Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Life in Cantabria c.1880

Escenas Montañesas is a series of vignettes by José María de Pereda about life, particularly some of the dying customs, in Santander and the mountain villages, in his time. I imagine the speech is authentic, although it sounds like nothing I heard. It is probably dead now. And the characters are mostly meant to be real. Dramatised perhaps, but people he really met and situations he really lived. They are irregular, a couple are dull, but most are very good. You feel as though you were there, you take sides, you feel along with them their sufferings, happinesses and motivations, they are real people living real lives, and they are fun to read about.

Pereda was a Cantabrian who wrote in the second half of the 19thC. He belongs to the tradition of ‘costumbristas’, writing novels and stories about the people and places that were part of the life of the area they knew, linking realism and romanticism Many works of Emilia Pardo Bazán and Blasco Ibañez, and some periods of Pérez Galdós, are similarly inspired.

The longest story is not set in Santander, but between a farm in the mountain, and Madrid. It’s a version of the town mouse and the country mouse but with at least three other, equally important, narratives woven into it and an immense amount of humour and detail.

Another tale, of a very different feel, is told in several parts over the course of the book. It describes the world of the Cabildo, the Fishermen’s Guild, two of which operated in Santander until the end of the 19th C, constantly fighting, and the centre of life and the world for the people who lived from the sea. Pereda tells of the sudden end of these Guilds, through his own eyes, via a series of connected incidents in the lives of men and women who were clearly real, and known to the author, as they struggle with their daily problems, winning and losing, surviving, or sometimes not.

The stories end with the closure of the Guilds and the death of the most iconic character on the docks. Pereda claims to have been present, and he clearly felt very deeply the loss of this man.*

Despite all this, Pereda was not one of them, except as an observer. He lived a comfortable life in a four-storey stone house on the fashionable port front**, and watched all of this from his windows. He never had to put to sea in a tiny fishing boat, or worry about hoe to feed his children, or what to do when his boots finally fell to pieces, or how to defend his trade from the other Guild, and the town council. Nevertheless, he understood the lives of the people who did live that way, and had great affection for them.

*For a longer dramatized telling of life in the Cabildos, I recommend his novel ‘Sotileza’.

**His family still lives in that house. I was friendly with his great-great-nephew and visited it regularly at one time.

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