Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr (San Manuel Bueno, Mártir) by Miguel de Unamuno, 1933

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by Miguel de Unamuno, 1933

"Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" ("San Manuel Bueno, Mártir") is one of the most profound and enigmatic fictional texts of Miguel de Unamuno. Written in 1930, published in magazine form in 1931, and the title story of a 1933 collection, it is the story of a Catholic priest unable to believe in the afterlife and perhaps even in the existence of God but who nevertheless practices his vocation in an effort to spare his parishioners the anguished knowledge of their mortality and of nothingness beyond the grave. Through the character Unamuno makes a final though by no means conclusive statement on the basic philosophical, religious, and aesthetic themes introduced in his earlier essays and works of literature.

The simple and straightforward plot of "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" is complicated by the narrative structure. Most of the text is the memoir of the fictional Angela Carballino, a follower and friend of Emmanuel who sees him as a holy man plagued by doubts but fundamentally a believer. She also recounts the perceptions of her atheist brother, Lázaro, who regards Emmanuel as a nonbeliever, and the villagers, who revere him as a man of God and a saint. Rather than clarify her portrait of Emmanuel, these various perspectives, as Unamuno intends, undermine the narrative and leave the reader in a state of uncertainty regarding the truth of the protagonist.

The action of the story takes place in a small village, Valverde de Lucerna, located at the edge of a lake and at the foot of a high mountain. On the bottom of the lake lie the remains of a former village, and on the mountainside are the ruins of a Medieval monastery. Though a similar setting was discovered by Unamuno during a visit to the lake of Sanabria in Spain, which in fact contains the remnants of an ancient village, its function within "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr" is symbolic. The solidity and permanence of the mountain are suggestive of eternal life, whereas the religion of the past, as revealed by the monastery, is no longer a viable means of achieving immortality. The water of the lake is indicative of the nothingness of human reality, reflecting the illusion of being through the image of the mountain while concealing its own deep secret of death and annihilation.

Certain left-wing readers have criticized Unamuno for the political stance of Emmanuel. When Lázaro approaches him with a plan for making a parish church the headquarters of an agrarian syndicate, Emmanuel responds that the purpose of religion is not to resolve political and economic conflicts but rather to provide humanity with the illusion of immortality. In an astonishing passage he accepts the Marxian premise that religion is the opiate of the masses and through an ironic twist insists that it is precisely for this reason that religion should be maintained and fostered. From the political perspective his position is clearly reactionary. Yet, although he minimizes the importance of pressing social problems, he simultaneously implies that the faith of the Church is a lie. Through the creation of Emmanuel, therefore, Unamuno does not, as a superficial reading might suggest, reject the importance of political activism or the need for social progress; instead, he forces his readers to question and perhaps even doubt whatever religious beliefs they might hold.

It must be noted, however, that for Unamuno Christianity is enriched through doubt to the extent that doubt involves suffering. Emmanuel is unable to believe with the simple faith of his parishioners, but as a result of his doubt he experiences an overwhelming agony that not only inspires in him a profound compassion for the suffering of others but also reveals an even Christlike nature. Indeed, the name Emmanuel (in Hebrew "God with us") is synonymous with Messiah or Savior. Moreover, his suffering and doubt are linked specifically to the passion of Christ through the lament "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me," which echoes throughout the text.

Emmanuel never explicitly denies a belief in God but only in human immortality. Yet for some critics this is enough to make of him an atheist, and through the identification of Emmanuel with Christ they argue that Unamuno intended to suggest that Christ himself was a nonbeliever whose sole aim was to save the world from anguish. Although such an interpretation can be justified through textual analysis, it does not deny the possibility that for Unamuno nonbelief (as a form of salvific suffering) might in reality be a dimension of belief. In this context Angela concludes that both Emmanuel and Lázaro died believing they did not believe, but believing nevertheless through their very desolation.

At the end of "Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr," Unamuno intervenes in the narrative to comment on the characters and their motivations. With regard to the fictional Angela, he claims that she is actually real and that he believes in her reality more than in his own. This is reminiscent of such earlier texts as Mist (Niebla; 1914), in which he establishes a relationship between himself and his fictional narrator and characters, as well as The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho (Vida de Don Quixote y Sancho; 1905), in which he argues that literary characters are more real than their authors to the extent that they are continually re-created through the imagination of readers. Unamuno also invokes a passage from the epistle of Saint Jude, in which the archangel Michael contends with the devil for the soul of Moses, who like Emmanuel led others to a promised land that he himself was unable to enter. Unamuno identifies with his namesake, Michael, and in so doing seems to reject the rational interpretation that a figure like Emmanuel is an atheist unworthy of salvation and to ascribe to him, as did Angela, the passion of a tormented believer.

Notwithstanding, the mystery regarding the faith of Emmanuel, like that of Unamuno himself, is never fully resolved. Although it has been argued that for Unamuno belief is ultimately a quixotic affirmation of an ideal that the human heart desires but that reason denies, the dialectic of belief and nonbelief remains operative throughout his entire literary and philosophical corpus and is in fact the source of his creative genius.

—Robert Richmond Ellis

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Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr (San Manuel Bueno, Mártir) by Miguel de Unamuno, 1933

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Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr (San Manuel Bueno, Mártir) by Miguel de Unamuno, 1933