A writer has to have a certain confidence to be able to tell a story about how everything was lost: a love, a friend, a life, and a battle. Yet in losing we get a glimpse at how Galdos perceived the Spanish character in all its forms. We have characters who are tremendous braggarts, old men still filled with the passions of youth, society women so wrapped up in fashion and gossip as to be beyond clowns. Galdos paints with a broad brush and though we never dig very deep into these characters, he, unlike any other writer I can think of, is both satirical and empathetic at the same time to everyone on the page.
The story is straightforward: our young hero is plucked from the streets and made a servant in a good home, falls in love with the lady of the hours, goes off with the master of the house to a glorious yet disastrous naval battle, comes home and decides to leave his adopted family and live a life of adventure at sea. The writing too is straightforward, Galdos had been a journalist and uses simple language to tell his story and sticks to the facts but never leaves out the appropriate time to add some color.
This is an adventure tale, the first of many in a series of “National Episodes” (a serial) and it sets the stage for what Spain had become. No longer was she the glory of Europe, she had become a relic, her court was not to be taken serious, her Navy lumbering and ill managed, her men full of false ideas of glory too late in life, and her women fed up with the men. A strange setting then to set an adventure story of a young man to learn about life, yet what Galdos does so well is to show us how people behave, for good or for bad. He wants the reader to take his Spain seriously, though he’s just as able to laugh at his country too.
At the heart of the tale is a caution against allowing someone else to rule over us. Here the French tell the Spanish how to fight the battle, and lose (Napoleon says “I can’t be everywhere”), and our narrator too walks away from a life of service even though that means leaving the woman he loves and can never, ever have. He has to find his own way, a new way, even if that leads to disaster, as it did for his master.
And deeper still is Galdos showing us how important it is to know whom to believe about anything. On every page there are people telling him this or that, some of it true, some not, and it’s up to him (and us, ultimately) to learn to be discerning. Because to just rush off and act on emotion can lead to ruin just as bad information can ruin us, but there is also truth to be found between lies and being able to see that is a life-long lesson.
I believe Galdos was fascinated by what contradicts people. In one breath a character can be a buffoon and also wise. And as he ends the novel on a clear winter’s day, our narrator instead of seeing the world as it is, sees it as a summer day with the warm breezes, the orange trees, the roses in bloom: he sees the potential but also the contradictions between winter and summer, the contradictions that live inside each of us.