Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ritmo Lento

Ritmo Lento was an early novel by Carmen Martín Gaite that did not achieve great success when it first appeared in 1963.  For me, however, it seems a better crafted story than La Reina de las Nieves which came along thirty years later.  While the later novel was structured to follow the fable by Hans Christian Andersen of the same title and contained a good deal of fantasy, the earlier novel was firmly grounded in the trying times around Spain's Civil War and closely examined the psychological development of a young man who passed through that period.

The main character, David, was born into a relatively wealthy family which schooled him at home.  His critical faculties and artistic capacities were encouraged, but his emotional development was stunted by conflicted relationships with his mother, father and sister.  The result was that David was never able to form lasting relationships;  he becomes caught up in a perpetual existential dilemma, and is unable to sustain any momentum toward any normal life goals.  One course always seems as good as another, and David can never commit himself to pursuing any interest to a useful conclusion, including work and love.  While he is not without charm and social skills, he ultimately betrays his opportunities for rewarding relationships by his relentless and ruthless honesty, ultimately wearing out his welcome with everyone.

David's family and his society in general see him not only as a social misfit, but also as a person with mental illness issues and in need of psychiatic  treatment.  The treatment is initially prescribed by his psychiatrist father and then carried out by a psychiatrist friend of the father who begins the relationship surreptitiously and pursues treatment in the form of talk therapy of a psychoanalytic nature.  On two occasions, David is subjected to confinement in asylums as a result of episodes of bizarre behavior.  However, it seems significant that the behavior is triggered by severe stress -- once in relation to a bank job for which David is obviously unsuited, and in the final chapter by the suicide of the father.

Nowhere in the account of David's travails is there any indication of disordered thought processes.  He is not paranoid, he doesn't hear voices; if anything, he is excessively rational.  So, it seems that the responses to his behavioral outbursts are couched in medical terms, but that they actually represent a way to exert societal control over non-criminal, non-conformist views and actions.  It seems to me that this view of the society's response to David is intentionally advanced by the author, though I have not seen that directly suggested in the critical assessments or her work that I have found.

I have also not found references in the critical treatments of the novel to the idea that David may be representative of a class of young people whose lives were thrown into disarray by the Civil War.  As a member of a well-off Spanish family, David experienced little pressure to find a path to self-sufficiency.  The war, for wealthy families in areas dominated from the beginning by Franco's forces, was little more than an inconvenience compared to the calamity it represented for people in the contested areas like Madrid.  In the end, though Franco prevailed, everyone throughout the country was subject to the creeping malaise that overtook Spain in the post-war years.  Economic and social transformations that were unforeseen trumped conservative agenda, and people like David and his father just were not able to cope with the changes.

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