When it comes to writing a novel, authors must first make sure that the would-be produced literary work will have what it takes to prove discursively relevant. This, in turn, can only be accomplished if the novel’s themes and motifs are consistent with the prevailing socio-cultural climate, on the one hand, and the psychological specifics of how people perceive the surrounding social reality and their place in it, on the other. Such a task, however, is much more challenging than it may seem because it presupposes the author’s ability to appeal to readers on both the cognitive and instinctive levels.
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The author of the 2002 novel The Carpenter’s Pencil, Manual Rivas, deserves to be given credit on account of having done a good job, in this regard. After all, there is a good reason to believe that while exposed to his novel, people will be able to come in closer touch with their own unconscious anxieties, regarding the purpose of one’s life. At the same time, readers will be provided with answers (although implicit) as to what kind of an existential stance they should consider assuming, in order to be able to attain self-actualization as humans, in the full sense of this word.
The Carpenter’s Pencil has a strong educational value as well. In the aftermath of having read it, one will gain a better understanding of what were the actual realities of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938) and how the legacy of this war continues to affect the sense of national self-identity in Spaniards. In my paper, I will explore the validity of this suggestion at length while expounding on the most notable aspects of the novel’s affiliation with the literary genre of magic realism.
Even though The Carpenter’s Pencil is clearly a historical novel, it can hardly be considered conventional, in the structural and semiotic senses of this word. The reason for this is that Rivas’ novel does not feature a spatially sound plot. In essence, it is the collection of self-reflective memories, on the part of one of the novel’s main characters Herbal (a prison guard in Santiago de Compostella). These memories are primarily concerned with the character of Daniel Da Barca (a famous left-wing revolutionary), who was arrested and placed in prison following the seizure of political power by the Spanish fascists (Falangists) in 1938.
The voice of an invisible narrator resurfaces throughout the novel’s entirety as well, thus helping readers to reconnect the explored themes together. What contributes even further towards endowing The Carpenter’s Pencil with the distinctively post-modernist sounding is the fact that there is very little cause-effect integrity to how Herbal engages with his recollections of the past. That is, the flashbacks into the past from Herbal’s perspective that do not seem to follow much of a timely order. Moreover, in The Carpenter’s Pencil the motifs of magic appear to define the novel’s narrative framework, which some readers may find at odds with their own understanding of how the world turns around.
Nevertheless, the mentioned literary characteristics of Rivas’ novel correlate well with what the author was aiming to achieve by working on it: to expose the paradoxical nature of the relationship between good and evil on this planet. As Davis-Undiano noted, with respect to the novel’s discursive significance: “The real achievement here, though is artistic, the depiction of the paradoxes that lie beyond the usual understanding of good and evil” (100).
Therefore, there is nothing surprising about the fact that, despite its semiotic complexity, The Carpenter’s Pencil was able to win much popularity with readers. Being intuitively sound, the novel’s main idea can be grasped with ease: one’s commitment to acting humanely, despite the impossible odds, has the value of a “thing in itself”. Being clearly existentialist, this idea resonates well with the discourse of post-modernity, reflective of people’s unconscious desire to find a good enough reason for acting morally in the immoral (godless) world.
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Hence, the overall significance of the character of Da Barca in The Carpenter’s Pencil: he acts as the living extrapolation of such their desire. The above-stated leaves very little doubt about the fact that Rivas’ novel is indeed progressive, in the ideological sense of this word, and suggests that it will continue to enjoy much popularity with the reading audience in the future.
As it was implied earlier, The Carpenter’s Pencil contains a number of in-depth insights into what were the actual causes behind the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. From the novel, it appears that the main of these causes is reflective of the strongly defined antagonism between the characters of Da Barka and his fiancée Marisa Mallo, on the one hand, and Herbal and Marisa’s farther Benito Mallo, on the other. Despite his atheistic worldviews, Da Barca never ceased to be an idealistically minded individual on the mission of trying to make this world a better place.
As he used to describe himself to other prisoners in Santiago de Compostella: “I am not materialistic. It would be vulgar of me and offensive to matter, which tries so hard to come out of itself to avoid getting bored. I believe in an intelligent reality, in a supernatural environment, as it were” (Rivas 19). In this regard, the concerned character is best seen as being “composite” to a considerable extent. Just like him, most Spanish Republicans through the 20th century’s thirties used to profess an idealistic belief in the possibility of humanity’s betterment.
And, the first step, in this regard, would be implementing a number of social reforms to reduce inequality among citizens and encourage them to work on expanding their intellectual horizons. As Da Barca’s socialist friend Pepe Sanchez used to say: “No-one in the world is sufficiently good to wield power over anyone else without their consent… The union between man and woman has to be free… Dumb is the sheep that goes to the wolf for confession” (Rivas 12).
Predictably enough, such ideas did not appeal to the country’s rich and powerful. After all, the social empowerment of impoverished people in Spain at the time could only be achieved at the expense of forcing the elites to share some of their ill-gotten riches with the rest of Spanish society. Something needed to be done fast to prevent the idea of social/gender liberation from continuing to win more and more supporters amongst Spaniards. The Falangist movement, headed by general Franco, undertook the mission while being supported by the Catholic clergy. In 1936, Falangists refused to recognize the legitimacy of the country’s democratically elected Republican government: the development that has plunged Spain into a civil war.
The Falangist movement was fueled by people’s irrational fear of a social change, which Spanish fascists strived hard to intensify: “(under Socialism) Men and women would fornicate like beasts. The revolutionaries would separate children from their mothers as soon as they were born and educate them in atheism. They would take away their cows without paying a penny” (Rivas 11). Thus, the novel’s social message is concerned with the promotion of the idea that the implementation of progressive reforms within the society is bound to face much resistance, on the part of those who believe that such a development will undermine their hegemonic power. At the same time, The Carpenter’s Pencil encourages readers to assume that no matter how hard the reactionaries try to erect obstacles in the way of social progress, they will sustain a fiasco at the end. Such is the logic of social progress.
In light of what has been said earlier, there can be only a few doubts about the discursive clarity of the novel’s social message. Nevertheless, this message would not be quite as easily recognizable and emotionally powerful had it not been up to the author’s decision to write his novel in accordance with the unwritten but well-established provisions of magic realism. The main peculiarity of this literary gender is that its practitioners deliberately mix the imaginary/mystical (“magic”) and graphically realistic motifs within the narrative into one inseparable compound (Morwood 92). This helps readers to “process” rationale-based messages (within the narrative) on an unconscious level as well. The Carpenter’s Pencil exemplifies of how the described effect is being achieved in practice.
In this regard, one can hardly skip mentioning the author’s treatment of the space and time motif throughout the novel, which testifies once again to the “Spanish genuineness” of Rivas’ literary work. As Tronsgard noted: “There exists a general cultural preoccupation in Spain today with notions of time, place, and identity, both personal and national – an often intertwined and” (501). In The Carpenter’s Pencil, time is often referred to as an entity of its own that resists the cause-effect logic of the universe’s workings: “The minute hand, the longer of the two, trembled slightly before giving up again, unable to cope with its weight, like the wing of a hen” (Rivas 77).
This is the reason why Herbal in post-Francist Spain could never help experiencing the sensation of oneness with whom he used to be while taking a part in executing Republicans under Franco. As readers can infer from the novel, this used to affect the integrity of the character’s somatic (spatial) sensations as well. Hence, Herbal’s constant complaints about being forced to deal “phantom pains” on a continual basis.
Another clearly magical motif in The Carpenter’s Pencil has to do with the fact that Herbal’s behavior is being defined to a substantial extent by his conversations with the ghost of an artist, executed in Santiago de Compostella during the late thirties. When the artist’s ghost is nowhere near to be found, the imaginary figure of the Iron Man replaces him as a conversationalist inside Herbal’s head.
This, however, does not cause Herbal to appear any less adequate (mentally) in the audience’s eyes. After all, the Iron Man’s commands indeed make a perfectly good biological sense: “Learn to hold your gaze and use it to dominate… Silence, accompanied by martial, categorical gestures, has the effect of intimidation. Human relationships, do not forget, are always established in terms of power” (Rivas 54).
The “magic” sounding of Rivas’ novel can also be illustrated, with respect to the seeming invincibility of Da Barca. While reading the novel, people will be likely to assume that this character is indeed favored by some omnipresent power. Da Barca’s talent in surviving his own executions on numerous occasions supports the validity of this suggestion better than anything. This is another reason why many readers will find The Carpenter’s Pencil to be emotionally appealing: people are naturally drawn to the idea that there is a “higher” purpose to their existence and that they are being looked after by some sort of a deity.
At the same time, however, Rivas’ novel is filled with the graphic accounts of filth, depravity, and brutality, such as the following: “In prison, the best sign of friendship was helping someone to delouse… It took a patient hand to remove the parasites and nits” (42). Again and again, the author exposes readers to the scenes of Republican prisoners being tortured and executed in the cruelest ways possible while promoting the idea is that the wickedest thing about evil is its ordinariness. Consequently, this endows The Carpenter’s Pencil with the strongly defined humanist spirit, which is yet another indication that the literary piece in question indeed belongs to the genre of magic realism.
Historical Trauma and Spanish Identity
It would be wrong to assume that Rivas’ novel serves the sole purpose of revealing the unsightly truths about the Franco regime, which lasted until the 20th century’s late seventies. Rather, The Carpenter’s Pencil is about enlightening readers on how the emotionally disturbing legacy of the past affects the formation of existential attitudes in contemporary Spaniards. Therefore, there is nothing incidental about the fact that Herbal relates his memories of the past to a dark-skinned prostitute (Maria Da Vistacao) while hoping that this would lessen the severity of his deep-seated sense of guilt.
Apparently, the author wanted to show that the ideology of Falangism, concerned with the preservation of “traditional values”, had sustained an utter failure and that such a development was predetermined by the objective laws of history.
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At the same time, the way in which the novel portrays the relationship between both characters is suggestive that it is much too early assuming that the “ghosts” of the country’s fascist past are gone for good. After all, it is specifically Herbal’s right-wing views that Maria relies upon while trying to adapt to the realities of living in democratic Spain. The resulting grotesque adds even further towards strengthening the magic realist overtones within the novel.
It was suggested in the introduction that there is a good reason to refer to The Carpenter’s Pencil in terms of a literary masterpiece. In my opinion, the acquired analytical insights into the subject matter do testify to the full soundness of such a suggestion. It is not only that Rivas’ novel prompts readers to contemplate the nature of evil, but it also encourages them to adopt an active stance while opposing the latter. The Carpenter’s Pencil should be recommended for reading by anyone interested in learning more about Spain, in general, and the country’s history, in particular. I believe that this conclusion is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis.
Morwood, Nicholas. “From ‘Magic’ to ‘Tragic Realism’.” Interventions, vol. 19, no. 1, 2017, pp. 91-107.
Rivas, Manuel. The Carpenter’s Pencil. The Overlook Press, 2002.
Tronsgard, Jordan. “Memory, Migration and Identity in Manuel Rivas’s ‘El Lápiz Del Carpintero’ and Almudena Grandes’s ‘Malena Es Un Nombre De Tango.’” Revista Canadiense De Estudios Hispánicos, vol. 36, no. 3, 2012, pp. 501–517.