Zoophilia and zoophobia in Miguel Delibes's Las ratas.
Miguel Delibes'sLas ratas (1962) articulates divergent philosophies of animality: one zoophilic, the other zoophobic. The former is associated with a Kropotkinite vision of society based on equality and mutual aid, as well as on concord and interchange between people and the environment. The latter, however, is aligned with Social Darwinism, competition, and the advent of modernity; with violence and conflict. In the course of the novel Naturalism makes an entrance when traditional ways of life begin to be threatened by the trammelling effects of progress. The paper explores these themes by using some arguments drawn from green studies.
O why should Nature's law be mutual butchery! (THOMAS HARDY) (1)
At the beginning of Miguel Delibes's Las ratas the reader is presented with a parliament of crows, 'reunidos en consejo', a boy conversing on equal terms with a dog which makes strong eye contact and responds with an expressive wag of its docked tail, followed by a conversation in which the title of the novel is given a mysterious twist. (2) Goading Ratero with an account of Mayor Justo Fadrique's self-serving plan to eject the village water-vole catcher from his cave, Malvino, the barkeeper, calls Justito 'peor que las ratas' (p. 11). However, Ratero is deaf to this figure of speech--one of the most automatic of all zoophobic metaphors. He replies simply: 'Las ratas son buenas' (p. 11). Probably he mean good to eat, but the author is hinting at a supplementary reading: namely, that they are morally good. Indeed, the title of Delibes's novel is itself ingeniously discordant. On the one hand, it is neutral and descriptive, signalling nothing more than a fable about a water-vole catcher. On the other, it alludes, in Malvino-like fashion, to those scoundrels in authority who, with a mixture of threats and cajoling, are seeking to rob Ratero and his son, Nini, of their freedom and deliver them, supposedly for their own good, into the modern world. (3) The mayor's nagging wife wishes to leave a place she regards as little more than a wasteland. For this to happen, Justito must do the bidding of the Civil Governor by removing, la verguenza de las cuevas' (p. 70). The Civil Governor, meanwhile, is pandering to a government worried that the image of Spain will become tarnished abroad when tourists discover that Spaniards are still living in caves. About the actual hardships suffered by the rural poor the regime cares little.
Much later in the novel, when the water-vole catcher has reached such a low ebb that he is even willing to contemplate the ruin of his own livelihood by hunting voles out of season, Malvino and Ratero repeat their previous conversation:
--Ratero, si un pobre se mete en casa de un rico, ya se sabe, es un ladron, [??] no?
--Un ladron--asentia el Ratero.
--Pero si un rico se mete en casa de un pobre, [??] que es?
--[??] Que es?--repetia estupidamente el tio Ratero.
-[??] Una rata! El Ratero denegaba obstinadamente con la cabeza.
--No- decia al fin--. Las ratas son buenas. (p. 138)
It is ironic that Ratero's mind should be so impervious to Malvino's subversive metaphor precisely when the author is speaking so loudly on his behalf. Of course, Ratero lives close to the evidence of his senses, and his sluggish wits are simply incapable of registering many ideas, including Malvino's analogy. And yet, the author is using this character to express something rather more subtle. So intimate and physical is Ratero's knowledge of his prey that he resists understanding them anthropomorphically. For him they exist in a more than human realm, beyond the plainer kind of humanizations and animalizations for which those living at a remove from nature have a greater facility. In fact the relationship between many characters and animals in Las ratas is one of reciprocity, mutual intelligence, and shared experience. In this regard, Ratero's repudiation of Malvino's animal metaphor speaks of a capacity to dwell in harmony with the natural world, the underlying philosophy of which the work as a whole is so eloquent in generating. Indeed, in this special stance before nature lies the third and most consequential meaning of the novel's title.
The narrator is of a similar mind to Ratero. The novel begins:
Poco despues de amanecer, el Nini se asomo a la boca de la cueva y contemplo la nube de cuervos reunidos en consejo. Los tres chopos desmochados de la ribera, cubiertos de pajarracos, parecian tres paraguas cerrados con las puntas hacia el cielo. Las tierras bajas de Don Antero, el Poderoso, negreaban en la distancia como una extensa tizonera. (P. 9)
With a painterly eye for beauty the narrator fashions a deft simile: dimly lit by the dawn light the poplar trees are like rolled umbrellas. There is much that is purely literary in this opening paragraph: traditionally, crows are harbingers of death, and we are told later that in the mind of Nini they also hold an association with death (p. 34). Thus their mention here subtly heralds the novel's tumultuous climax: the murder of Luis and the slaying of his dog. And by placing Nini, the humblest yet most integrated member of the community, topographically above the tierras bajas of the socially (and textually) aloof Don Antero, the local poderoso, the author is vividly representing the novel's epigraph from Mark 9. 35-38: 'Si alguno quiere ser el primero, que sea elultimo de todos y el servidor de todos. Y tomando un nino to puso en medio de ellos.' At the same time, however, there is little here which is lyrical merely for its own sake. Since the animal and the human domains appear to coexist on the same plane, reunidos en consejo seems more literal than figurative. So too, the poplars, like rolled umbrellas, indicate that the 'ultima semana de lluvias' (p. 12) has just passed. Pruden has lopped the poplars to provide winter fodder for his goats (p. 13). In this way, a meticulous eye for those special details crucial to the day-to-day survival of the villagers often produces prose masquerading as poetry. In fact, the novel contains relatively few pure metaphors. Instead Delibes confronts us with the transcendent power of the mundane.
The occluding of metaphor is not unique to Ratero, then, but is shared to a marked degree by the narrator; all of which is a roundabout way of underlining the thematic importance of Ratero's serene insistence upon the essential goodness of rats. In this work Delibes sets in train two rival views of animality and sociality: on the one hand, there is Malvino's Social Darwinist thesis of aggressive competition and displacement, an unwitting assumption which is now beginning to attach itself to those eking out a living on the margins of society (Ratero and El Furtivo), and with tragic results; while, on the other, the author portrays a Kropotkinite community of the species in which man and animal share an intermeshing existence. This pointed juxtaposition invites the reader to ponder the aptness of our constructions of human nature, and ultimately to query the Social Darwinist hypothesis. For, as Jonathan Bate writes:, animals make us think about our own animalness, our embodiedness in the world' (4) In the savagery of the final scene, in which a murder and a dog-fight take place simultaneously, it is the bleaker vision that wins out, although it may be argued that the novel encourages us to read this outcome as a distortion of nature.
Delibes is famous for his 'obsesin antiprogreso' (5). However, this ruling passion does not ensue from any simplistic dream of returning to a mythical rural utopia, nor from a repudiation of the great material and social benefits brought by modernity, but represents, rather, the makings of a tentative green ethic, an aspiration towards a new kind of living. According to Delibes, the stock of Western ideas on progress imbues man with a spirit of competition which weakens his instinct for solidarity, 'enervando al hombre desde arriba, despojandole del deseo de participar en la organizacion de la comunidad' (6), inciting him to dominate in equal measure the environment and his fellows, not to mention hastening the loss of bio-, socio-, and linguistic diversity in the world. To criticize progress as both dehumanizing and ecologically harmful in this way is not reactionary, therefore, but progressive. The standard discourse on progress is so enmeshed with notions of competition that it takes an effort of mind to separate them out. Charles Darwin, of course, made them scientifically inextricable, and thinkers such as Herbert Spencer used analogous ideas to explain how societies function and evolve. Darwin argued that the 'struggle for existence' between 'closely allied forms' dictated that animals must inevitably clash as they strenuously compete against one another for finite resources. (7) Overall, this constant low-grade warfare in nature (ironically, between supposed allies) progressively enhances the efficiency of the species, forcing it to adapt to its environment, winkling out less well-favoured individuals.
In Las ratas the spectre of competition is raised in the form of rival hunters: first Furtivo, then Luis, the water-vole catcher from the neighbouring village. The effects of such competition on the lives of the characters are profound, swift, and brutal. The murder of Luis by Ratero is set to consolidate Spain's modernity, for although the water-vole catcher wins the battle, his crime signifies that he has lost the war: there will be no more cave-dwelling to besmirch the country's image abroad; the barbaric practice of eating rats will be a thing of the past; Nini will be taken by the regulators and educators, by the likes of Dona Resu and Don Antero; Ratero himself will be claimed by the state; perhaps Nini will come to learn the definition of Resu's intimidating long word,' la longanimidad' (p.101), just when its meaning (forbearance: an antonym, perhaps, of competition) is beginning to elude him. In a societal sense Ratero and Nini are dodos, a species selected for extinction. However, their demise also spells the end of a special kind of social and environmental reciprocity. The fate of Ratero and Nini thus symbolizes the crumbling of the community as a whole. Its principles of moral unity and kinship with nature lie forfeit, supplanted by a new creed of man at war with himself. This is the central paradox of the novel: the bloodletting, which is so tragic on a personal level, apparently augurs well for the doctrine of progress. Nature, moreover, is now set to decay.
Though he nowhere seems to mention him, Delibes's position on nature is comparable to that of the anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin. Denying the usual strong disjunction between man and nature, Kropotkin used his observations of the co-operative behaviour of animals living in social groups to paint an anarchist picture of humanity's future. Countering the Social Darwinists, he maintained that' in the animal and human worlds the law of mutual aid is the law of progress'. (8) This understanding of progress broadly matches what Delibes has in mind in his essay entitled 'El sentido del progreso en mi obra. (9) Kropotkin stresses that co-operation and 'practical solidarity' inform the behaviours of many species, particularly those comprising the higher animals. (10) Thus rivalry, selfishness, self-empowerment of a kind which is detrimental to the well-being of the group as a whole, all tend to be corrected by other members acting in concert. In Kropotkin's view, a society dominated by an ideology of individuals locked in aggressive and stubborn competition with each other is one which is bound to fail in the longer term:
The more any animal society or little group of animals loses [the] feeling of solidarity--which may chance as the result of exceptional scarcity or else of exceptional plenty--the more do the two other factors of progress, courage and individual initiative, diminish. In the end they disappear, and the society falls into decay. (11)
This benevolently Kropotkinite concept of human society is exemplified by the community of convecinos in Las ratas. It too unravels 'as the result of exceptional scarcity' ; and, when this happens, modernity with its competitive new creed races in like an apocalypse. Ratero's victory in single combat is the very moment when the old ways of mutual aid and solidarity are beaten. New social and biological hierarchies are about to emerge. Henceforth, one might say, Malvino's anthropocentric disgust at rats will supersede Ratero's unfussy biocentric acceptance of them as kindred beasts.
Perhaps Kropotkin's animal-centred ideas are a little utopian and selective. However, in his well-regarded study Donald Worster has argued persuasively that even Darwin's ideas were skewed according to a personal agenda: 'Like all of man's intellectual life,' he writes, 'scientific ideas grow out of specific cultural conditions and are validated by personal as well as social needs."' Hence Darwin overemphasized competition as the dynamo driving evolution and underplayed the principle of divergence, even though he had himself identified the latter as a primal natural process. In any given ecosystem nature will strive to occupy every available niche, a tactic which generates an ever-expanding diversity from finite resources. Thus, in Darwin's own words, 'the greatest amount of life can be supported by great diversification of structure" (13) The key point is that this process unfolds as a means of dodging, not inviting, competition., In effect', writes Worster, 'diversity was nature's way of getting round the fiercely competitive struggle for limited resources. (14) If Social Darwinism tends to usher in a Spartan monoculture, then Darwin's neglected principle of divergence might prove better at creating ecological and cultural richness. In Las ratas the versatile Nini, who never succumbs to the virus of competition, and who treats Luis throughout with courteous curiosity, tackles the decline in the water-vole population by avoiding confrontation with potential rivals, by diversifying into hunting crayfish and lizards, by harvesting the bark from holm oaks, and even by selling sun spurges door-to-door (p. 139). (15) While Ratero, ever more fixated upon his rumoured opponent, obsessed with 'la competencia' (p. 89), insists vehemently on his ownership of the rats, the cave, and his son, Nini explains that 'el arroyo era de todos' (p. 89).
In Las ratas, then, the society of convecinos resembles Kropotkin's anti-Darwinian utopia in that it is based on co-operation rather than competition. Furthermore, it is a community notably populated with animals; the principle of interdependency in the novel is thus biological as well as social. In general, the dividing line between the convecinos and the animal kingdom is blurred, but this does not imply that the former are animalized or subhuman; instead, animals are elevated towards the human plane. (16) Moreover, the characters who display the closest affinity with animals are also those who are most humane. It is an aspect of the blending technique which permeates Las ratas, giving the novel its strongly holistic quality: the locals are symbiotic with the landscape, naming certain of its features after people and events. It is a speaking environment, and the paradoxical pairing, in the guise of Nini and Ratero, of a wise child and a childlike father nicely embodies the theme of reciprocity and interdependence so central to the work as a whole. Hence, the reader is not surprised to learn that Nini draws no firm distinction between human and animal forms of companionship. Dona Resu, the novel's baffled spokesperson for civilized values, interrogates him uncomprehendingly:
--Dime, hijo, [??]por que andas siempre tan solo?
--No ando solo, dona Resu.
-[??] Con quien, entonces?
--Con la perra.
--[??]Alma de Dios! [??]Es alguien un animal?
El Nini la miro y no respondio. (p. 100)
Besides being very witty writing, the conversation is a clever juxtaposition of opposing world-views: the long Western tradition of exalting the faculties of reason and will, which deliver us from base and brutish instincts, comically contrasted with a more contemporary biocentric ethic which stresses the interassimilation of human and animal realms.
Animals are honorary citizens in the minds of several of the villagers also. Traumatized by the death of his father at the hands of a Nationalist death squad, El Rabino Chico, Don Antero's cowherd, prefers talking to animals, because 'los hombres elo dicen mentiras' (p. 22). In so doing, he dramatically increases the cows' milk yield. So dedicated is he to their welfare that he provides the cows with mattresses for bedding, and paints their shed green. Oddly, Rabino Chico's misanthropic zoophilia is the one happy consequence of a story which began when a pedlar of bogus Darwinism convinced his father that he was the so-called missing link (on account of his protruding coccyx), a revelation which made him an atheist and led to his execution during the Civil War. The father's acceptance of a drastically reduced simian ancestry is demeaning and grotesque, but it is transformed in the son into a touching propinquity with the animal kingdom. Clearly, the author is depicting Rabino Grande as a gullible man: easy prey for experts, no matter how silly their opinions. It is as if the intelligentsia regard an entire class of people (the Spanish peasantry) as evolutionary throwbacks, ripe for extinction.
The maxim that dogs and their owners come to resemble one another in temperament and physique is amply, and sometimes comically, attested in Las ratas. El Centenario jokingly suggests to Nini that they have become in-laws since their dogs, Duque and Fa, mated (p. 112). But, as if by osmosis, all living things seem able to exchange traits among themselves. The personality of Nini's grandfather, Roman, is at one with his occupation. An avid hunter of hares, Roman has assumed some of the characteristics of his prey, growing a thick coat of facial hair in winter and shaving it off (moulting?) in summer. As he hunts, he becomes animal-like--leporine even--in some of his movements (p. 32). Indeed, in his writings on the subject, Delibes places this aspect of hunting-the hunter's intimate communing with his prey-on a par with the pleasure of the kill.--' As David Abram expresses it, the hunter 'must apprentice himself to those animals he would kill' (18)
The subtlest and most amusing example of the coexistence of, and interchange between, animal and human domains is the tale of Senora Clo, the bullfinches she keeps as pets, and her marriage to Virgilio Morante. An effusive, gregarious, and public-spirited woman, Clo is not one to stand on ceremony or to insist too much upon conventional demarcations. With almost parental care she converses as readily with her pair of bullfinches as Rabino Chico does with his cows: 'La senora Clo, en su soledad, charlaba amistosamente con los pajaros' (p. 50). Indeed, the birds treat her as their mother. Having induced the pair to breed by providing Clo with an empty linnets' nest, Nini attempts to save their ailing chicks, sadly to no avail. Clo leaves for the city to console herself and returns, twelve days later, with the startling news that she is getting married. Initially, everyone suspects that her physically frail husband, Virgilio, is a gold-digger who has 'colgado el sombrero' (p. 50), yet he is accepted fully into the community when they hear his wondrous voice. In fact, Clo's new pet is something of a bullfinch himself: he eats little (like a bird), and sings beautifully. Clo frets about her husband's fragility and small appetite with the same maternal solicitude she once showed towards the bullfinches and their delicate chicks. When Virgilio rolls up his sleeves to stand outside with the other men in the winter frost, Clo strides up to him and commands: 'Tu no, Virgilio. Podras enfriarte' (p. 54). The reader thus glimpses the comical yet poignant equivalence in her mind between her husband and his fragile avian precursors:
Para la senora Clo, la del estanco, todas las preocupaciones se centraban [...] en el Virgilin. Le cuidaba como a un hijo y, por su gusto, le hubiera confinado en una jaula y hubiera colgado esta de la viga de la tienda, como hizo en tiempos de los camachuelos. (p. 83)
This humorous mimicry of the ornithological is found also in El camino. (19) Like Virgilio, German is an avian human being: he believes his father's off-hand suggestion that an infection caught from a cuckoo is responsible for his patchy head of hair. (20) Indeed, German is a cuckoo-like interloper, raised by a host family of a different species. Delicately built, he twice falls from trees, somewhat like a fledgling, and possesses an uncannily intuitive understanding of bird behaviour (he becomes an expert ornithologist) almost, as it were, from inside knowledge.
If Nini's good surrogate mother (Clo) thinks nothing of breaking the species barrier, his bad surrogate mother (Dona Resu) insists on a strict policing of the borderline. When Furtivo kills a vixen, Nini rescues the cub, mimicking its mother's call to lure it from its burrow, and then raising it by hand in the sanctuary of the cave. Dona Resu indignantly rejects the notion that a fox and a human being can coexist in proximity: 'Queras decir', she protests to La Simeona at the church door, 'que es la primera vez que ves a un hombre y un nino hacerse a vivir como raposos' (p. 66). Delibes gently mocks Resu's pretensions of superiority over animals, however, by highlighting her embarrassing ignorance of them. Thus, her rabbits fail to produce any young; and when this morally upstanding woman asks Nini to explain why, he solemnly informs her: 'Son machos los dos, dda Resu' (p. 98).
The novel pivots, then, between a charming, slightly surreal, portrayal of people and animals inhabiting the same living space in a process of commingling and interchange, and a far bleaker vision based on domination and segregation. Don Antero typifies the latter. He is a shrewd man and, in sharp contrast to the linguistic practices of the convecinos, a cynical punster: when he jokes that 'por to que hara a su pueblo, la tierra andaba muy repartida' (p. 48), he is not claiming that the land is shared out fairly, merely that the quarter not owned by him is endlessly subdivided. His colossal storehouse dominates the stark two-dimensional sketch of the village and its environs which Delibes provides at the beginning of the novel. In Las ratas the egalitarian society of the convecinos rests alongside one that is hierarchical and verticalist; the reader is made simultaneously aware of both axes. Indeed, as if to convey the divergence between these double but intersecting worlds in Spain's rural society of the 19508, the author has drawn the warehouse in such a way that it seems to loom out from the page on a 3D stalk.
Large inequalities of wealth and power between Don Antero and the villagers allow animals to be used as proxies for class conflict by haves and have-nots alike. By supplying the village, during its yearly festival, with a cow upon which young men can vent their accumulated frustrations (by beating it black and blue), Don Antero slyly safeguards his lofty status. (21) The psychology of the event is not hard to fathom. It is a displacement activity, a means of evading social and political prohibitions: the unconscious object of the youths' hatred, the reader surmises, is the local hierarchy itself. Nini, however, shuns the big man's cynical offer of group catharsis, managing temporarily to release the cow from its tormentors. An example of that instinct for moral interchange between animal and human realms outlined above, it is read (correctly) by Antero as a threat to the existing social order. Ominously, on learning of Nini's action, he tells his foreman that, while Nini can run free for now, 'el ala que cumpla los catorce le arrimas por casa' (p. 49). The implication here is that Nini will be brought into captivity and tamed by society; his holistic awareness will thus be neutralized. In a way, then, Antero is not simply the master and possessor of the community, but of its animals: indeed, of nature itself.
Fittingly, it is the village poacher, Furtivo, who denounces Nini to Don Antero for his act of mercy towards the stricken cow. No other character in the novel displays such gleeful cruelty towards animals and people as he. His kidnapping and slaying of the fox cub, for instance, is pure sadism. Such zoophobia is symptomatic of profound social and inner alienation, however, and represents the antithesis of that spirit of solidarity, intersubjectivity, and mutual aid which informs the lives of the convecinos. The narrator's physical description of an animalized Furtivo is reminiscent of a style of writing one associates with nineteenth-century Naturalism, a movement deeply ingrained with Darwinism: 'Los ojos del Furtivo eran grises y pugnaces como los de unaguila. [... ] y su boca mostraba [... ] unos atemorizadores dientes carniceros' (p. 35). It is as if the gap between the convecinos and conventional society in their attitudes towards nature is so great that Delibes can convey its magnitude only by means of a switch in artistic mode. Contrary to Naturalism, however, there is a suggestion that the rapacity of Furtivo owes as much, if not more, to civilization as it does to animal instinct. The poacher adopted the predatory methods of the fox and the badger because of a tenfold increase in the cost of living after the war. Once a law-abiding dealer in the wood trade, he found that he could no longer perform the mental arithmetic needed to make a killing at auction, so resorted instead to a life of environmental debauchery: 'Y, de repente, se sintio capaz de pensar tan derecha o tan torcidamente como los raposos y los tejos, y aun de jugarsela' (p. 59). The animalization of Furtivo, the emergence of his 'instintos carniceros' (p. 58), is thus an indirect consequence of the war: of human competition at its fiercest, raised far above what is natural. The possibility that such traits were innate in Furtivo, rather than socially acquired, is a matter upon which the narrator prefers to remain agnostic: 'si tuvo alguna vez instintos carniceros, los ocult6 celosamente hasta despues de la guerra' (p. 58).
What can be said, however, is that, unlike the predators to which he increasingly bears a physical resemblance, Furtivo is despoiling the fauna from above, rather than performing a sustainable role from within its midst. In this sense at least, his behaviour (whether inborn or constructed) is, so to speak, unnatural. To begin with, this character functions as a foil to the ecologically light-footed practices of Ratero. Whereas the latter 'no pretenadia exterminar a las ratas' (p. 40)--and for that reason will not hunt water-voles during the breeding season--Furtivo 'no respetaba leyes ni reglamentos' (p. 60). Lacking any deep knowledge of his prey, Furtivo is in fact a relatively ineffectual hunter, though a steady improvement in the course of the novel bodes ill for the environmentally sound practices of the water-vole catchers. At first he tends to ask Nini for advice, only to learn subsequently that he has been tricked by a boy whose country guile, while far outstripping his own, is always subject to a 'biocentric conscience' (22) Thus Nini constantly frustrates him: he protects hares from him, rescues a fox cub orphaned by him, and frees a Bonelli's eaglet, tethered to its nest by him. Such instances of animals extricated from the claws of Furtivo tally symbolically with Nini and Ratero's adroit tactics of self-deliverance from the clutches of the authorities.
Furtivo is a competitive loner: a threat from below to the water-vole catchers' way of life inasmuch as he perfectly embodies the attitudes sponsored by the purveyors of modernity from above. He exemplifies the Delibean claim that modernity is dehumanizing and isolating: a grasping for natural resources as well as a scrambling for social position. And, intriguingly, as noted above, the Naturalistic description the author accords him is at odds with the zoophilic trend of the novel as a whole, one where rats are good. A special, unintuitive vocabulary is called for here, perhaps, since the brutish traits in Furtivo also find their source in culture. Having absorbed too eagerly the competitive ways of the new, he has stifled his feelings for nature and his fellows. One might even hazard that this character has not become subhuman, but is deformed, rather, by civilization. In his case, therefore, subanimal or suprahuman might be a more appropriate terminology. To a considerable degree, his vaunting atavism springs from an acculturation to modernity itself.
Ratero is another such borderline case in the novel between humanity and animality, though, unlike Furtivo, his is a character shot through with inner tension and suffering. And, like an animal, he lacks perspective on such suffering. Guilty of incest with his sister, parsimonious in speech, slow-witted, yet also canny and stealthy, he is ambivalently conceived. Although his verbal concision, skill in hunting, and attunement to his environment are all admirable, he is hardly a straightforward advertisement for the natural man or noble savage. In this respect there is some validity in Dona Resu's implicitly classical position on the matter: human beings become human only in so far as they succeed in rising above the promptings of their animal instincts; or as Luc Ferry puts it, in resisting 'selfish interests and inclinations (23). Thus the incest taboo elevates us above the beast within. It is only Nini who shows any success in reining in his father's more feral (tendencies. As the social pressures on him start to mount, Ratero nevertheless begins to descend the evolutionary ladder, resembling Furtivo more and more in his behaviour and attitude towards nature. The potential for self-destruction in his newly competitive lifestyle is averted by Nini, who manages to dissuade him from hunting during the spring and early summer when the water-voles are breeding. (It is a temporary achievement: ironically, when Ratero finally does go down to the river it will be to kill Luis, the metaphorical rata of Malvino's, and now unmistakably his own, imagining.) In his frenzy to find water-voles which are increasingly elusive in an unusually lean year, he spurs Fa on, causing her to injure her eye amongst the reeds: 'A la Fa la perdi el ansia del do Ratero' (p. 112). When, to Nini's dismay, Ratero drowns all but one of Fa's litter of seven puppies, the author is possibly drawing an equivalence between his behaviour and Furtivo's earlier slaying of the fox cub. Ratero's submission to the law of competition is portrayed as a belittling process: hermetically shut off from his fellows, he resembles ever more closely a dumb animal, resorting to scowls and monosyllabic grunts, until finally, as he lunges at Luis with his hunting spike: 'gritaba algo inarticulado que no llegaban a ser palabras' (p. 190). Increasingly prone to paranoia, he will not listen to reason and, like a predator stalking its prey, spends much of the time surveying the river, waiting for his rival to show.
Paradoxically, as the hunting situation worsens, it is the establishment itself which seems to be moving in for the kill. Although Justito throws Ratero a lifeline, he is merely trying to exploit a man who is down on his luck. On taking legal advice, he has by now discovered that any attempt to brand Ratero mentally unstable would be thrown out of court. The stick having failed, he resorts to the carrot: if the water-vole catcher were to work alongside the extremenos he would be paid thirty pesetas a day plus board. Ratero is interested. He knows that the extremenos' attempts at reforestation are futile (indeed, their lamentable efforts are a symbol of the appalling ecological naivety of their modernizing overseers), but he is no fool. Delibes seems to be suggesting here that there is no harm in a little state subsidy. But Justito attaches a condition: Ratero will need to quit the cave. The subtext is that the water-vole catcher can prosper in the modern world only if he agrees to sacrifice his autonomy. The mayor even off ers to buy the cave, claiming into the bargain that he can stop Luis. Despite this manipulation, Ratero stands firm. When Justito says he can prevent Luis from hunting voles, Ratero replies according to the principle, long established in him, of complete self-reliance: 'Ya to hai yo' (p. 170). It is unclear what measures he has in mind, or even whether he knows himself; there is not enough evidence to know for certain, despite his earlier assertions that he will kill Luis: 'Si to cojo, to mato' (p. III; p. 139). In all probability Ratero is too enigmatic a character for the first-time reader to take these remarks at face value, as avowals of murderous intent. It is the process undergone by Ratero, whereby he succumbs to social pressures beyond his control and comprehension, which effects this lethal transformation in him. And this resembles the path along which Furtivo has already travelled: the one leading to that paradoxical state of being in which animalization and modernization combine.
The novel's climax owes its intensity to an artful crescendo of parallel incidents. It is in fact a magnification and enhancement of the technique already deployed by Delibes in El camino. There, a sense of rupture is communicated by a switch in genre from comedy to tragedy (with the death of German), combined with a change from reminiscence to actuality. The effect is one of poetic disturbance powerfully resonating with the inner trauma of Daniel such that, on finishing the novel, one is left with an impression that a child has been violently wrenched from his friends and community. In Las ratas, however, it is an entire community, rather than merely one person within it, which is being cast into uncharted territory. In the later novel there is a similar note of fracture, but it is amplified to apocalyptic proportions, thus making the killing of Luis and all its unstoppable consequences seem like the end of the known world. A meteorological disaster is used by Delibes to herald the storm of human savagery between Ratero and Luis. The merging of two hailstorms, an event of quite unprecedented violence in the farmers' long and intricate communal memory, bodes ill for the economic survival of the convecinos, as well as for the sustainability of their culture. Like the fight, it is set to wreck the repeating rhythms of a whole way of life.
Such a finale is full of pity and fear, yet it poses considerable problems of interpretation. Nini's Delphic final utterance, 'No to entendan' (p. 194), perhaps alludes as much to the readers as it does to the village elite. Nothing has prepared us for the shocking savagery of this denouement. Indeed, it is the most ratomorphic part of the novel, an episode where human beings appear to fall victim to the compulsions of their animal natures. Prior to this Ratero gave no hint of any potential for violence towards his fellows. Now, however, his assault upon Luis is merciless, despite the latter's feeble attempts to placate him. There are other violent and tragic events recounted in the novel, but they are told through anecdote, mediated by the distancing and explanatory effects of storytelling; now, however, we witness a real event unfolding in all its rawness in the narrative foreground, and it is described in relentless, blowby-blow detail. At face value, the effect of such immediacy is to ram home the Social Darwinist view of man: homo homini lupus. The fight appears to illustrate the Naturalist truism that civilized conduct is a cloak for the beast within. That the dogs too should attack each other serves merely to underline the bestiality of their masters. Having killed Luis, Ratero pitilessly slays his victim's dog, further suggesting that the clash between rival water-vole catchers is a dogfight in human form.
On closer examination, however, this zoophobic explanation is found wanting. For instance, the author leaves the reader in no doubt that Ratero's anger is based upon miscellaneous, almost wilful, misapprehensions of his rival. Luis is not implicated in the declining water-vole catch. Nini, the keenest observer of nature in the novel, believes it is all down to seasonal fluctuation. He has already informed his father that Luis is an incompetent hunter ('No sabe', he remarks of him, p. III) who is as mystified by the water-vole shortage as anyone. Certainly, Delibes makes Luis the antithesis of Ratero: he is a dilatory hunter, devoid of any genuine interest in his prey or affection even for his hunting dog, an animal which is every bit as listless as its master. Indeed, Luis disparages all dogs as unworthy of proper naming, and does not care if the water-voles are over-exploited or in danger of extermination. However, if this decidedly non-Kropotkinite attitude towards animals is a symbolic threat to Ratero's ecological principles, at the same time Luis is an innocent character who never knowingly antagonizes Ratero. The quarrel is entirely the product of the latter's overheated imagination. Or rather, it seems to satisfy a psychological need in him to localize within an individual an anxiety imparted through shadowy social processes; to endow the dread of public disgrace with a physical shape in order the better to cope with it and so perhaps to transcend it. Luis and Ratero may both be water-vole catchers, then, but they are not true competitors. They may appear to resemble animals of the same species battling for scarce resources within the same ecological niche, but Delibes shows that this is not so. Ratero's fall into modernity, by attacking a presumed arch-enemy, is really a version of tilting at windmills. Thus the novel's tragic climax is the result of a mental deflection. The true culprits (Malvino's realratas, as it were) are the social regulators such as Don Antero or the nameless 'prohombres' and 'hombres nuevos' (p. 93). Or perhaps the author is insinuating that the blame cannot be attached in any simple way to individuals at all. The new creed of competition is a presupposition fashioned from above but now pervasive in society. As with the disappearing voles, so it is, by and large, with the encroaching myths of modernity: in Nini's words, 'Nadie tiene la culpa' (p. 108). What began as a lapse in solidarity can be repaired only by a restoration of solidarity.
With thought-provoking subtlety, Delibes inverts and parodies some of the literary conventions we unthinkingly conjure up when a hero confronts his nemesis. This too has the effect of dissuading the reader from rushing to judgement. Typically, after a semi-animal monster or rival has been confronted and defeated in combat, there follows a restoration of harmony, a sense of maturity and inner renewal in the hero himself, of horizons opening onto fresh vistas. In a similar way, once the ordeal at the end of Las ratas is over, Ratero's anxieties are dispelled: he assumes that a proper resolution has been reached and that he has regained control over his destiny. Ironically, this character does not realize that in fact his triumph represents a resolution of a very different kind: one where modernity has won out and he himself is destined to lose the water-voles, the cave, and Nini forever. But it is not Luis who poses the true threat to Ratero's world. On the contrary, he is a hapless and unwitting adversary. It is Ratero, rather, emerging from his cave with his blinkered Cyclopean consciousness, who is most suggestive of monstrosity; and by pitting Luis against the atavistic Ratero in this way, Delibes shows modernity defeating its own monster, closing one era, opening another. However, because in the foregoing text we have grown accustomed to the apparent benevolence of Ratero--having witnessed his essential integrity, respect for his prey, and concern for sustainability--the author prevents the reader from disowning this character in moral terms. Nini's final words, 'No to entendean' (p. 194), thus invite us to fathom his father's plight, not to turn against him. By unsettling literary conventions in this way, Delibes thus conveys the tragic irony of the situation, lending the episode great power, resonance, and complexity.
The fight scene, then, is not quite what it seems on a cursory reading: it is not a page from a novel by Emile Zola where human beings fight like dogs, but rather a depiction of ideologically constructed savagery. In this way, the fact that the dogs fight each other in emulation of their masters is not so much a sign of the animalization which has taken place in Ratero and Luis, but rather an ironic comment upon the heedlessness of human behaviour. Neither dog has a brutal temperament: Fa is placid, Lucero spiritless. Though savagely loyal, they fight in ignorance of the true cause. Delibes is insinuating a corollary: both masters and dogs are fighting blind, unable to perceive the social forces which are making them act. Meanwhile, unified in terror and bewilderment, Nini and Loy (Fa's surviving pup) watch helplessly. It is a telling detail: as a reminder that the species barrier was lifted in most of the preceding text, Delibes blurs the distinction between human beings and animals one last time, depicting a humane and civilized reaction in boy and dog alike. In this way the author implies that the outbreak of violence at the end of the novel has its foundation in ideological conflict, in feelings of social insecurity, rather than in biological instinct. The bestial behaviour here is owned by humanity. At the same time, however, the Naturalist register of the episode aptly conveys the advent of the new order (which the fight scene symbolizes), for it appears to show that man is indeed a ferociously competitive animal, and that the law of the jungle reigns supreme in human society. The artistic method is therefore deeply ironical.
Inevitably, the violence at the end of Las ratas recalls Don Zosimo's brief analysis, in Chapter 2, of the Spanish Civil War, a conflict during which Rabino Chico's father was murdered by a Nationalist death squad for failing to attend church: 'Mira, Chico,' the priest says, 'cuando a dos hermanos, sean cristianos o no, se les pone una venda en los ojos, pelean entre si con mas encarnizamiento que dos extranos' (p. 21). Here, the surface message--that war unleashes savage animal impulses in closely allied forms--is complicated somewhat by the image of the blindfold. What appears to be bloody competition between sibling rivals is more like a lethal game of blindman's buff. A mental blinker is screening out unseen, or concealed, kinship. Like Ratero and Luis fighting at cross purposes, the brothers in Zosimo's parable are purblind. They are victims of the self same 'fuerza ciega' (p. 191) which overwhelms Ratero in his attack upon Luis. Thus Delibes undermines the familiar Social Darwinist paradigm, giving it a Kropotkinite twist which emphasizes its artifice. He implies that Naturalism and Social Darwinism are in reality self-exculpating anthropomorphisms, inflations of lesser truths, which diminish man's potential for self-fulfilment and integration.
Impeded by press censorship of El Norte de Castilla, Delibes began writing Las ratas in 1959 in order to draw attention to the plight of small Castilian farmers. As an editor he highlighted the need for irrigation of the secano and for an urgent rise in the price of wheat. (24) As a novelist he paints a grim picture of a rural civilization whose very survival, already made precarious owing to the caprices of the Castilian weather and environment, is imperilled by uncaring authorities, material hardship, and considerable social inequality. Only El Poderoso has the ability to mechanize or to take out insurance against crop failure. The convecinos, on the other hand, must endure a risky and punishing existence where a man who reaches the age of fifty-seven is thought old. In the words of Amparo Medina-Bocos, Las ratas is indeed 'una novela de denuncias. At the same time, however, Delibes finds much to admire in this culture. He is not advocating a return to some rinky-dink rusticity, but rather mapping out a blueprint for a future green consciousness in which everything--flora, fauna, and people is joined to everything else in a new way. Such a concern for symbiosis and sustainability means that Delibes's work criticizes the Western world--view in its entirety, and thus travels some distance beyond hostility to the dictatorship per se. For example, the way in which traditional circular time is annihilated by the onset of linear, historical time at the end of the novel-with the double ejection of Ratero and Nini from their way of life and of the convectnos into the non-communal space of modernity-is a political denunciation, but it also expresses the author's dismay at the harrowing effects of untrammelled progress on both people and nature." As Bill McKibbern writes:
Once there were different ideas about time, places, limits and responsibility to neighbors. And these differences were vast--the gulf between a cyclical and a linear concept of time, for instance, is far more profound than the gulf between communism and capitalism. (27)
Equally, Las ratas is a complex exploration and undermining of Western ideas on the relation between animality and humanity. Dona Resu's ingenuous question '[??]Es alguien un animal?' (p. 100) expresses the classic view: to become a fully civilized human being, one must assert one's superiority over animals, dissociating from their grosser drives and behaviours. Indeed, Resu's fear of man's latent atavism seems to be borne out by the example of Furtivo, whose character has been vitiated and aninzalized by predatory lusts. However, elsewhere in the novel this philosophy of the incommensurability of human and animal ends does not seem to obtain, and the humanity of some characters is instead vouchsafed and enhanced by their affinity with animals. Even in the case of Furtivo, the animalization of his nature owing to the effects of war and economic hardship is made to seem like socially provoked degeneration. A similar fate befalls Ratero: he is a victim less of his animal instincts than of the irrepressible ideology of the new. As discussed above, Ratero is a benign yet flawed character, and Delibes's ethical position in the novel cannot simply be identified with him. Initially, Ratero may be described, semi-approvingly, as a 'producto puro de la naturaleza'; (28) thereafter, his transformation into a predatory monster is due largely to his competivization by a rapidly changing society. Prior to this, he was one of the novel's quiet zoophiles. The monist position (that human beings differ from animals in degree, not in kind) can be humorous: Rabino Grande, hoodwinked by a burlesque Darwinian, believes himself to be the grandson of a monkey. (29) Elsewhere, a hushed attentiveness to the 'enigmatic uniqueness of animals' in Rabino Chico, in Ratero, Nini, and Senora Clo reveals the humane side of human nature, not its atavism. (30) Rabino Chico and Ratero are muted in their speech, it seems, out of empathy for the intriguing dumbness of such creatures. The implication is that dissociation from the animal kingdom (which stands for a broader dissociation from our own animality as well as from the totality of a more than human natural environment) leaves us in a reduced, potentially barbarous, state of consciousness. (31) For Delibes, losing touch with our animality appears to be what makes us warlike in the first place. (32)
Delibes's suspicion of an intellectual tradition according to which humanity enjoys moral ascendency over the animal kingdom gains credence when one reflects upon one of the lessons of the twentieth century: that Homo sapiens is by far the most murderous species ever to have walked the face of the planet. Man achieved this humbling pre-eminence precisely by enlisting those faculties of will and reason which all along were supposed to safeguard him against brutish instincts. Seen in this light, moral progress through a revaluation of animality seems tenable. In underdeveloped and authoritarian societies, modernity, when it arrives, often has a savage, not a civil, face. Las ratas implies furthermore that it is alienation from nature and animality which is responsible for turning man into the caricature ravening beast of Social Darwinism. Zoophilia may be a seductive, sometimes droll construct, but in this novel it appears truer to nature. Thus for Delibes rats are indeed good: no worse, it seems, than people.
(1) Jude the Obscure (1895), ed. by Dennis Taylor (London: Penguin, 2006), p. 308.
(2) Miguel Delibes, Las ratas (1962), 12th edn (Barcelona: Destino, 2000), p. 9; all further references to this edition are given in parentheses in the text.
(3) It also incorporates a sly and ironic allusion to the behaviourismo of some of the social novelists of 1950s Spain. In a novel like Camilo Jose Cela's La colmena (Buenos Aires: Emece, 1951), for instance, a ratomorphic portrayal of post-war Madrid shows people acting like the automata which Descartes deemed all animals--save man--to be.
(4) Jonathan Bate, The Song of the Earth (London: Picador, 2001), p. 187.
(5) Miguel Delibes, Un mundo que agoniza (1979), 9th edn, introduction by Ramon Garcia Dominguez (Barcelona: Plaza & Janes, 1999), p. 150.
(6) Ibid., p. 57.
(7) Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), ed. by J. W Burrow (London: Penguin, 1985), p. 154.
(8) Peter Kropotkin, Anarchism: A Collection of Revolutionary Writings, ed. by Roger N. Baldwin (New York: Dover, 2002), p. 96.
(9) In Un mundo que agoniza, pp. 145-66.
(10) Kropotkin, Anarchism, p. 97.
(11) Ibid., p. 96.
(12) Donald Worster, Nature's Economy: A History of Ecological Idem 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. xi.
(13) Darwin, The Origin of Species, p. 157.
(14) Worster, Nature's Economyp. 161.
(15) In Castilla habla (Barcelona: Destino, 1986) Delibes describes the formerly widespread practice of collecting bark from holm oaks in order to make charcoal: see' Los carrascales' (PP-78-82). In Mi vida al aire libre (1989), 7th edn (Barcelona: Destino, 1992), he laments the demise of the white-clawed crayfish in Spain following the introduction of the American Signal crayfish (pp. 127-31).
(16) Leo Hickey notes the author's frequent use of the Spanish personah for animals: see Miguel Delibes, Las ratas, ed. by Leo Hickey (London: Harrap, 1969), p. 137, n. 43.
(17) e.g. Miguel Delibes, La caza de la perdiz roja (Barcelona: Lumen, 1963).
(18) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997), p. 140.
(19) Miguel Delibes, El camino (1950), 26th edn (Barcelona: Destino, 1997).
(20) Ibid., p. 61.
(21) Cruelty to animals (rather than cave-dwelling) is of course what springs to the minds of many northern Europeans when they think of Spanish rural backwardness: for example, the torture to death of bulls in annual festivals in Coria, and in Tordesillas, near Delibes's home city of Valladolid, during La Fiesta del Toro de la Vega.
(22) Worster, Nature's Economyp. 179.
(23) Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order, trans. by Carol Volk (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1995), P. 36.
(24) See Jose Francisco Sanchez, Miguel Delibes, periodista (Barcelona: Destino, 1989), p. 168.
(25) Miguel Delibes, Las ratas, ed. by Amparo Medina-Bocos (Barcelona: Destino, 1996), p. xxii.
(26) The novel does not, however, oppose rural stasis to modern dynamism in any simplistic way. A sense of the circularity of time--the natural accompaniment of any intense attachment to place--is in reality a discriminating awareness of change in its every nuance. As El Centenario remarks to Nini: 'Todo se va; nada se repite en la vida' (p. 90).
(27) Bill McKibbern, Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1995), P. 54.
(28) Delibes, Las ratas, ed. Medina-Bocos, p. xxvii.
(29) For an excellent discussion of contemporary philosophical debates surrounding animality, see Kate Soper, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the non-Human (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995).
(30) Ferry, The New Ecological Order, p. 54.
(31) Leo Hickey argues that Delibes uses a 'sophisticated contrapuntal method [. . .] of having an action or relationship going on in one key among humans while a complementary action or relationship is being played out in a lower key by animals' (Delibes,Las ratas, ed. by Hickey, p. 16). However, the relationship which Delibes establishes between human beings and animals in this novel is perhaps more dialectic than contrapuntal.
(32). In more general terms Delibes equates human aggressivity with a loss of empathy for nature: 'La Historia de la Humanidad no ha sido otra cosa hasta el da que una sucesion incesante de guerras y talas de bosques' Un mundo que agoniza, pp. 83-86).
JEREMY S. SQUIRES
UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN
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|Author:||Squires, Jeremy S.|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2008|
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