Dance for the Dead

Makurka for Two Dead Men by Camilo Jose Cela New Directions Press, $21.95

For those who live through it, war creates a world antithetical to organized society or ordinary fiction. It is appropriate, then that Camilo Jose Cela's 1983 book Mazurka for Two Dead Men, only recently translated into English, is not an immediately recognizable or understandable novel.

Cela, who won the Nobel Prize in 1989, recreates the world of a rural village around the time of the Spanish Civil War. Mazurka is a bizarre story, told in bits and pieces and filled with a confusing array of characters who are violent and lustful, pathetic and whimsical. The novel appears to be the result or transcription of several interviews with older women and men from the village, who are remembering the scandals and gossip from days past. Their stories are wandering and repetitious, but not without an ironic sense of humor--although at whose expense we cannot be sure.

The apparent lack of plot or obvious structure reflects the chaotic state of the warring countryside; everyone and everything seems diseased and incoherent. From this madness gradually emerge the stories of a few local families and their amorous and violent intertwining histories. The main storyline, if it can be called that, concerns the killing of Lion-heart Gamuzo, and the later death of his murderer. The narrator is obsessed with the particular mazurka that Gaudencio Beira, the blind accordion player at the local brothel, performs only upon these two occasions. Gaudencio's widowed sister, Adega, contributes her recollections and opinions on matters of life, death, magic and incidental gossip. "Some deaths brings sorrow but there are also those that bring great joy...." she notes at one point. "When I was a slip of a girl in Bouza da Fondo there was a hanged man so stone dead that the youngsters were able to swing to and fro from his feet."

Other characters include Benicia, the narrator's lover, whose most important characteristic seems to be her "nipples like sweet chestnuts;" Moucho Carroupo and his family, who all bear pockmarks on their foreheads which mark them as out-of-towners; the wealthy, eccentric old Miss Ramona and her mute Portuguese servant; Catuxa Bainte, an apparently retarded woman who prefers to go around topless; Robin Lebozan, who is writing a novel; and various local priests, each of whom have their favorite prostitutes.

To complement and relieve some of this human insanity, the rain descends "gently and unceasingly" in a deluge which threatens to overrun both the story and the nation. The past and present are so full of people and their troubles that this terrible weather becomes a sign of hope, "the only thing nobody has been able to tamper with." In an environment where everything can change at the whim of whichever army or party has control, the constant drizzle becomes an unlikely redemptive force. These passages provide a reflective distance from the disarray of the rest of the novel.


The war makes the villagers' craziness seem crazier still and, frighteningly enough, the only appropriate behavior. The inhumanity of the war is told here in a wholly human way, in vague and discontinuous snatches of dialogue. These qualities can make for difficult reading; the same half-imagined memories are told at various points by various people, each interrupting themselves and each other within the same sentence. This method can at first be irritating and even boring; the many plots are difficult to sort out and keep track of. But Cela's sympathetic and sometimes outrageous humor give these ramblings coherence.

Mazurka is also concerned with the instability of time and memory in the face of war and death. As one character remarks, "Poe was right: our thoughts are palsied and sere, our memories treacherous, sere and rusted like old must be in the nature of things." Memory is a bridge but also a trap for Cela's villagers, especially tricky when dealing with murder and revenge as well as the civil war. For in consolidating fact and fiction, truth and myth, memory can create an epic out of everyday incidents. But Cela also questions the relevance and meaning of memory in a world where truth and justice are arbitrary and politically defined. It is not accidental that the Poe quotation also serves as the novel's epigraph.

Cela seeks here both to write about the Spanish Civil War and to stress its unwrite-ability. Mazurka for Two Dead Men is an intricate, difficult study of a war which can never be contained or limited to novels or official reports of reputed fact, but lives on as long as people are alive who remember fragments, names and voices, from it.