The Hive was the second great success in the career of one of the most influential Spanish writers of the 20th century, Camilo José Cela (1916– 2002). Written in the bitter aftermath of the Spanish civil war (1936–39), the novel remains a superb depiction of the social and economic distress the country was experiencing.
Cela wrote The Hive between 1945 and 1950. His first novel, The Family of Pascual Duarte (La familia de Pascual Duarte), was denied a second publication edition in Spain due to strict censorship policies. With The Hive, censorship became a greater threat, as a first edition of the novel was immediately banned. It was eventually published in 1951 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but remained unpublished in Spain until 1966.
The Hive was conceived as the first part of a trilogy that would never be completed. In The Hive, Cela experimented with a radically new approach to novelistic structure. The book is made up of a series of fragmented slices of reality, verbal vignettes that record three days in the difficult lives of the characters. The novel is divided into six chapters and an epilogue; these parts constitute brief, spontaneous dialogues taken from everyday situations. Though we know very little about the speakers—just what we can get from what they say, the way they talk, and what other people say about them—their interactions are always meaningful and vivid. Cela provides the reader with fl ashes from real life, a sampler of the good and evil inside each human being.
The stories included in The Hive are fragmentary; none appears to reach a conclusion, and the book seems to lack a clear linear plot. But the parts of the novel taken as a whole depict the beehive of activity that was life in Madrid during the early years of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939–75). This social function of the novel has led many critics to affirm that the real protagonist of the novel is the city of Madrid, portrayed through the hopes and fears of its inhabitants. Cela used a mixture of the objective and omniscient narrator’s voice, as well as irony, as the main vehicle of his subjective intent.
At first glance, the reproduction of the characters’ conversations can be interpreted as an apparently objective and realistic approach to Cela’s subject matter, but masterful selection and editing of the seemingly random dialogues produce revealing portraits. The Hive is a superb assortment of variations in levels of speech and diction, depending on the status of the speaker and the relationship with the person addressed. With this novel, Cela reveals a gifted ear for dialogue, as the conversations are both appropriate to the speaker and imbued with passages of lyrical poetry. Cela’s technique reveals the personal and societal alienation and anonymity of the individual within a throbbing, often corrupt, modern city. This novelistic approach has often been associated with John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925). In The Hive, Cela portrays an urban landscape through the words of a collective character, and every dialogue acts as a sort of dramatic counterpoint to the previous one.
Although the formal structure of The Hive differs fundamentally from the traditional and linear approach of The Family of Pascual Duarte, many of the author’s ideas contained in his first novel are also present in The Hive. Cela was interested in the depiction of the hardships endured during the post–civil war period in Spain, revealing them primarily through dialogue. The Hive is a powerful piece of documentary realism portraying the poverty, moral degradation, and hypocrisy of the society of the time. All social layers are present, from the well-to-do man looking for forbidden pleasures to the beggar desperately searching for a place to spend the night.
Although the form of this narrative is experimental, the substance of The Hive is not a departure from the ideas of Cela’s long association with existentialism. The Hive proceeds from immediate situations to the suggestion of higher ideals. The characters pose questions as they try to grasp the meaning of human life and the universal problems of mankind. The voice of the narrator is not as hard and detached as in The Family of Pascual Duarte. Human weakness articulated by the characters implies the possibility of concern and understanding. Behind the perceptible distance that separates the narrator’s voice and the characters, there is a hidden philanthropic tenderness in the latter’s definition.
The Hive is considered the greatest social-realistic novel of the Spanish postwar period. Cela’s realism, however, is a genre in which there are no descriptions. The author is not at all interested in the presence of objects or urban landscapes. He is concerned only with people’s feelings, their hunger and poverty, and the number of ways in which their misery comes to the surface. The novel focuses exclusively on characters: There are more than 300 in the novel, and the reader is informed through the many dialogues what these individuals love and hate, because The Hive is, above all, a comprehensive catalogue of universal human attitudes and feelings.
Gibson, Ian. Cela, el hombre que quiso ganar. Madrid: Aguilar, 2003. Perez, Janet. Camilo José Cela Revisited: The Later Novels. New York: Twayne Publishers, 2000.
Sánchez Salas, Gaspar. Cela: el hombre a quien vi llorar. Barcelona: Carena Editorial, 2002. Tudela, Mariano. Cela. Madrid: ESESA, 1970.
Umbra, Francisco. Cela: Un cadáver esquisito. Barcelona: Planeta, 2002.