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ArribaAbajoGaldós and Portugal

Anson C. Piper

Benito Pérez Galdós made his one and only trip to Portugal in the spring of 1885, accompanied by his good friend and literary adversary, José María de Pereda. Tormento, La de Bringas, and Lo Prohibido had just been published and Fortunata y Jacinta was already taking shape. Pereda, for his part, had just seen Sotileza through the press and was probably as anxious as his liberal companion to sample the delights of an early Portuguese spring.

The two writers agreed to meet in Madrid in late March and then set out together for Lisbon. Their departure from the Spanish capital was somewhat delayed, however, by an unexpected literary event which both were invited to attend: a testimonial luncheon offered in the Café Inglés by the Sociedad de escritores y artistas on the occasion of the unveiling of a commemorative plaque honoring Mesoneros Romanos who had died three years before. It was undoubtedly appropriate that the author of the Escenas montañesas should have been asked to speak at this luncheon commemorating the «dean» of Spanish costumbristas; and it was no less typical of the self-effacing author of El Amigo Manso to have remained in the background throughout the whole affair.274

Once aboard the train for Lisbon, the Spaniards decided to travel de riguroso incógnito in the hope of avoiding insofar as possible the attentions of the press and of the literary public in general. Galdós apparently observed this vow to the letter, for on one occasion during his stay in Lisbon, when word was brought to him that some important men of letters were playing tresillo at a nearby café, his only reply was, «Muy bien, que sigan jugando; no tengo nada que oponer.»275

Pereda, curiously enough, left no written account of this Portuguese journey, except for some personal comments contained in a letter to Galdós after the trip was over.276 The letter reveals little about the author's reaction to Portugal, but recalls the interesting fact that Galdós was unable to resist the temptation to purchase examples of local pottery in every town through which they passed. Galdós, on the other hand, recorded his impressions in considerable detail. His «Excursión a Portugal», published under the general heading of Viajes y fantasías, consists of two rather extensive letters: the «Carta primera», written at Lisbon on May 28, 1885; and the «Carta segunda», written at Santander on October 30, 1888. In addition, he makes reference to the same journey in his Memorias de un desmemoriado, under the title of «Pereda y yo». All of these documents appear in Volume VI of the Obras completas.277

The «Carta primera», dealing almost exclusively with the city of Lisbon, begins with a perceptive statement concerning the traditional estrangement which, in the opinion of Galdós, has separated the two Iberian nations throughout modern history. We shall return to this point later on, for it provides a very plausible explanation for the almost total absence of any reference to Portugal or the Portuguese in the novelas contemporáneas.

The novelist's well-known interest in railway travel is reflected early in the «Carta primera». He enumerates with obvious enthusiasm the three rail-lines linking the two   —80→   countries, and even refers to the projected line from Salamanca to Oporto, via Ciudad Rodrigo (a line which was to open sometime before 1900, when it became immortalized by Eça's unforgettable Jacinto in A Cidade e a Serra).

Galdós, on this occasion, took the Madrid-Lisbon night express, via Cáceres («un recorrido de veinte horas»). His descriptions, from the train window, of the sunset in western Extremadura and of the beautiful Tagus valley early the next morning reveal not only keen powers of observation but also a certain unintentional chauvinism:

Cuando reapareció el día alumbraba espléndidamente la orilla derecha del opulento río, los alegres pueblos que anuncian Lisboa desde mucha distancia; la vegetación espléndida, las salinas, el panorama admirable de aquel gran río peninsular que nosotros criamos y engordamos para regalo de nuestros vecinos.

The novelist's obvious pride in his nation's magnanimous gift of a natural waterway through Portugal might easily be dismissed as mere lyricism, were it not for the fact that he uses identical language later on when he speaks of the River Duero (in the «Carta Segunda»): «otro gran río que criamos y engordamos para ellos». As we shall see, Portugal's role as an integral part of a united peninsula is a recurring theme in Galdós' letters.

Trains were to provide Galdós and Pereda with their principal means of transportation during their two-month stay in Portugal. Nowhere do we find any indication that Galdós was dissatisfied with the Portuguese railway system. Had there been any grounds for complaint he certainly would have said so, for when he visited Italy three years later he did not hesitate to point out the urgent need for more doubletrack lines:

La afluencia de viajeros en todas las estaciones del año exige mayor rapidez y comodidad, para lo cual urge el establecimiento de la doble vía, reclamada también por razones de un orden político y militar... Pero aun sin contar con las exigencias de una guerra, el movimiento ordinario de viajeros reclama una completa reforma en los ferrocarriles italianos.278

Although Galdós is impressed by the spectacular view of Lisbon as his train approaches the Santa Apolónia Station, he acknowledges that the magnificent panorama of the city can be fully appreciated only when seen from across the Tagus estuary, or from the Belém steamer. «Lisboa es ante todo panorama; pero tan espléndido que sólo el de Nápoles o Constantinopla puede comparársele.» On the whole, Galdós is generous in his praise of Lisbon and its inhabitants. He states that the cleanliness of the city inspires envy, and observes that the streets, avenues, and parks are far better maintained than those of Madrid. He notes that the Portuguese appear to be better-mannered than the Spaniards, and that nobody raises his voice or loses his temper. «Reina aquí una sobriedad de acciones y de palabras que a los españoles, tan dados a hablar más de la cuenta, nos parece algo sosa.»

On the other hand, he misses the spontaneous gaiety of the madrileños. Lisbon streets, except for the Chiado and the Rua Nova do Carmo, are sad and silent. Nobody seems to be having a good time, and on Sundays the sounds of laughter, songs, guitars, and tambourines are strangely absent. Conversely, he reports that he has witnessed no street fights or scenes of drunkenness. This general impression of orderliness and tranquility may be due, Galdós suggests, to the fact that the Lisbon   —81→   of his day is twice the size of Madrid, with a population that is only half that of the Spanish capital, «que con razón pasa por ser la capital más tumultuosa y alegre del mundo». But he hastily adds that he does not consider the animación bullanguera of his beloved Madrid to be necessarily an advantage. He concludes that, if the Portuguese middle and lower classes are moderate in everything, it is because they are lacking in imagination and constitute a race which is «laboriosa y honrada, pero triste».

Throughout both «Cartas» Galdós is fully aware of the pitfalls of facile generalization. As a good costumbrista he seeks only to record what he observes, «sin sacar de ello consecuencias terminales ni pretender juzgar un país por lo que se ve en una rápida visita». Nevertheless, Galdós does venture the opinion that both Spain and Portugal could benefit from a mutual exchange of their respective strong points:

Si pudiéramos ceder a esta gente algo de la estrepitosa alegría andaluza, a cambio de sus apacibles modales y de este reposo espiritual, creo que ganaríamos mucho en el cambio. Desconozco en absoluto la poesía y la música populares de este país, y sin tan importante dato carezco de autoridad para hablar en definitiva del pueblo portugués; pero, por lo poco que he visto, creo que esta somnolencia de la imaginación es un fenómeno indubitable, que a la larga ha de presentar algún vacío importante en la cultura general del país.

The fact that Portuguese life is less «public» than life in Spain is reflected in the relatively small number of cafés to be found in Lisbon. Although Galdós concedes that this scarcity is a healthy sign of domestic virtue, he confesses that it is hard on visitors from Madrid where cafés constitute «el alma de la población». He notes that hotels are generally good and inexpensive, but that the beds are traditionally hard. Food is tasty and abundant, and the cost of living is much lower than in his own country. Rents are particularly modest, and he wonders why more Spaniards do not move to Portugal in order to avoid high prices at home. Although he observes that clothing-store windows in Lisbon have fewer luxury items than do those in Madrid or Barcelona, the author of La de Bringas hails the prevailing modesty of attire which he sees all around him. «No hay aquí el diabólico afán de aparentar una posición superior a la que se tiene.»

It is perhaps not surprising that the novelist who so fondly and vividly recreated the streets, squares, and buildings of nineteenth-century Madrid should have relished this opportunity to study at first-hand the edifices and monuments of the Portuguese capital. He singles out the Praça do Comércio and the Belém Monastery as the best examples of public architecture to be found in Lisbon. The former, in his opinion, is «una de las más hermosas de Europa. No tenemos nosotros en ninguna de nuestras poblaciones nada comparable a este espacioso cuadrilátero». He has some reservations about the equestrian statue of José I which occupies the center of the square, but admits that, «a pesar de su estilo», it adds a certain grandeur to the total effect. As for the Belém Monastery, Galdós sees it as one of the most perfect examples of the Portuguese Manueline style: «un ojival desvirtuado, o más bien acomodado al genio meridional del país». He detects a certain similarity between the monastery's Manueline style and the Mudéjar influence on the Gothic architecture of the Toledo Cathedral, but deplores the recent restoration of the original tower and the addition of a museum («no muy felices»).


The novelist is enthusiastic about the baroque style («elegante y discreto») which distinguishes the public buildings erected by Pombal after the 1755 earthquake; but he finds the churches done in this manner to be unsuited to the spirit of Catholicism. «Producto del siglo filosófico, esta arquitectura resulta descreída y atea. Las iglesias no lo parecen: se las tomaría por teatros o lugares de contratación.» In general, however, he finds the Portuguese baroque to be infinitely superior to the «delirios de Churriguera», and he is impressed by the simplicity and cleanliness of the church interiors. The latter remind him of «Protestant temples» because they contain fewer pieces of sculpture and painting than do their Spanish counterparts, «atestadas de objetos de arte, pero tan sucias que da pena entrar en ellas».

For some reason, which he cannot easily explain, Galdós believes that the Portuguese pray less than the Spaniards, but he leaves the curious reader to discover for himself «los motivos de este fenómeno».

As for museums, the novelist recognizes the universal paucity of Portuguese art collections, and the only native artist whom he mentions by name is O Grão Vasco. If he has heard of Nuno Gonçalves, he fails to allude to him. But Galdós is fascinated by the Coach Museum, which he calls «unique in Europe», and he dwells with particular interest on the collection of royal barges (falúas) «para pasear los reyes por el Tajo en días de gran ceremonia». This reference to what now forms part of the Naval Museum's collection leads Galdós to a wide-ranging discussion of Portugal's former maritime glory and her present insignificance as a sea power. He labels the Portuguese navy of his own day «una pura fórmula», but hastens to add that it is in no way inferior to Spain's, «porque la nuestra no admite inferioridad». He frankly declares that the navies of both countries are useless and costly symbols of national pride. «Los portugueses, como nosotros, se hacen la ilusión de que tienen marina militar viendo fondeados en el Tajo unos cuantos cachuchos que no sirven absolutamente para nada.» He discerns a striking parallel between this national need to maintain appearances and «esos hidalgos viejos y arruinados que, aunque pasan por la ignominia de remendarse las calzas con sus propias manos nobles, no pueden evitar el andar siempre descalzos».

If Galdós lingers somewhat sadly on the sorry state of the Portuguese fleet it is because he finds it symptomatic of a far more serious national affliction: the insistence on maintaining a vast and cumbersome administrative bureaucracy whose very survival depends on an ever-increasing tax burden imposed on an impoverished population.

The author of Miau wonders how a nation of only five million inhabitants can sustain such an enormous army of civil servants «que por sí solos absorberían el presupuesto». He includes his own country in this general condemnation of those nations who, having fallen from their former greatness, persist in keeping up the appearances of their erstwhile splendor:

De todo esto se desprende que las naciones que han venido a menos apenas pueden resistir las exigencias de la vida moderna, pareciéndose en esto a los aristócratas decaídos, que ven mermadas sus rentas por la desvinculación, al paso que aumentan de un modo alarmante las exigencias del vivir.

Inasmuch as both Portugal and Spain are forced to spend most of their national budget on maintaining the outward appearances of prosperity and progress, Galdós proposes that the two countries pool a certain portion of their economic resources   —83→   and administrative machinery. He realizes, however, that this outspoken plea for a more closely integrated Iberia will be looked upon as a delirious dream, particularly by the Portuguese:

El solo anuncio de semejante idea hace temblar de indignación a los susceptibles portugueses. Mas como la verdad se impone al fin, vendrán tiempos en que los dos pueblos hermanos encuentren una fórmula para constituirse en hermoso y soberano grupo, el cual tendrá la fuerza que ninguna de las dos nacionalidades separadas obtendrá jamás.

On this visionary note Galdós brings his «Carta primera» to a close. The remainder of his sojurn in Portugal is recounted in the «Carta segunda», written more than three years after the events themselves.

The «Carta segunda» bears every indication of having been written by a hurried tourist who has tarried too long in Lisbon to do justice to the rest of the country. The letter is full of such frantic expressions of haste as «el tiempo apremia», «obligado contra mi voluntad a no detenerme», or «me es sensible no consagrar a Coimbra la atención que merece»; and we have the distinct impression that Galdós and Pereda are constantly at the mercy of their timetables.

As a matter of fact, the two harried travelers are forced to choose between visiting Sintra, on the one hand, or the monasteries of Alcobaça and Batalha, on the other. Galdós states, regretfully, that they decide in favor of Sintra, thereby forfeiting an opportunity to see «los mejores y más elocuentes libros de piedra que contiene la historia portuguesa».

Sintra, however, proves to be a thoroughly rewarding experience, so much so that approximately one half of the «Carta segunda» is devoted to a detailed and appreciative description of the Castelo da Pena and the town below. As a place of extraordinary natural beauty Galdós finds Sintra to be virtually without equal. «Quizá no exista en Europa un lugar en donde árboles y plantas ostenten con más galanura la fecundidad de la tierra y la pasmosa riqueza de la flora en nuestras zonas templadas.» Indeed, his ecstatic word-picture of the woods, streams, and distant landscape reveals a «new Galdós», a paisajista for whom the delights of the countryside (seldom depicted in his novels) provide an exciting esthetic challenge. Even the «railroad buff» in Galdós is willing to concede that the breathtaking ascent to the castle, reached after a jolting ride on borricos de alquiler, would lose much of its charm «si se construyera un ferrocarril funicular».

As a good Spaniard he cannot refrain from catching a glimpse of «Spain», lying off to the east; and when he looks toward the north and discerns the colossal monastery at Mafra he instinctively refers to it as «el Escorial portugués». He expresses his admiration for the German ruler, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who had the good sense to construct the Castelo da Pena on such a beautiful site, and reveals his republican leanings by asserting, «Todo revela allí un gusto de primer orden y una discreción e inteligencia que no suelen ser lo más común en testas coronadas».

As for the less imposing Royal Palace which Manuel the Fortunate built at the foot of the hill, Galdós compares it unfavorably to the Alhambra («una Alhambra bastarda»). Its basically Arab construction, modified by Manueline architects, lacks the sumptuousness and poetic ornamentation of the Granada palace. Yet he is intrigued by the two enormous kitchen chimneys which tower above the building like pilones de azúcar, and confesses that the historical memories which the palace awakens   —84→   help somewhat to enhance the bare walls of the interior. The complete absence of guards and attendants in all the Sintra monuments is an aspect of Portuguese modesty which strongly appeals to the Spanish visitor:

En todo el parque real de Sintra, ni en el castillo, ni en sus dependencias, he visto un solo uniforme ni un soldado, ni un ujier, ni un guarda de jardines con bandolera de cuero, como se estilan por acá, aun en las casas que no son reales. No he visto en parte alguna modestia semejante.

Regretting that he and his companion must leave Sintra so hurriedly, Galdós takes us immediately to Coimbra, «nombrada por su venerable Universidad, maestra de toda la cultura lusitana». He applauds the Portuguese for having had the good sense to preserve Coimbra's uniqueness by refraining from creating rival universities which might detract from its traditional prestige, but we have the uneasy feeling that Galdós «sees» Coimbra merely through the printed pages of a travel brochure. Since his tight schedule allows him only a few hours to devote to the city, he confesses that he must pass up the university as well as the famous Fonte das lágrimas, «memoria hermosísima de Inés de Castro, aquella mártir cuya trágica historia no se puede leer sin pena vivísima». Coimbra, unfortunately for Galdós, is reduced to an incidental stop-over between Portugal's two major urban centers: Lisbon and Oporto.

Galdós, for whom cities are the very pulse of modem society, finds Oporto very much to his liking. «Pocas ciudades he visto más simpáticas en que el viajero se encuentra más a sus anchas.» He notes that Oporto, like Lisbon, is built on numerous steep hills, a fact which frequently surprises madrileños accustomed to a relatively even terrain. «Hay entre el puerto y la parte alta de la ciudad cuestas verdaderamente aterradoras, y que serían inaccesibles si no ayudaran a salvarlas los admirables vehículos y las valientes caballerías de este país.» But, in spite of this minor drawback, Oporto impresses Galdós with its «aliento industrial y comercial». In this respect it reminds him of Bordeaux or Antwerp («salvo las pendientes características de toda gran ciudad portuguesa»), and its hotels are even better than those of Madrid or Barcelona. Although conceding that Oporto has little to offer in the way of historical architecture, with the possible exception of the seventeenth-century Torre dos clérigos, he marvels at the new railroad bridge linking the city to the south bank of the Duero. Its solid arrogance makes it «una de las construcciones más atrevidas de Europa».

Of particular interest to Galdós are the lovely suburbs of Oporto. He singles out for special mention the towns of Espinho and Granja, which remind him of Biarritz «en situación deliciosa, en alegre comfort, y en la belleza del paisaje marítimo y terrestre». In fact, the natural charm of Oporto's setting makes Galdós think of the huerta valenciana, although the latter is less rich in pleasing vistas. Yet, in spite of his enthusiasm for this northern industrial city, Galdós expresses some serious doubts as to its status as an authentic seaport.

«Lástima grande que el puerto de Oporto sea una vana palabra. Nunca se ha visto ciudad alguna que merezca menos el nombre que lleva.» He observes that the ship channel at the mouth of the river is dangerously narrow, and so shallow that large transatlantic vessels are unable to pass through it. And although he refers briefly to the new manmade harbor being constructed at Matosinhos, just north of the river mouth, he predicts that these new port facilities will never be an adequate solution   —85→   to Oporto's relative inaccessibility. (The novelist's prediction has, fortunately, been proven wrong; for Leixões, as the artificial harbor at Matosinhos is now called, has developed into a major shipping center since its inauguration in 1892.)

The final glimpse of Portugal which Galdós shares with us is the lovely Minho valley, seen (appropriately enough) from his train window. He explains, dutifully, that the international railroad bridge linking Portugal to Galicia has not yet been opened to public service, and that, as a consequence, he and Pereda are obliged to cross over to their homeland on a primitive ferry «que es bastante molesto con su poquito de peligro». Galdós, instead of seeing the Minho as a natural barrier separating the two nations, looks upon it as a tangible symbol of the inherent territorial integrity of the Galaico-Portuguese coastal strip. It grieves him to see the flags of Spain and Portugal facing one another on their respective sides of this peaceful border, «la más bella y la más melancólica que se puede imaginar». After a brief description of the Vigo estuary («el primer puerto de España, y quizá de Europa») he brings his «Carta segunda» to a close.

The essay, «Pereda y yo», informs us, however, that the two Spaniards went their separate ways shortly after entering Galicia. Pereda headed for Santander, while Galdós returned to Madrid where, «sin acordarme ya de Galicia ni de Portugal, cogí la pluma y con elementos que de antemano había reunido me puse a escribir Fortunata y Jacinta». There are two other interesting points contained in «Pereda y yo», but not mentioned in the «cartas». Galdós tells us that, while in Oporto, he had the pleasure of meeting Oliveira Martins and that the latter presented him with a personal copy of his História da civilizaçáo ibérica. He also informs us that the best Castilian to be heard in Portugal is spoken in Oporto. This latter observation is especially significant inasmuch as Galdós (like many of his fellow countrymen) never really felt at home in Portuguese-speaking circles. Indeed, he asserts on one occasion that he encountered fewer linguistic problems while traveling in Italy than he experienced during his Portuguese journey.279

Whatever conclusions one might draw from Galdós' impressions of Portugal would have little significance if we failed to relate them to the broader canvas of the novelas contemporáneas. While it is perfectly evident that the novelist was delighted with almost everything that he observed in Portugal (often to the point of finding certain institutions and customs to be superior to those of Spain), it is equally apparent that his genuine enthusiasm for things Lusitanian is seldom reflected in his works of fiction. Indeed, the almost total absence of any references to Portugal is all the more conspicuous in view of the author's frequent allusions to England, France, Italy, Germany, and even the United States.

According to Sainz de Robles' Censo de personajes galdosianos,280 the author makes reference to 327 foreign historical figures (artists, writers, statesmen, actors, etc.) in his entire literary output. Of this number, 135 are Frenchmen, sixty-three are Italian, thirty-nine are English, thirty-eight are German, and only five are Portuguese (Camões, Vasco da Gama, João III, José I, and dona Isabel, wife of Charles V). Their number is equalled by five North Americans (Franklin, Lincoln, Elias Howe, Brigham Young, and Edison). Portugal, past and present, is obviously not a major presence in the novelistic world of Galdós, even when we include the Episodios nacionales. The few allusions to Portugal in the novelas contemporáneas are wholly peripheral. In La Fontana de Oro, for example, we learn that the beata, doña Clara, leaves Madrid for Lisbon a tomar aires. We are told nothing about her sojurn in Portugal except that   —86→   she eventually joins a group of missionaries and embarks for Brazil. In Miau the sole reference to Portugal occurs when Federico Ruiz receives the flattering news that he has been made an honorary member of the Brotherhood of Portuguese Firemen, a distinction which bestows on him the resounding title of Bombeiro, salvador da humanidade. And in Ángel Guerra the only time we hear of Portugal is in connection with Policarpo Babel's desperate attempt to escape the Spanish authorities by fleeing across the border.

Why is it that Galdós, the novelist, remains so silent about an area that is obviously so appealing to Galdós, the traveler? A possible answer to this question is provided by Galdós, the Spaniard.

At the beginning of his «Carta primera» he apologizes for his abject ignorance of Portugal prior to his journey of 1885. «Portugal continuaba siendo un misterio para quien había visto y admirado países mucho más distantes del nuestro.»

He hastens to add that he is probably not alone in this feeling of estrangement, pointing out that Spaniards in general have always tended to look upon Portugal as being as remote as Holland or Denmark. Yet, in all fairness, he makes it clear that the Portuguese are equally guilty of fostering this attitude of mutual aloofness. «Hemos sido dos vecinos de una misma casa, separados por un tabique y bastante huraños para no cambiar una visita, ni siquiera un saludo.»

Galdós acknowledges the historical roots of this reciprocal coldness, but feels that the time has now come to forget past differences. He states that Spaniards, for their part, are more than willing to initiate a cultural and commercial rapprochement, but finds the Portuguese extremely touchy on this score:

La frialdad de relaciones que aún subsiste tiene más raíces en el carácter portugués que en el español; quiere decir que aun hoy los portugueses quieren a nosotros menos que nosotros a ellos, y responden siempre con ecos perezosos y poco entusiastas a nuestras manifestaciones de simpatía.

Galdós attributes this Lusitanian susceptibilidad to a national inferiority complex, but fails to bolster this assertion with convincing arguments. He simply states that the Portuguese seldom visit Spain and rarely read Spanish authors. Spaniards, on the other hand, travel to Portugal in large numbers, and are generally quite familiar with Portuguese writers. But whatever reasons Galdós may have for concluding that his western neighbors are less than congenial, there can be no doubt that he reflects a typically Spanish ambivalence regarding the «other» Iberian nation. Although he certainly feels attracted to Portugal (as his letters clearly show) he nonetheless leaves us with the distinct impression that Portugal, for all its quaint «differentness», is fundamentally an integral part of a larger Hispania.

His proposal that both nations pool their economic resources, and his suggestion that political borders are superfluous (at least along the Minho) serve only to reinforce his latent pan-Iberianism.281

In view, therefore, of Galdós' inclination to see Portugal as but one of several «regions» comprising a common Iberian community, there is perhaps very little reason for us to expect his novels to reflect any more interest in Portugal per se than in Catalonia or Andalusia. Galdós, born in the Canary Islands, came to see «Spain» as a peninsular entity with Madrid at its physical and spiritual center. As a Spaniard,   —87→   Galdós could take Portugal «for granted» (just as he took the Canary Islands «for granted».) Portugal was simply part of the family, whereas the appeal of England, France and Italy lay in their foreignness.

Williams College

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