‘The terror of 1824’ continues to shock two centuries later | Culture


“And that terrible man, who was de jure president of the terrifying court, and in fact prosecutor, and the entire court, that man, on whose bloodthirsty vanity and brutal ignorance the life and death of thousands of unfortunate people depended, stood up and stood. He was to eat”. This is how Galdós writes about Francisco Chaperón, a literary character based on the real Francisco Chaperón, a soldier who directed the police superintendence of Madrid during the first months of the absolutist restoration of Fernando VII and of whom Pío Baroja said that he pulled at the feet of the hanged – which can be a gesture of sadism or mercy, depending on how you look at it. Galdós likes to imagine him going to eat (“so richly”, the traditional narrator could have added) after having sent a bunch of unfortunate people to the scaffold, with that terrible and very fine humor so characteristic of his novels that went almost a hundred years ahead. to the notion of the banality of evil. In 1961, Hannah Arendt would portray the Nazi Adolf Eichmann in very similar terms. She was not the only thing that the Canarian novelist anticipated in this work, one of the best of the 19th century.

The terror of 1824 was published in October 1877 as part of the second series of the National episodesbut its bicentennial should be celebrated today, when two centuries have passed since that terrible period —ominousthe history books adjective it—which followed the Liberal Triennium (1820-1823) and lasted until the death of Fernando VII, the Felon, in 1833. In this episode Galdós explored from the title a concept that until then had only been applied to French revolutionaries: the terror here was the work of the absolutists, the implacable revenge of the reactionary crows against the Spanish who tried to enforce the Constitution of 1812. Until another terror was imposed in 1936, the novel marked the canon of political abjection in Spain, anticipating stories about totalitarianism and creating a model to narrate dictatorial violence and generalized repression. Those who frequent literature about the Spanish Civil War and World War II will find in this little work (although it is brief) many familiar scenes and ideas.

Contradicting the title, the novel begins in the autumn of 1823, with the arrival in Madrid of General Rafael de Riego, imprisoned and chained, to be hanged in the Plaza de la Cebada (very ugly, according to Galdós, and even though it is not met today). It ends with another execution, that of Patricio Sarmiento, a fictional character from the Episodes who, unlike Riego, dies with dignity and greatness, to the disgrace of his executioners. Galdós was inspired by a real case that he found in the judicial files of the time: on August 24, 1825, Pablo Iglesias was hanged in Madrid (with no relation to the future founder of the PSOE or the most future of Podemos), who, at Going up to the scaffold, he said before the crowd: “I consider the coat as a gala garment and the cap as a laurel wreath.” He was referring to the jacket and cap that was placed on the condemned.

Benito Pérez Galdós, portrayed by Sorolla in 1894.
Benito Pérez Galdós, portrayed by Sorolla in 1894.

This dignity, similar to the legendary one of Mariana Pineda in Granada a few years later, inspired the writer to give a tragic end to Patricio Sarmiento, one of his great characters. Sarmiento dies like the heroes, but he never abandons his ambiguous character.

Sarmiento is an old professor, a fanatical liberal, who also mistreated and killed in the name of freedom when his people ruled. After the constitutional defeat, he tours Madrid like a madman giving Ciceronian and ridiculous speeches that provoke the ridicule of the children. He is vain and narcissistic, he believes he is a martyr of the revolution and there is no one who can stand him. But he is also a hero who sacrifices himself to save Solita, the heroine of this series. His death shames even the shameless Chaperón, who signs his sentence, and gives the measure of the arbitrary and totalitarian cruelty of the regime of Fernando VII. That is the line that unites Patricio Sarmiento with the characters of Primo Levi, and Solita with Levi himself. As often happens with Galdós—which is why he is the great Spanish novelist—absolute goodness and absolute meanness are confused without the reader being able to draw an incontestable moral conclusion. For Don Benito, we are all heroes and villains.

Not all of them, of course. In the supporting cast there are plenty of pure villains, like Chaperón or Francisco Romo, of whom he says that he had a body that looked like a prison. Or like Ferdinand VII himself, to whom he grants traces of stupidity, but not kindness. In this novel, the king only appears in the official portraits that hang in the offices of the sinister police superintendency (the Santa Cruz Palace, today the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Galdós’ Madrid remains almost intact for anyone who wants to walk around it). Full of dirt and dust, in the paintings Felón “looked like a large cephalopod that was contemplating its victim before sucking him.” In this horror novel, Ferdinand VII is a Lovecraftian monster, thirteen years before Lovecraft was born.

Cover of 'The Terror of 1824', by Benito Pérez Galdós, illustrated by Gómez Soler y Pellicer and published in 1877.
Cover of ‘The Terror of 1824’, by Benito Pérez Galdós, illustrated by Gómez Soler y Pellicer and published in 1877.

There are also passages that today we would call Kafkaesque, if it were not for the fact that in 1877 it was six years before Kafka was born: “In all times there has always existed a hell of sealed paper composed of files instead of flames and of offices instead of caves, where a no small phalanx of demons has their residence in the form of bailiffs, notaries, attorneys, lawyers, who use pens for brands, and whose job is to fry humanity in great cauldrons of boiling verbiage that they call autos.” There is The process, but also Joseph Roth, who described the bureaucracy of the Third Reich as “the subsidiary of hell on earth.” They did not know the administration of Fernando VII.

The countryside in the background mixes jokes and truth. Among the latter, the appearance in the Plaza de la Cebada of the monk Marañón, called The Trappist, an absolutist guerrilla, the epitome of the trabucaire priest, who rides a mule, wears a habit and is armed to the teeth. He seems like an invention of Quentin Tarantino (let’s not count the years until he was born), but he was a real character from that unlikely Spain. On the jokes side, it is fabulous that the Corderos, the family of Madrid merchants that are the backbone of the entire series, try to survive the regime changes by dressing their children in the ideological fashion that best suits them. In the liberal era they dressed them as militiamen, and when the reactionaries arrived, as monks. At a meal—one of the few comic scenes in the novel—the two children spill the soup and all the sauces from the roasts on each other, ruining the dignity of the political costume.

This, which seems anecdotal, is the cool thing about the novel. Yeah The terror of 1824 If it were only the testimony of an atrocious dictatorship, it would make no sense to read it today. Its validity, two centuries after the events it narrates, is due to the fact that it is, like those of Goya, a profound and very human painting of all the contradictions, weaknesses and miseries of a society battered by a disgraceful destiny that it does not control.

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