Sunday, 13 July 2014

Pedro Antonio de Alarcón: El amigo de la muerte

Once upon a time Jorge Luis Borges made a list of fantasy and science fiction literature for an Italian editor who, for marketing reasons, called it The Library of Babel. Since I ambition to read all the authors on the list, the Spanish Literature Month gave me the encouragement to take another name off it: El amigo de la muerte: cuento fantástico (1852), by Spanish writer Pedro Antonio de Alarcón (1833-1891), better known for the comical The Three-Cornered Hat. There’s nothing comical about this bizarre novella: it’s a tragic love story, but also fantasy with hues of science fiction since it takes place in the future; oh, and it’s also a dystopia since the world is about to implode as the apocalypse draws near and souls are being prepared for Judgement Day.

First of all a succinct synopsis: Gil Gil is the son of a shoemaker who dies in his infancy (his mother died giving birth to him) and he’s brought up by Count of Rionuevo, who dies a few years later. As his page he meets and falls in love with Elena, the daughter of a duke who visited the house often. After the count’s death his scheming wife throws Gil Gil out. He returns to his father’s shop, which was for rent all these years accumulating dividends managed by an old lady who gives him back all the money and helps him. He doesn’t have a lot of work to do and sometimes goes to the San Millán church to spy on Elena. One day he meets her with the countess who publicly humiliates him. Shortly afterwards the old lady dies. He takes to bed in a violent fever. When he wakes up he discovers his neighbour had to sell all his goods to take care of him. A destitute man, Gil Gil decides to end his miserable life with vitriol. Only to be stopped by Death. Death has taken pity on him. “I’m Death, my friend… I’m Death, and it’s God who sends me… God, who reserves a glorious place for you in Heaven! Five times now I caused you unhappiness, and I, implacable divinity, have taken pity on you. Tonight, when God ordered me to take before his court your impious soul, I pleaded with him to entrust your existence to me, and to let me live alongside you for a while, offering to return your spirit free of guilt and worthy of his glory. Heaven was not deaf to my request. So you’re the first mortal I come close to without his body converting into cold ashes! You’re my only friend! Now listen and learn the way to your happiness and your eternal salvation.” Death devises a plot to help him conquer his beau (and as I describe this ridiculous premise I realize how this could be a quirky Hollywood comedy). “My power is very limited, very sad! I don’t have the gift to create. My science concerns destruction. However I can give you a strength, a power, a wealth greater than princes and emperors can… I’ll make you a physician; but a physician my friend, a physician who knows me, sees me, speaks to me! Guess the rest.”  The rest is that Gil Gil gains tremendous reputation predicting when people die, which gives him some leverage in the politics of the time. The year, at this time of the story, is 1724, during the historical Spanish royal crisis. King Filipe V abdicated in January to his son, Louis I, who is gravely ill, and now craves the throne again. Gil Gil promises to tell him when he’ll die in return for wealth. Gil Gil predicts Louis I’s death, becomes rich and famous, marries Elena and they leave to Madrid, with the fake physician worried about avoiding Death for the rest of his life so he can live happy with his lovely wife. “And the story could have ended here, but it’s precisely here that it starts becoming more interesting and more understandable,” so says the omniscient narrator. And this is where I start spoiling the whole denouement.

When I read the novella I despaired at the clumsy, rushed and unpolished language. Basically it has all the stylistic flaws that fantasy and science fiction genres tend to have, decrying style in favour of straightforward storytelling. But as I re-read bits and pieces for this write-up I realized what a marvel of foreshadowing this novella is! One of the added bonuses of this collection is that Borges wrote a preface to each volume. Of this book he says, “This tale, in its first half, may look just like an irresponsible series of improvisations; however as it goes on one realizes that everything, up to the Dantesque climax, is deliberately prefigured in the initial pages.” I shouldn’t have doubted Borges.

This novella relies on a twist. I sort of guessed the finale since the twist has been done to death (as you can tell, I’m writing with my punning hat on today) thanks to Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Yes, this is one of those narratives where the character is dead all along. But that doesn’t diminish the intricacy of the clues. The author drops lots of hints and nearly every dialogue with Death has an implicit meaning. When Death first meets him, she claims to have “caused his misfortune five times.” This numbering at first was odd to me: there was his mother, his father, the generous count, and the old lady who took care of his shop while he lived at the count. Only on re-reading did I realize that the fifth was his suicide. Then there’s her insistence that she’s interested in his “eternal salvation.” This is because his suicide, rather than having been averted by her arrival, was successful. “I want to unite you to her,” she says about Elena; since he’s a suicide they could never meet in the afterlife. Another clue is that he’s always asking Death if she’ll leave him, and she promises not to; she can’t since he’s already in her realm. Another hint: he’s worried Death may kill Elena one day. “Elena will never die for you.” She can’t since she’s already dead too. We also learn that Gil Gil was in fact the Count of Rionuevo’s bastard son; again there are hints: his father’s marriage was “short but bad,” an allusion to his being knowingly cuckolded. More evidence arises when he spies on Elena in San Millán church. “Naturally no one from those stops suspected that our young men were a poor shoemaker, and everyone thought him in possession of some legacy from the count of Rionuevo, who, in life, showed too much predilection for the young page for one to believe that he had not thought of securing his future.” Indeed he made him his heir, but the jealous countess withheld this information and kicked him out. A tinge of sadness permeates the novella. Gil Gil is shown the life he could and should have had, if justice and honesty prevailed in the world. He should have inherited a fortune, married Elena and lived a happy life. The fact that he’s only allowed to experience a simulacrum of this life in a fantastic afterlife adds even more tragedy to the tale.

After Gil Gil wins Elena he vows never to see Death again, thinking he can succeed. But Death reappears to destroy their idyll and to disclose the nature of his existence. Riding on a flying cart, they travel across the world, visiting distant continents, watching battles and discussing lofty themes like life, death, time, goodness, vanity and salvation. Some of the novella’s trippiest lines are in this section: “Very well, what is Earth seen from this height but a sinking ship, a city at the mercy of fire and plague?” And: “You’d only need to make a map of all the cemeteries that exist on earth to understand the political geography of your world.” They visit the continents and watch battles and see people from all lands.” Or how about their trip to Jerusalem: “That’s Golgotha! That’s where I spent the great day of my life! I thought I had defeated God himself… and indeed I had him defeated, for many hours… but unfortunately it was also on that hill that three days later I was disarmed and annulled, on the morning of a Sunday… Jesus had resurrected!” And finally Death flies him to her abode, the North Pole, a logical destination since nothing can live there, or so was thought at the time. “Imagine a total absence of heat, a total negation of life, the total cessation of movement, death as the only way of being, and you still won’t have an exact idea of that corpse world…”

And in this desolation Gil Gil finally learns the truth: he’s been dead for 600 years; it’s the year 2316 and Earth only has a few hours left before it “explodes like a grenade.” He drank the vitriol and should have gone to hell. But fair and pure Elena, who died of grief after learning of his death, went to heaven and there pleaded with God to save his soul, and so God allowed Death to attempt to reform him. Since Alarcón is writing from a Christian perspective, the purpose of man can only be to save his eternal soul. And now Gil Gil has redeemed himself and both lovers will rest side by side forever in the afterlife, brought together by a Death that can finally rest from her mission as the world is finally dying. Borges was doubly right about the Dantesque ending: it’s a series of horrible images and a celebration of love as Elena becomes Beatrice and guides her lover’s soul to the Star of Truth.

If this were a movie, I keep imagining the last minutes as a slick montage of previous scenes as the whole twist is put together and Gil Gil discovers that his soul is saved and that he’ll spend eternity with Elena, a bittersweet finale playing to dreamy, elegiac but hopeful music by Sigur Ros, M83 or Max Richter, ending in an emotional crescendo with female vocals. And people would be coming out of the room in tears and I’d be one of them.

Read for Winstonsdad's Blog and Caravana de Recuerdo's 2014 Spanish Language Literature Month. 


  1. It's always a pleasure to read about another of Borges' Tower of Babel choices, and this one sounds totally wacky, like something the French Decadents would have come up with. The ending, though, sounds as tidily Christian as that of a Chesterton novel.

    1. Scott, yes, the collection harbours many gems; I'm anxious to return to Marcel Schwob.

      The novella is quite Christian and the Spaniards are deeply religious, but above all the ending seemed just right; I wouldn't have changed it.

  2. Ditto what Scott says about Borges' Biblioteca de Babel selections (going with the alliterative title today). "My science concerns destruction" is a great line--esp. for a genre novel lookalike that's almost as well planned out as Dante and as "foreshadowy" as a non-genre novel. Will keep this in mind.

    1. Richard, yes, the collection is a trove of wonders; you can always see why Borges picked out the book, even if it's not great; it has an alluring quality, something bizarre, out of the ordinary, that justifies it.