Analyzing ‘San Manuel Bueno, Martyr’: Truth in Times of Great Uncertainty and Collective Disillusionment

Written in late 1930, just after the fall of military dictator Primo de Rivera, San Manuel Bueno, mártir was published at a time of economic downturn and political instability. King Alfonso XIII remained on the throne but shared the popular dislike of Rivera, meanwhile the republicans, who were mostly anti-clerical, were rapidly gaining support ahead of the municipal elections. In his ‘nivola’, Unamuno explores the idea of Truth. I will take this to mean that which is in accordance with fact or reality and not necessarily containing a transcendental meaning, although this may be the case. Unamuno utilises both form and content to portray the elusive nature of Truth and the importance of perception and belief when dwelling on the question of Truth, something that was particularly relevant given the historical context.

The notion of Truth, especially where it is related to the eternal quest for religious truth and the question of faith, is clearly prominent in the content of the novel. Don Manuel commits himself to a life of deliberate falsehood because he believes there are some truths too awful to be told, ‘la verdad… es acaso algo terrible, algo intolerable; la gente sencilla no podría vivir con ella’[1]. Manuel believes that knowledge of the miserable Truth about existence is a burden too heavy for the common man. He believes that life can either be led in blissful ignorance of humankind’s mortal, temporal nature through belief in a God and an Afterlife, or in knowledge of the fact we are ultimately doomed to die. This, in turn, raises the question of the value of religion and blind faith in the modern world. San Manuel Bueno, mártir is, in fact, a novel that stands completely against the progressive cause; Lázaro’s spiritual death is associated with his exposure to progressivism in the New World. There is a particularly uncomfortable line when Manuel echoes Karl Marx, ‘Opio… Opio… Opio, sí. Démosle opio, y que duerma y que sueñe’[2]; the comparison of religion to opium and emphatic repetition of the word in dialogue gives the sense of being lulled into a dream-like state. It appears as though Unamuno is propagating religion’s advantages and, specifically by presenting Manuel as the hero of the novel, he seems to be endorsing happiness based on blind faith and tradition. In this way, arguably the Truth in terms of discovering the meaning of life is actually irrelevant because having faith in the Truth is simply a means to an end; a way in which the common man is able to live his life in contentment and without fear. Unamuno himself is known to have had recurring thanatophobia which arose partly from his religious crisis in 1897; he said that, ‘My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live’[3] and believed that much of all human activity was an attempt to survive, in some form, after our death. He wrote in his diary that he had two choices, to become a Catholic or to live a life of depression[4].

San Manuel Bueno, mártir actually goes a step further and makes many suggestions that the truth about the function of religion actually goes back throughout history. Simply by the name ‘Manuel’, which in Hebrew is ‘Immanuel’, Manuel’s patron is Christ himelf- ‘su santo patron era el mismo Jesús Nuestro Señor’[5]. Furthermore, the spiritual ‘resurrection’ of Lázaro in chapter 13 can be directly compared to the story of Christ and Lazarus in St. John 11:1-45. In fact, throughout the whole novel allusions are made towards the fact that Manuel is supposed to be a representation of Jesus Christ himself; he is able to cure the sick, he has carpentry skills, and his ‘voz divina’ moves the congregation in a transcendent way, making the village tremble as he cries, ‘¡Dios mío! ¡Dios mío! ¿Por qué me has abandonado?[6]. Manuel also reports to Lazaro that more than one of the greatest saints had died without believing in the afterlife. Thus Unamuno implants the idea in the reader’s mind that some of the Church’s leading figures have died without believing in the immortality of the soul.

When thinking about the notion of Truth in San Manuel Bueno, mártir, consideration of form is both crucial and easily overlooked. In terms of narrative structure, the whole story is a second-hand report of the life of Don Manuel. This basic displacement is complicated further because Manuel never actually confides in Angela, and she learns the indispensible information about his disbelief from her brother, Lázaro. Thus the story becomes refracted two-fold and is often a third-hand account of events and feelings. Furthermore, our familiar notions of truth and reality are shaken because of the unreliable nature of Angela’s narration; she is an elderly woman whose memory is fading- ‘empiezen a blanquear con mi cabeza mis recuerdos’[7] and she actually says that she is not sure whether she dreamt the whole episode, ‘yo no sé lo que es verdad’[8]. However, in addition to this complication in the storyline, Unamuno tries to confuse the reader in the final section of the novel. Not only does he insinuate that Angela is a fantastic character and suggest that fiction and reality are fundamentally the same thing, but he implies that everything in the text is, although fictional, also in some way true- ‘esta realidad no se me ocurre dudar; creo en ella más que creía el mismo santo; creo en ella más que creo en mi propria realidad’[9]. This leaves the reader pondering the idea that Don Manuel represents some significant Truth and, in this way, is more real than Unamuno himself. Yet at the same time we are left with an unreliable narration, a subjective report of feelings and events that leave us with the unsettling feeling that we cannot reach a core of certainty, that the truth is held frustratingly out of reach. These different levels of truth are often played on in novels of the post-realist era, perhaps because writers no longer believed in the objective, stable reality they were writing about; instead, they portrayed subjective realities dealing with individual consciousness and perception. The choice of Unamuno to question the narrator’s authority and employ metafiction forces the reader to think about the relationship between fiction and reality at a time of political and social upheaval.

Many critics of Unamuno’s works claim that San Manuel Bueno, mártir is an accurate representation of his own beliefs about the truth of life and religion, however he said on one of his most famous pronouncements that everyone should face the miserable fact of our mortal existence at all costs, even if it means sacrificing our happiness[10]. Whereas Don Manuel wants to keep the people ignorant because it means they can lead their lives in contentment, Unamuno devoted much of his life and work to shaking his readers out of their complacency and forcing them, not only to face the tragic nature of the human condition, but also to question the fictional truth which he was laying before them. By giving the reader an ‘artistic document’ in the form of San Manuel Bueno, mártir he invites the reader to search for the truth within the story, whilst knowing full well that the reader will never be able to find the truth because everything which is told is subjective and a matter of perception rather than holding some higher literary truth. The fact that the reader can never hope to find out the truth about Don Manuel is a reflection of the limited access we have to the knowledge of others. It also emphasises that narratives, whether ficticious or historical, can never be taken as records of facts because they are always written from a certain viewpoint and a certain bias in which the reader can never find a core of certainty. Unamuno described the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as novels and not history, just as Angela’s memoir is a personal interpretation of a life, and these accounts will always only have partial links with reality. As a result of this, the truth always eludes the reader because each person has a different version of his or her reality. Moreover, this can be applied to the unstable political situation of late 1930; with the municipal elections looming, the republican and monarchist parties were making heavy use of rhetoric. However, Unamuno’s novella emphasises that men cannot hope to find the truth of what is the right path to take, not only because it is obscured behind each person’s view of reality, but also because the public self is separate from the yo íntimo which holds the key to the ‘real’ personality.

Unamuno utilises symbols throughout the novel to dwell on the notion of truth. The lake is one of the most obvious symbols but one which has different meanings depending on the context in the novel. For Manuel and Lázaro, the lake is reminiscent of death and oblivion. The lake reminds them of their ultimate fate, and Manuel in particular identifies with it when he becomes suicidal, ‘había en sus ojos toda la hondura azul de nuestro lago’[11]. Contrastingly, for Angela the lake is a warm reminder of her home, and the drowned village reassures her of the promise of immortality because she imagines she can here the ‘voz de nuestros muertos que en nosotros resucitaban en la communion de los santos’[12]. For Manuel, on the other hand, the truth that life is brief and meaningless is submerged in his soul just as the village is submerged in the lake. Thus, the lake is an ambiguous and cruel symbol in the novel, which functions to contrast meaning between those who know the harsh truth and those who believe in the immortality of the soul. In fact, the key to other symbols also lies in the notion of contrast. For instance, Manuel feels moved by falling snowflakes but it appears that it is, in fact, the notion of something appearing and disappearing with such ease that provokes his thoughts. Similarly, he makes a comment to Lázaro contrasting what is stable and what is fleeting, ‘¿Has visto, Lázaro, misterio mayor que el de la nieve cayendo en el lago y muriendo en él mientras cubre con su toca a la montaña?[13]. Thus for Manuel, he finds symbolic meaning in things which reflect his lifelong struggle between the desire to live and a longing for death. Considering the use of symbols from a difference stance, their presence in the novel actually serves to show how we cannot hope to find a single truth of meaning; the symbols arise in the minds of specific characters in specific contexts. They are simply another way in which Unamuno keeps the truth about San Manuel just out of our reach.

San Manuel Bueno, mártir explores truth in many of its different facets. It dwells on the Truth about mortality, the knowledge of which is portrayed as a burden too great for the common man to be able to live with. The novel proposes that religion; Catholicism in particular, functions to allow men to live in contentment. But Unamuno also dwells on the elusive nature of truth in literature because anything that is written or spoken will always be a matter of perception and in this way the reader can never reach a basis of certainty. At a time of political turmoil in Spain, Unamuno’s novel was particularly relevant because it questioned the people’s accessibility to the truth behind public discourse, and also raised questions about the benefits and problems with religion and also with the radical progressivism which was shaking Spain to its core in 1930.

[1] M. De Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, mártir. Focus Publishing (2004) p25 [2] ibid. p32 [3] M. De Unamuno, Mi Religión y Otros Ensayos Breves. Espasa Calpe (1986) [4] Diario íntimo (Madrid: Alianza, 1970) [5] M. De Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, mártir. p6 [6] ibid p6 [7] ibid p46 [8] ibid. p44 [9] ibid. p45 [10] M. De Unamuno, Vida de Don Quijote y Sancho, OC, IV, pp.227-8 [11] M. De Unamuno, San Manuel Bueno, mártir. p2 [12] ibid p8 [13] ibid p30



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