The first English translation of a Nobel Prize winner's experimental novel set in Tombstone and Southern Arizona is a strange and unmooring read, bordering on pornographic with a brutality that would be shocking if it wasn't filtered through the febrile and haunted memory of the novel's old-man narrator.
In February 1987, while in the middle of writing Christ Versus Arizona, the Spanish writer Camilo José Cela visited Southern Arizona. It shows. The relentless narrative, told in a single, entire-book-long sentence by Wendell Liverpool Espana (or Span or Aspen--everybody in this book has various aliases and nicknames), features nearly every community, mountain range and body of intermittent water in Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, which adds a level of reality to a story full of myths, legends, tall tales and more incest than one usually encounters in contemporary novels.
Incest and human brutality were favorite themes of Cela, who was in his 70s when he first published this short, experimental novel in Spain in 1988. Just a year later, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. However, Cela's Arizona-based novel wasn't one of his more popular books, and it received some bad press in Spain, where the writer, who died in 2002, was a controversial character throughout his long career.
Cela is best known for his exceedingly dark novel The Family of Pascual Duarte, originally published in Spain in 1942, which over time became--after Don Quixote, of course--Spain's most translated literary export.
Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign brought out the first English translation of Christ Versus Arizona late last year, translated by Martin Sokolinsky, a retired professor and translator. The press also published English translations of Cela's novel The Hive and The Family of Pascual Duarte.
This is the same press which, in 1996, brought William Eastlake's great, semi-experimental Southwestern novels back into print under the title Lyric of the Circle Heart: The Bowman Family Trilogy. For a time, Eastlake lived on a ranch in Rio Rico.
In his Tombstone--Tomistón in the novel--Cela found a kind of scorched-earth playground for his frolics among the darkest and basest human activities. Wendell, who is in his 90s and has lived in Tombstone on the arid frontier since the days of the silver boom and that famous gunfight--the story of which he repeats several times throughout his confession-like narrative--seems to be remembering his life in fits and starts just prior to his own death, and that life was mostly full of prostitutes (including his mother), racial hatred, hangings, murders, idle sexual gossip and a lifelong favored pastime of "pissing on a Chinaman's door."
He says this about his famous hometown: "Tomistón lies in Cochise County, among the Dragoon, Burro, and Mule Mountains, to the south of town stand the heights of Huachuca, in Tomistón, people live with death and pride themselves on knowing how to kill and also how to die, men kill and own up to what they've done and then die with dignity, it's a local custom ..."
Much of the novel is repetition, and even in translation, the running narrative takes on a kind of musicality that turns Wendell's dirty little stories about beating up "half-breeds" and sleeping with half-crazed prostitutes into something like prayer offerings to a dark, uncaring void. If it reminds one of anything, it is the rolling, repetitive prose of Gertrude Stein.
The stories, memories and legends repeated over and over again are often absurd. But just as often, they are arresting in their clarity: "I'd like some wise person to tell me when the end of the world is coming, nobody knows for sure but some people say they do to show off in front of women ..."
Ultimately, the novel becomes a storehouse of both truth and lies, and it reveals the frontier Southwest as a kind of morally confused outpost where despicable, unwanted people go to kill and die; this is a world where everyone gathers around to watch the peremptory hanging of a traveling con artist while deliberating over the legal implications of the potential theft of the town's only hanging rope, which one spectator would like to borrow (or steal) in order to tie up his oversexed wife.
"... (D)o you know if it's true they instituted proceedings against Christ in Arizona?" Wendell asks early in the novel, "... nobody can take Christ to court because he's God and God always wins, God can work miracles and change a woman into a lizard with three eyes and horns, it depends on what he wants ... Christ--rather, God--is tougher than Arizona ..."
If that's true, it's likely not Cela's Arizona, for not even Christ could be tougher than this dark and brutal creation.