still more grotesque or monstrous for aesthetic effect.
Unlike his novels before the 1980s, a good many of Cela's stories are set in Galicia, probably reflecting towns where his family resided, mainly ports and border points given his father's position as a customs officer. The setting in the present story is Tuy, a small crossing point on the Galician-Portuguese border, with its international bridge, border guards, and villages on each side of the ría—a deep arm of the sea, or Galician fjord—and a social milieu typical of such towns, including fugitives, aliens, and persons legally barred from returning to the other side. Like Cela's father, the story's protagonist has connections with customs, serving as a member of the carabinieri, one of several specialized, quasi-military police corps in Spain that guard ports, transportation centers, and borders.
The story initially centers upon the protagonist's son, explaining how he became a seminarian despite his total lack of vocation for the priesthood. (Both the father and the son are named Serafín.) A third of the way into the narrative, however, the emphasis shifts to the father, a widowed, 60ish border guard who is overly fond of the good local wines. (This so-called false overture, frequent in Spanish narratives of the 1940s and 1950s, apparently functioned to distract the censors.) After years of fruitless fortune hunting abroad, the elder Serafín returned to Spain, working as a border guard and marrying a servant of the village aristocrat, Doña Basilisa, who endowed a trust fund for educating their firstborn son. Because the son, Serafín's namesake, was happily employed in retail trade, the second son entered the seminary, but he soon fell ill and died. Rather than renounce the inheritance, the father forced his elder son to replace him. Doña Basilisa's fanatically religious spinster sisters seemed pleased, and Serafín senior visited the old ladies regularly for afternoon tea, dutifully listening to their admonitions against the evil one before proceeding to Pinto's Tavern until closing time. To this point the narrative is retrospective exposition.
Cela's prevailing tone is ironic, and this story is no exception. The title provides a case in point. The neat or pretty crime (bonito can be translated either way) lacks redeeming qualities, being botched and bloody and ultimately backfiring on the perpetrator. The narrative pace increases after Serafín junior has reluctantly adjusted to seminary life and the carabiniere befriends an assiduous client of Pinto's Tavern, the Portuguese renegade Madureira. Everything about this swarthy villain bespeaks the stereotypical bad guy. Endowed with a violent temper and the appearance of a pirate, he is totally unacquainted with hygiene. Serafín's friendship with Madureira springs from mutual recognition. (Both were cheating at cards.) They become accomplices in planning smalltime robberies. But Madureira's favorite project is acquiring the reputed fortune in antique jewelry of the aged spinsters. Despite his scruples, Serafín's weak character and lack of astuteness make him no match for Madureira's pressures, and he agrees to rob his benefactors.
On the night of the planned strike, however, the carabiniere experiences second thoughts as the old ladies discuss death and divine judgment. Repenting, he is leaving when his accomplice arrives armed with a sledgehammer, even though the crime was originally planned as only a burglary. Madureira's threats incite Serafín to join him in what has clearly become a violent crime. The spinsters' terrified screams provoke grotesque attempts to silence them, with Madureira bludgeoning one while Serafín slashes wildly with an ancient steel-pronged umbrella. Apparently crazed by panic or by blood lust, Serafín inflicts untold numbers of deep puncture wounds in his victim's huge, soft abdomen. They are savagely butchered. After plundering the house without finding the expected fortune, the killers escape. Soon afterward, the carabiniere's body appears in the nearby mountains, his skull crushed by hammer blows. Nothing more is heard of his accomplice.
The crime's brutality, which is enhanced by the gory details, acquires additional impact thanks to the sudden, sharp contrast with the bucolic background, the initial slow pace, and the trivial events preceding the shocking, unexpected climax. While the title prepares readers for illegality, the protagonist's personality predisposes most readers to expect a small-scale deception or a rustic trick. Cela's stories often present an unexpected final twist, frequently ironic, not infrequently shocking, sometimes whimsical, rarely sentimental. The narrative voices are typically detached and slightly skeptical, their general matter-of-factness enhancing the shocking impact of violent, cruel, grotesque events. Some 19 pages of small print in the original collection, "The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere" is longer than most Cela stories. As suggested earlier, various details recall his most famous first novel, for Serafín's age, education, social class, and personality resemble those of Pascual Duarte. Both are semiliterates who become murderers, paying with their lives. And both are better developed than most of Cela's characters. Nevertheless, despite typifying numerous aspects of Cela's fiction, "The Neat Crime of the Carabiniere" falls short of representing his best stylistic achievements.