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A castiza commodity: the salesgirl in Ramon Gomez de la Serna's La Nardo.


Este articulo explora como la construccion de Aurelia, el personaje femenino principal en la novela La Nardo (1931) de Ramon Gomez de la Serna, responde tanto a la representacion de la esencia madrilena, como la critica literaria ha senalado, como a la relacion ambivalente del autor con la modernidad. Considerando la angustia y dislocacion experimentadas por Gomez de la Serna motivadas por los cambios economicos y sociales de la epoca, el personaje de Aurelia--vendedora castiza en un puesto del Rastro y mas tarde prostituta--encarna la artificialidad, degeneracion y mutabilidad de la cultura de consumo que corrompe la esencia espanola. Lo que es mas, al retratar a la protagonista de clase trabajadora como un articulo de consumo y como simbolo de la nacion espanola, La Nardo parece participar de los mismos mecanismos de representacion impenalistas y sexistas empleados por movimientos culturales previos. (MSL)

Palabras clave: imperialismo cultural, identidad nacional, cultura de consumo, vanguardia, Madrid, mujer trabajadora, Ramon Gomez de la Serna, La Nardo


This article explores how the construction of Aurelia, the female protagonist of Ramon Gomez de la Serna's La Nardo (1931), not only responds to the representation of the Madrilenian essence, as different literary critics have stated, but also to the author's ambivalent relationship with modernity. Considering the avant-garde author's feelings of anguish and displacement motivated by the economic and social changes of his time, the protagonist, a castiza salesgirl in the Madrilenian Rastro who becomes a prostitute, embodies the artificial, degenerate, and shifting nature of modern consumer culture that corrupts the Spanish essence. Additionally, by portraying the working-class protagonist both as a commodity and as the Spanish essence, the novel seems to participate in the same mechanisms of imperial and sexist representation used in previous cultural movements. (MSL)

Keywords: cultural imperialism, national identity, consumer culture, avant-garde, Madrid, working-class woman, Ramon Gomez de la Serna, La Nardo


Un dia bajaba al Rastro con Tomas Borras, y de pronto, en la vision de la tarde, bajo los toldos del vial de las Americas, la vimos. Era como una esclava, desnuda y desmelenada, que se vendia en el Mercado. Y me enamore de ella.

(Ramon Gomez de la Serna, La sagrada cripta de Pombo 585)

Ramon Gomez de la Serna might have admired women--he was indeed emotionally and intellectually attached to feminist writer Carmen de Burgos for two decades--but female characters in his novels are often depicted from a negative perspective. Different scholars have already demonstrated how Gomez de la Serna and most male authors of the vanguards "[i]n spite of their 'new art' with its alleged rejection of nineteenth-century technologies of representation, [...] continue to mimic the female constructs passed on to them through the ages" (Spires 220). Interestingly, as Spires states, even though avant-garde artists were accused by their contemporaries of emasculating the male image and creating an effeminate new literary expression, the truth is that "male-authored vanguard texts project female representations that can be considered both seditiously threatening and stereotypically comforting to a virile discursive tradition" (219-20).

Such a masculinist representation of female characters is paramount to Gomez de la Serna's novel La Nardo (1930). This avant-garde costumbrista (1) novel maps Aurelia's trajectory in the urban geography after she leaves the safety of the domestic space and her job as a salesgirl at the popular Madrilenian flea market of the Rastro. Through the machinations of Samuel, a middle-class young man who becomes her pimp, the protagonist ends up working as a prostitute. In her journey of self-debasement in the popular and poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Madrid, the girl moves as a specularized body prostituted by several men representative of the middleclass; specifically, a rich stockbreeder, a well-off and emasculated heroine addict, and a conman pretending to be a cinema producer comprise some of her clientele. The novel ends when Aurelia falls in love with Federico, a former client and the ideal representative of the most respectable Madrilenian bourgeoisie. Realizing that there is no space for a love relationship between a married man and a prostitute in Madrid's conservative middle-class society, they decide to commit suicide together.

Critics such as Michael Ugarte, Antonio del Rio Briones, and William Sherzer have already studied how Aurelia's character represents the essence of Gomez de la Serna's beloved hometown, Madrid. However, none of these critics have related such a portrayal of the female protagonist to the author's ambivalent relationship with the modern world. Whereas Gomez de la Serna enjoyed the pleasures of modern life, he also sardonically commented on its contradictions. For Jose Carlos Mainer, the Madrilenian author shared with his contemporaries, especially other Spanish and international artists, a feeling of distrust in modern society that positioned the individual/artist in a state of existential anguish and sense of displacement in a period undergoing complex technological, industrial, and economic changes (Prologo, El incongruente 80). Similarly, Roberta Johnson has noticed how Spanish modernist male authors, intimidated by the effects of modernization, associated women with the Spanish essence (20). Following Mainer's idea that Gomez de la Serna conceived female characters as "metaforas [...] para la sublimacion de oscuras realidades de marginacion o descontento [con] un aspecto tipico de la literatura de epoca de crisis" (Prologo, El incongruente 20), this essay examines how the representation of the salesgirl in La Nardo articulates a sarcastic critique against the artificial, degenerate, and shifting nature of modern consumer culture that corrupts the Spanish essence. Indeed, the novel presents the convergence of gender, class, and nation through the representation of the protagonist's commodified body, a body infused with a variety of meanings depending on three different but interconnected points of view: the male characters', the narrator's, and the author's. However, by portraying the working-class protagonist both as a commodity and as the Spanish essence, La Nardo offers an ambivalent reading. On the one hand, the novel participates in turn-of-the century mechanisms of what Marion Young has described as "cultural imperialism" (5355), positioning the working-class woman as an inferior body, a corporeal referent whose meanings depend on bourgeois male desires. On the other, the rewriting of nineteenth-century novelistic plot-structures and motifs using humor and a sarcastic narrator underlines the parodie tone of La Nardo and its ambiguous interpretation.

Significantly, the novel begins with the description of Aurelia's stall at the Rastro, (2) giving a predominant focus to an inventory of items she sells there: "Tenia un puesto de porcelanas, muebles, cacharros y ropas en la Ribera de Curtidores" (13). Soon after, the narrator points to the metonymic relationship between the multiplicity of objects that she sells and her own body: "Su belleza habia crecido como abonada por todo aquel conjunto de cosas, adunadas en el hondon de la Ribera" (13). Like the flower that her nickname "La Nardo" evokes, Aurelia's beauty has grown fertilized by objects which accentuates the objectification of her body: she is both a body composed of objects and a potential commodity for sale in the market. Male shoppers in the Rastro construct her as a commodity fetish as well, stripping her of any subjectivity: "Los curiosos la repasaban como a los objetos que la rodeaban y se veia que pensaban mirandola 'esa chucheria si que me la llevaba yo'" (14). Aurelia, located in the marginal spaces of the city, is associated with a "chucheria" or trinket by men. Her objectification is further emphasized by the male shoppers' scopophilic gazes as the confluence of verbs related to vision--"repasaban" y "mirandola"--shows in this description. The working-class girl acquires the specular quality of the commodity, becoming a sexualized object desired after it has been visualized. In this fashion, the Rastro, apart from the literary and metaphysical connotations that Gomez de la Serna ascribes to it in his aesthetic postulates, is also presented in the narrative as a showcase, a space of mercantile exchange characterized by the commodification of the products on display. (3) Indeed, the abundance of lyric images and connotative language related to the lexicon of mercantile relations in the novel as seen below communicates the author's awareness of modern processes of commodification. In the Rastro, Aurelia's "objectification, her susceptibility to processes of fetishization, display, profit and loss, the production of surplus value, situate her in a relation of resemblance to the commodity form" (Doanne 22). Objects, and by extension, the street vendor's body, cannot free themselves from the mechanisms of demand and specularization of modern consumption.

This idea is further developed when the narrator compares Aurelia working at the stall to a "muneca de cera" (16). At this point, both the narrator's and the author's perspectives merge, imagining women as mass-commodified toys. Rafael Cabanas Alaman notes Gomez de la Serna's fetishized perception of female characters as wax dolls in his novels (152). In reality, Gomez de la Serna had a particular predilection not just for random objects, but also for wax dolls and mannequins that he kept in his study. (4) The writer himself confessed in both his autobiography Automoribundia (542) and the prologue to La Nardo (XII) that his wax doll was the ideal woman. Cristina Peri Rossi theorizes that the author might have kept the mannequin to participate in the avant-garde's anti-bourgeois discourse that sought to epater la bourgeoisie or shock the middle-class (291). Peri Rossi goes on to note that the Spanish writer might have used the mannequin as a symbol of "the creator's dream of giving birth to the characters of his imagination, those that he 'dresses and undresses' on paper" (291). However, in spite of Gomez de la Serna's humorous comments, the gender and power configuration arising from the author's relationship with dolls and mannequins and the narrator's metaphorization of Aurelia as a waxdoll is clearly one of male empowerment and female subservience. Furthermore, the author's discomfort about "un proceso economico de colectivizacion del consumo, de la precariedad de las modas, de las continuas devaluaciones cuyo remoto origen asusta al usuario" (Mainer, Prologo, El incongruente 28) might have influenced his obsession with dolls and later on with mass-produced mannequins. In my opinion, Gomez de la Serna might have fancied a world in which he could possess, dress, and undress both real and fictional mass-produced mannequins and dolls in order to feel in control of the process of commodification itself.

However, Aurelia's challenging gaze and assertive attitude counteracts the male gaze establishing herself as a subject in the Rastro. At her stall, "veia llegar a todos, sin arredrarle ningun tipo, sin quitar los ojos de las malas miradas" (14). The repetition of a lexicon of visual perception in the same sentence--veia, sin quitar los ojos, malas miradas--dismantles the objectifying visual mechanism of the commodification process. Yet, such resistance springs from her working-class nature according to the narrator's classist and orientalizing point of view. By comparing the Rastro with a "manigua libre" (16) and the objects that she sells with weapons "envenenadas por 'los indigenas'" (15), the narrator perceives Aurelia as a fearless and savage woman in the chaotic and wild world of mercantile transactions in which everything is in circulation: "Tenia el arrojo que habia que tener en aquella manigua libre" (16). (5) By representing el Rastro as an untamed territory, Gomez de la Serna playfully combines the multiple definitions of manigua: a chaotic proliferation of objects and an impenetrable tropical forest. In this anarchic world, Aurelia has to defend herself from "la lucha encarnizada del amor" (15). Considering Gomez de la Serna's playful use of language in his literary works, the meaning of the adjective "encarnizada" could literally refer to its word root "carne" or "flesh," thereby expressing the narrator's understanding of love in the slums as a physical, savage-like sexual encounter. For the narrator the love relationship between a man and a woman loses any trace of middle-class romanticism in the working-class neighborhood turning it instead into a fierce almost pornographic fight. The narrator thus portrays the Rastro, and by extension, the slums of Madrid, as the exotic working-class world that he can explore from a safe distance as a fin de siecle flaneur, an idea that is strengthened by the narrator's use of the impersonal or passive form of the verb "verse" in various occasions--"se veia" (14), "Se la veia" (15)--conveying his position as a direct but distant observer in the Madrilenian market. (6)

The construction of Aurelia from a middle-class male perspective as sensual yet defiant and modest exposes both the male shoppers and the narrator's titillating sexual desire to possess her. Indeed, the emphasis on her modesty, on her working-class body as "virgin," fashions her into a first-hand commodity, that which has not yet been explored or used by others. This characteristic makes her even more desirable to men and renders her more exotic and alluring. In her stand at the market, Aurelia "[o]frecia durezas de magnolia aun arropada por el apretado corse de todas sus blusas, dificiles de entreabrir despues de haber sido siempre tan honestas" (15; emphasis added). The narrator-observer portrays Aurelia as an indomitable exotic flower ("magnolia") who preserves her sexual decency. Moreover, Aurelia is further objectified by the author's use of prosopopeia when ascribing her agency in rejecting men's sexual advances to her modest blouses. At the same time, by associating Aurelia's sexual decency with the difficult-to-open blouses she wears, the narrator not only emphasizes her virginity but also reveals his own desire to peep into her tight blouse, imagining the sensuous pleasures that her virgin and naked body might offer. (7)

The narrator's desire is fulfilled later in the novel. One day, when Aurelia abandons her stall to go home, Samuel Barrios, a student, approaches her in the street: "La Nardo sintio que era asi como ella habia sonado que le hablase un mozo, con esas incongruencias y medios tonos que solo se oyen en las novelas" (24; emphasis added). The romantic and poetic language used in novels actually has a decisive effect on Aurelia. (8) But these novels are not canonic or avant-garde novels, but mass-produced "novelones, impresos en letra muy grande, en papel de periodico (que] siempre estaba leyendo" (14). Aurelia's sensitivity to mass-commodified literature causes her to lower her defenses against objectifying male sexual desire, and this marks the beginning of her downfall. This capitulation to the allure of romanesque fantasy is a recurrent motif in nineteenth-century literature known as bovarismo: christened "after the heroine of Flaubert's novel, female reading is frequently presented [...] as initiating a chain reaction, leading to buying too much and then to sexual depravation" (Jagoe 94). Simultaneously, associating the female character's downfall with her excessive consumption of low culture signals what critics such as Andreas Huyssen and Laurie Teal have seen as the codification of mass culture as feminine and decadent by artists since the nineteenth century (47, 81). In particular, "shopgirls were themselves perceived by middle-class observers as consumers of goods and leisure products bound up in the fantasies produced by popular culture, particularly fantasies tied to the genre of the romance" (Shapiro 1). Such association exposes anxieties about the pernicious influence of mass-commodified literature on women's (sexual) desires and, at a more general level, about the incontrollable and pervasive effects of the commodification of human existence.

The effect the rhetoric of romantic novels has on Aurelia shows the pervasive and harmful influence such literature has on women. As a result of her reading habits, the heroine has configured Samuel as "el Salvador" (36) or the savior: "Un chico decente que podra hacer lo que quiera en la vida y que me sacara de vendedora de pobrezas" (35). In the alternative folletinesque-like narrative that she creates, Samuel, like a Prince Charming, will rescue her from what she perceives as a demeaning job (selling worthless objects at the market). On the other hand, her mother reminds her of the material reality of women's existence and the need to keep the economic freedom that the sales at her flee market stall give her: "Quejate encima ... Solo con ese puesto tendrias una renta para vivir en caso de morir yo ... ?Crees tu que me hubiera yo casado con tu padrastro si no hubieras quedado independiente gracias a ese cebo de pobrezas?" (36).

Novels are not the only mass-produced type of culture that Aurelia consumes and that contribute to her commodification. She also reads the newspaper, and is particularly affected by an article that announces the imminent destruction of the Earth by a comet. This news spreads a sense of urgency and immediacy among the Madrilenian masses to which the working girl belongs. La Nardo "se sentia aquella manana floja y como indefensa ante aquel saldo que imponia a la vida el anuncio del cometa" (24). The news about the comet confers a different value on life itself: now, existence gains a mercantile value--"saldo"--which has to be consumed while it lasts. The prospect of imminent death and the need to reevaluate life, disorients and disarms Aurelia, making her vulnerable to Samuel's advances.

As a consequence of her reading habits and her infatuation with Samuel, Aurelia is unable to see the young man's duplicitous language. The inexperienced stall vendor misreads Samuel's signs, assigning them a romantic meaning. Such misreading, presented sarcastically by the narrator's choice of words and contradictory images, could also be interpreted as a parody of bovarismo. Thus, the lascivious look that he throws at her--"Samuel la miro como a pan comido, con mirada de avidez suprema, con fauces de dragon" (51)--is paradoxically decoded as a sign that "aquel hombre la adoraba" (37) and what she perceives as a unique love story--"No iba a ser aquel amor un amor cualquiera" (37)--, Samuel sees as "un negocio alegre" (27). For him, his relationship with her is a sexual exploit, a mere business transaction wherein his dominance is established by his control over a system of significations comprised of empty signifiers, signiners Aurelia takes for truth: "El la mentia mucho y ella le solia decir: 'Sabes mas que Lepe, Lepijo y su hijo'" (29). Owing to her lack of education as a working-class woman--which brings into question her ability to read--she believes the deceptive narratives that Samuel tells her. Ironically, Aurelia, mesmerized by his knowledge, loves him even more: "Te quiero porque sabes la historia de todo" (32). The false narratives that middle-class Samuel uses to impress and control Aurelia reflect his negative attitude towards both women and the lower classes as the sarcastic tone of the narration underscores: "La dominaba. Ella queria comprar aceitunas al aceitunero pero el la demostraba que estaban envenenadas, que de ningun modo debian comerse aquellas aceitunas remojadas en agua de arrabales" (30). Not only does Samuel subject her to a vision of reality that he fashions to suit his needs, but also shapes Aurelia's conception of space within the city by referring to the "arrabales" or peripheral neighborhoods of Madrid as polluted.

Aurelia's acceptance of Samuel's discourse precipitates her displacement from the safeguard of her stall at the Rastro and leads to her free circulation in the public space of Madrid. Though when the reader first encounters her she is seen mostly at her market stall, once she begins her relationship with Samuel, she appears roaming the streets or occupying other spaces within the city. It is not surprising then that after her mother reprimands her for underestimating the economic security that the market stall can provide, Aurelia "salio a escape, buscando en la calle y en el novio consuelo" (37), a gesture that points to her rejection of domestic advice and security, and reveals her desire to inhabit the public space and become the object of male desire. Her becoming public also implies the transformation of her body into a geographical entity, which Samuel explores and deciphers gradually: "Samuel iba sabiendo todos los caminos de Aurelia" (75). What is more, as studied below, her becoming public will imply not just being mobile in the city but also emphasizes her role as a commodity for broader, public consumption. Again, La Nardo seems to validate the nineteenth-century idea that "all women who loitered risked being seen as whores" (Buck-Morss, "The Flaneur" 119).

Simultaneously, her inscription in the male discourse and the Madrilenian public space bestows her with a new understanding of her own body as chameleonic. While previously her circumscription to her market stall gave her "[un] gesto de hembra siempre en pie, un aire desafiador" (13), Aurelia's mobility in the public spaces of the city confers her a different awareness of herself: "ella se iba sola por la calle de la Ruda, como si hubiese descubierto que tenia una belleza distinta para cada dia, orgullosa como si fuese vestida con diferente disfraz que el dia anterior" (30). Inscribed within man's language, her body is endowed with the adornments and artifices of the commodity, which will eventually help Samuel put her into circulation as a prostitute. Soon after they start living together, the young man puts into motion the necessary marketing mechanisms to enable her prostitution. Before selling her on the market, Samuel needs to stimulate buyers' desire for the commodity by openly displaying it in public spaces. The Madrilenian street functions as a shop window or display cabinet where male buyers gaze at the objects for sale: "Samuel comenzo a pasear a La Nardo por la ciudad, para meterla bien por los ojos de los otros, ansioso de especular con su belleza" (99).

Initially, Aurelia's body is subjected to "masculine specula(riza)tion" (Irigaray 367) without her awareness. In order for her to accept her own commodification, Samuel has to feed her desire for commodities. Thus "[e]l marrullero" (31) persuades her to believe that she is entitled to occupy a higher position on the social ladder and therefore, that she must aspire to acquire commodities according to her deserved social status: "En aquel relente azulado y bajo aquel escaparate de pendientes de la noche madrilena, de cielo bajo porque el pedestal esta muy alto, sentia Samuel con instinto chulo que Aurelia se pervertia de deseos" (102). In such a commodified environment, one wherein even nature acquires the qualities of modern retailing, Samuel, too, is defined by the role he plays in the marketplace, as trader of Aurelia's body: a chulo or pimp. Consumption and sexual desire thus become intertwined in Aurelia who now is perverted by desires for commodities. (9)

Interestingly, Aurelia's clients will consist only of middleclass men, and like Samuel, they will all project their insecurities and desires on Aurelia. After her first client, a stockbreeder, "La Nardo se quedo sabia de infidelidades ante la vida. Ya llevaba ella la iniciativa y buscaba por su cuenta" (111). In this manner, Aurelia understands her place is in the sexual economy of Madrilenian society: she becomes "a seller and commodity in one" (Buck-Morss, "The Flaneur" 121). Absorbed in the mechanisms of prostituting her body, she next meets a cinema producer, Alfredo Cabrejo, who "sabia poner tentacion en los oidos femeninos y estafar el amor como podia" (105). Indeed, he is a fraud who takes advantage of women who dream of becoming cinema stars. (10) The fake producer takes advantage of Aurelia for he feels that "quien roba a la soberbia y a la ambicion no roba nada" (113). The narrator shares this chauvinistic perspective toward women, and actually defines Alfredo as "el compensador del mundo" (113), for he actually defrauds the woman who is going to defraud him later by offering her body emptied of desire. According to the narrator, Aurelia deserves to be swindled for aspiring to be part of the highly selective world of Art, a world into which only those with special talents may enter: "La vida entera se reia de aquel engano que era la represalia del Arte ante la mujer que no es artista, que no tiene alma para ser artista" (112). Aurelia has nothing authentic about her; she is just another "cop[y] [of] a unique existence," another "product of mechanical reproduction [which] may not touch the actual work of art" (Benjamin 734). By defining high art in such a manner, the narrator reveals an elitist attitude towards those women who are bad imitations of real actresses. In the narrator's view, these actresses strip the art of interpretation of its "aura" (Benjamin 734) and, because of such transgression, their bodies deserve to be punished and treated as mere commodities.

Although the narrator agrees with Alfredo's treatment of the girl, he nonetheless presents the conman in negative terms--"fracasado de todas las cosas, amarillento y huesudo" or "lo que tenia de vomitado" (112)--depicting his caustic, condescending humor and therefore, distancing himself from the character. This negative portrayal brings to light the imperfections of this middle-class man who is defined as a "fracasado" or failure, as an unproductive and emaciated body whose frustrations about his lack of success--probably in the cinema industry--are expressed through his hostility for and sexual abuse of aspiring actresses, who mirror his own beginnings. Thus, Aurelia's body serves as a recipient of Alfredo's own self-hatred. For her part, Aurelia, dazzled with the prospect of fame and luxury in the world of spectacle--"deslumbrada hacia los focos de luz y esplendor" (112)--, gives away her body as down payment to the "producer" who promises to launch her to stardom: "daba pedazos de su vida a credito de lo que no iba a vivir, vestida con el traje de noche de la ilusion de ser estrella de cine" (114). When Alfredo disappears, Samuel and Aurelia's dream of a future full of riches and fame in the world of cinema is destroyed. Samuel, realizing that Alfredo has also cheated him, projects his scorn against Aurelia. To get revenge, he takes her to the "Bar Crisantemo," a marginal space where Aurelia will not likely find a good client. It is here where the deceitful mirror--"espejo de la mentira" (113)--in which the girl saw herself reflected as a triumphant star shatters, simultaneously shattering the image that she had of Samuel in her mind: "La Nardo se dio alli cuenta de la bajeza de Samuel y le miraba a veces como si mirase en el a un explotador de raza amarilla" (115).

Aurelia's self-degradation worsens as she continues working as a prostitute. Indeed, her inscription within the phallogocentric space of modern consumption puts her "in the position of experiencing herself only fragmentarily, in the little-structured margins of a dominant ideology, as a waste, or excess, what is left of a mirror invested by the (masculine) 'subject' to reflect himself, to copy himself' (Irigaray 367). Thus, her inability to escape from the awareness of her debasement leads her to despise herself even more. Her self-abjection is twofold: at one level, she feels stronger "en la disputa victoriosa contra la conciencia" (145) and at the other, she becomes more "female": "hacia ejercicios de abyeccion para ser mas hembra, [...] para merecer sin verguenza los insultos de los hombres que asi no tendrian la violencia con que estallaban en su corazon cuando siendo mas pura se los oia lanzar" (148). According to the narrator's description, the more "woman" a woman is, the more sexual her female body becomes. For the narrator, women are naturally anchored in the materiality of their bodies with no chance to escape it, an idea that confirms what Roberta Johnson describes as the avant-garde's obsession with female corporeality (225). (11) In fact, it is not the only time that the patronizing narrator highlights the inseparability of the working-class woman and her body, constructing her as an atavistic and primitive being, unable to control her bodily instincts. For instance, while menstruating, Aurelia suspends her relationship with an old man. During the days that she has her period, Aurelia becomes extremely rebellious and uncontrollable, and she even threatens to kill her client with a knife. Obviously, in her rebellion, the narrator finds her "fascinadora," a woman with a "belleza castigadora" (149-50). At the same time, though, the periodic return to what the narrator considers her instinctual nature allows her to come out of her mental lethargy and resist male domination. Her momentary rebellion, however, is stripped of serious consideration by the narrator who considers her fits as "locuras de venganzas incumplidas" (149), episodes which classify her as mad. On another occasion, the narrator, like a naturalist writer, relates a particular physical trait of Aurelia's body to her lack of morality, as if her body could reflect her moral degradation: "se notaba en su labio inferior el rizo de la prostitucion" (152). Interestingly, such characterization could also be the author's attempt to parody the naturalist literary tradition.

The construction of Aurelia's working-class body as atavistic also leads to her portrayal as the embodiment of the Spanish capital, echoing costumbrista representations of working-class women. Indeed, her nickname "La Nardo" (The Spikenard Woman), which also provides the novel with its title, refers to the spikenard, a flower often associated with the city of Madrid, as Ugarte and Mainer have noted (125-6; Prologo 38). (12) In La Nardo, the protagonist is "represented as the atavistic and authentic body of national tradition (inert, backward-looking, and natural), embodying nationalism's conservative principle of continuity" (McClintock 92). Yet, in contrast to the genero chico, which casts sexually decent female characters as representative models of the nation, La Nardo proposes that the figure of the prostitute constitutes Madrid's essence. Although Gomez de la Serna's novel rewrites the sexuality of the working-class woman imagined by costumbrismo, both literary constructions of the working-class female body as symbols of the national essence are founded on the same classist and sexist ideologies that cast working-class women as primitive, passionate, and connected to their bodies. Symbolized as such, in La Nardo Aurelia represents the atavistic body of the nation: a nation of passion and desire which is directly put in contrast with a sexually repressive Spain. This idea is presented by both the narrator and the male characters in the novel. For instance, for the narrator, the Madrilenian prostitute is the real soul of Madrid, especially when she is compared to middle-class women because the latter follow bourgeois norms of female behavior: "En Madrid, solo estas bellezas solitarias y dinasticas de cada cinco anos, que transitan por las calles como arrojadas del Paraiso. Solo se ve que son el alma de Madrid, al verlas una tarde entre las mujeres con velos o sombreritos negros que van como bajo soportales de sombra" (158; emphasis added)."

Through this gregueria in the form of a simile, the narrator compares the somber space of Madrid's arcades with the black veils and hats that cover middle-class women's faces and heads. Such an image of darkness and privacy symbolizes bourgeois women's repressed sexuality. In contrast, prostitutes break away from society's sexual repression, making the enjoyment of sexual pleasure visible and public, for which they are socially ostracized. Certainly, the narrator, in his search for the fulfillment of his sexual fantasies, finds that the prostitute "[e]ra la mujer de placer [porque] lo que mas dificilmente se encuentra es una mujer de placer" (159). Thus, the prostitute's body, and by extension, the working class female body, serves as a space for the middle-class male to escape the repressive sexual norms of his own class. Idealized and utilized in this manner, the prostituted body of the working-class woman, perceived as an expendable commodity on display in the Madrilenian urban landscape, becomes a "manipulable sign, so 'inflated' by illusion, appearance, and fantasy [...] that it ultimately relinquishes all but an arbitrary or imaginary connection to the body of the object" (Teal 84). Aurelia's body is emptied of any subjectivity and her work as a prostitute is conveniently concealed behind her commodification. (13)

If Aurelia's body represents Madrid's essence and that same body is commodified, then it follows that nationhood becomes a kind of commodity that the male subject can access and consume through the prostitute's body. This is particularly the case for Acisclo, a millionaire from Venezuela who returns to Madrid searching for his Spanish roots. For Acisclo, Aurelia embodies the spirit of the Spanish capital that he had imagined and desired: "encontraba en Aurelia la belleza que resumia la ciudad anorada" (170). Aurelia's body, in fact, merges with the city itself in the eyes of the Venezuelan: "Eres tan la hembra madrilena, que cuando pienso en nuestros paseos no se si es melena tuya o de las tapias la yedra colgandera que hemos visto" (176). (14) Once again, her body becomes a sign whose meaning is defined by the projection of male desires: "[Acisclo] habia encontrado en ella la novia castiza de sus desesperaciones de espanol insatisfecho durante cientos de anos" (172). The Venezuelan's anxiety about his lack of a fixed national identity is fulfilled by his sexual relationship with Aurelia who epitomizes the castiza essence of Spain. Furthermore, by describing Acisclo's anxiety about his national identity with such sarcastic hyperbole--"sus desesperaciones de espanol insatisfecho durante cientos de anos,"--the narrator mockingly implies that all Americans with Spanish roots suffer from an insecure and unstable national identity. For the narrator, these Americans always consider Spain as the referent, but a referent whose meaning is difficult to fix especially when the individual has been born on a different continent. Acisclo, on the other hand, has secured such meaning by his possession and consumption of Aurelia's body--an idea that might reflect the author's parodie perspective on nationalist discourses. Indeed, fixing the meaning of the Venezuelan's own Spanishness is symbolically represented by locating Aurelia within an enclosed space where only he can access it: "el medio de conocer el alma madrilena, era poner casa a la mujer que resume las gracias castizas, escondiendola mas que mostrandosela al mundo" (172).

Another instance in which the working-class girl is configured as the embodiment of the national spirit is at a beauty pageant. Samuel takes Aurelia to a Madrilenian kermesse or festival where he enters her into a pageant as a means of marketing her body to potential buyers. Without any doubt, the girl wins the competition, heralded as "representacion de la belleza de Madrid" which for the narrator consists of "[una] sintesis de luna, sol y prostitucion" (185). For the jury and for the narrator, Aurelia represents "the nationalism that is simultaneously invented and reflected within the beauty pageant" (Banet-Weiser 3). As Sarah Banet-Weiser explains, the beauty pageant is a "national phenomenon" that plays an important role in the definition and projection of nationalism. In her opinion,
   [t]he performance of feminine subjectivity that comprises
   the [...] beauty pageant functions as national assurance
   that despite the threats posed to dominant culture
   by fluctuating racial and gender codes, the pageant
   successfully manages and disciplines the construction of
   national identity, femininity, and ethnicity. (10)

If beauty pageants emerge as a means of containing and defining national femininity in times of crisis, the success of Aurelia, as a working-class girl, seems to relocate her uncontrollable working-class female body within the space of normativity and discipline. Paradoxically, her victory at the contest sarcastically subverts the dominant perception of the ideal female citizen as sexually pure for her licentious moral life cannot be perceived by the jury; only the caustic pseudonaturalist narrator can see through the performance and describes Aurelia's eyes as "macerados de perversion" (185).

As a result of the beauty contest, Aurelia finds another client, Federico, who represents the ideal of middle-class masculinity: "el caballero mas formal del jurado" (185). When the two fall in love, Aurelia finally rejects her past life and subjugation to Samuel and Federico leaves his family and his middle-class life to be with her. However, both lovers feel overwhelmed by their previous relationships: Aurelia does not stand Samuel's presence any more and Federico is constantly questioned and followed by his wife and children. In order to escape from these pressures, the couple decides to commit suicide with a morphine overdose. Ironically, though, what originally seems to be the end of Aurelia's subjugation to male domination through "el doble cero" (198)--a metaphor representing the death of two equals who mirror each other--actually confirms the idea that her body is a mere receptacle for bourgeois male anxieties. Notions of social respectability and public image, which inform this "caballero formal," resurface in the deathbed scene. Imagining that she might have chances to survive, he feels mocked and deceived: Federico "[n]o queria de ninguna manera que en las noticias apareciese el 'se tiene esperanzas de salvarla'" (206), because her survival would have implied that his story--the story of a man who killed himself while the lover survived--would have become public, placing him in a position of social mockery. Federico thus makes sure that she will not be able to survive him:
   Saco con disimulo una navaja [...] y le asesto una punalada
   en el lado del corazon, con falsa punteria, alcanzando
   solo la vertiente del seno. Aurelia se volvio espantada
   [...] de que la matase con crimen manifiesto [y] reconviniendole
   por haber manchado el morir [,] entorno los
   ojos y su boca se torcio en el rizo de los suenos. (207)

Critics have failed to notice that Aurelia's death does not only result from a self-inflicted morphine shot but also from Federico's violent stabbing her in her breast. (18) Indeed, the only opportunity she has to regain a sense of worth after having become a prostitute is literally destroyed through Federico's violence against her. In her romantic relationship with Federico, her body, already outside the circuits of commodification, is violated by the materialization of traditional male values of honor and public dignity. Aurelia, then, dies without being freed from male subjugation. Thus, her commodification and subjugation as the repository of male desires actually shapes both her life and her death. Still, the sarcastic tone at the ending of the novel also might imply that Aurelia and Federico were destroyed by the bourgeois society and its discourses on love. Because a love relationship between a prostitute and a middle-class man transgresses the moral codes of bourgeois society, it has to be eliminated from the Madrilenian social landscape.

The plot of La Nardo seems to reproduce some inherited themes from the realist tradition portraying Aurelia's final fate, her death, as pre-determined from the beginning of the novel. In fact, the novel emphasizes the nineteenth-century social belief that women's consumption of mass-produced novels and their free circulation in public spaces correlate directly to loose female sexuality. Such an idea is voiced by the people working at the Rastro--functioning as the chorus in ancient Greek tragedies--and this judgment confirms the naturalist moral of the novel: "Por dejar a esa chica sola en el puesto frente a tanta cosa repodria," o "la vida de abandonada que llevaba Aurelia no pinta bien a una mujer" (84). However, although the sarcastic narrator agrees with this perspective, his words might be interpreted as an ironic wink at the naturalist literary tradition as well: "[Rosell, otro cliente,] queria salvarla de la destruccion sin saber que ese era su perfecto destino por cualquier camino que tomase" (125; emphasis added). By emphasizing the protagonist's lack of free will, the author seems to parody the determinism often employed by naturalist authors.

At the same time, if the prostitute represents the "tyranny of commerce and the universal domination of the cash nexus" of modern times (Felski 19), Aurelia's death can also be understood as the author's desire to control and eliminate the modern processes of commodification that pollute the essence of Madrid. Nonetheless, while Aurelia symbolizes the prostituted space of the Spanish capital, it is middle-class men who are actually destroying the nation's being. The novel, thus, falls into "the temporal paradox of modernity" (McClintock 92) or the "use of archaic images to identify what was historically new about the 'nature' of commodities" (Buck-Morss, Dialectics 67). Aurelia, as a commodity, represents the new, the commodifying, constantly changing and discontinuous forces wrought by modernity. Conversely, she is also the archaic and permanent image of a past, the "necessary consequence" (Anderson xiv) of what is new in modernity. As McClintock has suggested, such temporal division required by the inner logic of modernity actually has gender implications. In her opinion, "the temporal anomaly within nationalism--veering between nostalgia and the impatient, progressive sloughing off of the past--is typically resolved by figuring the contradiction in the representation of time as a natural division of gender" (92). Aurelia, seen as the natural woman, the working-class woman who, freed from the stultifying norms of middle class repression, can provide sexual pleasure to the masses, represents that archaic, timeless nation where the narrator can temporarily take refuge from the chaos of the modern world.

Aurelia's character, caught in the throes of a modernizing city might have been inspired by Gomez de la Serna's own emotional conflicts. Rodolfo Cardona points at Gomez de la Serna's economic problems and nostalgia for the past when he wrote La Nardo not in Madrid, but in Paris:
   He felt lonely for his beloved Madrid and began to work
   on La Nardo, a novel where he expressed the soul of his
   native city. His financial situation was becoming serious.
   From time to time he would receive a few hundred
   francs or a few liras from more translations of his
   works. (41)

The reader could draw connections between the author's nostalgia for a less commodified society--such as the archaic Madrid--and his realization of the unstoppable mercantilization of the city--and by extension, of his own dependence on the commodification of his work.

In sum, La Nardo might have replicated part of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century middle-class discourse that Gomez de la Serna attempted to debunk. Similar to Walter Benjamin's perception of the prostitute and passante, the Madrilenian author's construction of Aurelia's character "extends the role of woman as object of the poetic urban gaze from the mid-nineteenth century to the modernism of the twentieth century" (Parsons 37). In this vein, Aurelia's specularization by both male characters and the narrative voice echoes Gomez de la Serna's previous descriptions of young women in El Rastro. Such a perspective hints at the middleclass sexual construction of the working-class woman as a highly desirable commodity, as a prop to both reenact and reject traditional gender and power structures. However, La Nardo may be more than just another reiteration of male anxiety and hostility to modernity. Gomez de la Serna's use of parody and sarcasm, articulated through his caustic narrator and the humorous association of words and ideas, problematizes an unequivocal reading of this literary work. As a playful and provoking novel, La Nardo leaves the reader to decide not only in what ways it is avant-garde but also to what extent.


University of Missouri, Columbia


(1.) Although seemingly contradictory terms, both costumbrista and avant-garde elements coalesce in La Nardo as explained in this essay.

(2.) Gomez de la Serna first implemented his personal narrative technique of the gregueria in the book El Rastro (1915), and it is also here that he exhibited his own vision of the objects--and people--that he encountered in the flea market. His fascination with the marginal space of the Rastro was manifested in the short novel La abandonada del Rastro (1929) as well.

(3.) Gomez de la Serna found that the "apocalyptic chaos of objects" in the Rastro was a perfect example of his aesthetic postulates: in the stalls of the flea market, objects, decontextualized and with a new value ascribed to them, lose their conventional meaning and become "Maravillosas asociadoras de ideas'" (Gomez de la Serna, El Rastro 80). Only through the "hyper-active contemplation" of "material reality", such as the objects found in the Rastro, can the artist "find the salvation in a new consciousness of being alive" (Hoyle 20).

(4.) In "Retrato de Ramon Gomez de la Serna," Mexican painter Diego Rivera captured the Madrilenian author's fetishistic desire to keep dolls in his study. In this portrayal, the complex multilayered composition of the surrealist writer working in his study is put into contrast with a simplified depiction of the doll's head that appears in the background. Critic Fernandez Utrera states that the doll in such a portrait embodies "la representacion mas caracteristica de la mujer en el arte vanguardista: disminucion fisica y espiritual" which results in "la vision univoca del ser de Ella" (158).

(5.) Gomez de la Serna playfully combines here the multiple definitions of manigua that the dictionary of the Real Academia Espanola offers: "1. f. Abundancia desordenada de algo, confusion, cuestion intrincada. 2. f. Ant. Conjunto espeso de hierbas y arbustos tropicales. 3. f. Col. Bosque tropical pantanoso e impenetrable."

(6.) Gomez de la Serna's orientalizing gaze is also present in his book El Rastro. Here the author narrates his observations of the market and the people much like a modern flaneur-, "La poblacion se va empobreciendo a medida que se aproxima al Rastro. La gente es de otra calana, es mas morisca, peor afeitada, mas menesterosa. Sus ojos son mas negros, mas cuajados, y su mirada mas torva, mas penosa" (22) and "No hay manera de ordenar las miradas dedicadas a estas gentes. Es confusa esta muchedumbre y es individual. Ademas, el transeunte--que es lo que unicamente soy--debe dar en su incongruencia, en su azar, en su fila desordenada la serie de sus hallazgos" (33).

(7.) There are obvious similarities between the construction of Aurelia's character and Gomez de la Serna's previous observations of young women working in the market in his book El Rastro: "Son anchas, macizas, de pecho abultado [...] Se las sospecha sucias por los mismos ingredientes que aqui lo patinan todo, aunque esa patina, como la que ensucia los marmoles y los hace mas carnales, es en ellas tambien condimento picante... [...] Hay una entre todas que es la mas hermosa [...] Es una morena alta, de solemnes proporciones de cariatide, muy duena de si, imposible a ningun rey como Semiramis, dentro de su corse, envuelta en el como en una invulnerable coraza guerrera [...] Sus ojos son de piedras duras, sus mismos labios son de duro coral, al que hace mas granados todo el obscuro abono del Rastro" (37).

(8.) The depiction of Aurelia absorbed in reading romantic novels at her stall further contributes to her eroticization. For a brilliant account on how turn-of-the-century male visual artists often portrayed women readers as sexual objects refer to Maite Zubiaurre's Cultures of the Erotic in Spain, 1898-1939.

(9.) The author also correlates modern consumption, women in public, and unleashed femininity in the prologue to La Nardo. Gomez de la Serna recalls how he declined to receive an evening dress especially made for his wax doll. Humorously, the author states: "Mi companera es modesta sin duda, pero no hay que tentar nunca a las mujeres ... Puede que transformada asi, hubiese partido hacia los cabarets, los dancings y los palaces" (XII-XIII). Benito Perez Galdos' La desheredada (1881) and La de Bringas (1884) also portray female characters whose consumption habits lead them to moral degradation.

(10.) As Jose Carlos Mainer has pointed out, Gomez de la Serna perceives the world of cinema and finances as a "mera especulacion de apariencias" (Prologo, Obras completas 31).

(11.) In Gender and Nation in the Spanish Modernist Novel, Roberta Johnson offers telling examples of Spanish male avant-garde authors mocking both women and menstruation.

(12.) The white and fleshy qualities of both the magnolia and the spikenard represent the exotic and sensual "otherness" of the working-class protagonist from a middle-class point of view.

(13.) Gomez de la Serna's choice of name for the protagonist accentuates the association between the Madrilenian girl and her commodification. "Aurelia" comes from the Latin word "Aureus" which means "golden".

(14.) The occasional absence of accents on Spanish words in quotations reflects the usage of the original text of La Nardo.

(15.) It is not surprising that Federico grips and stabs Aurelia's breast when he feels anxious about her possible survival. Female breasts appear as recurrent motifs in Gomez de la Serna's literary creations, his work Senos (1917) being the most obvious representative example of this idea.


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Title Annotation:texto en ingles
Author:Lopez, Mar Soria
Publication:Anales de la Literatura Espanola Contemporanea
Article Type:Ensayo critico
Date:Jan 1, 2016
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