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Pío Baroja (1872 – 1956) was one of the Spain’s ‘Generation of ‘98’ writers that included Miguel de Unamuno. He was a Basque who initially studied medicine and indeed practised for a time, but switched to writing, in which activity he was quite prolific.

Baroja’s best-known work is probably El árbol de la ciencia (‘The tree of knowledge’). This title, El laberinto de las sirenas, is not one of his better-known ones and there are times when it seems unsure about what kind of book it really wants to be. It uses the device of story-within-story, as a traveller chances on a diary, written in Basque, that tells of the loves and adventures of a fellow countryman in the Mediterranean. Accordingly there are Italian travelogue elements, and colourful characters with little bearing on the plot, but things settle as the traveller Dr. Andi translates Juan Galardi’s tale of how he became involved with Laura, the Marquise of the (fictional) Calabrian town of Roccanera.

The masterful descriptive passages and acute observations make this book one of my favourites. Baroja’s style is initially hard to adjust to because it can have a stilted, stactato feel; indeed he was regarded by contemporaries as being somewhat unattentive to stylistic questions. This ‘abrupt’ feature is quite evident in the passage below, but curiously it soon ceases to be noticeable as, once the reader is accustomed to the short sentences, the obligatory pauses they introduce encourage complete attention to each new image presented.

By the way, at the book’s beginning there’s a neat little dig at Thomas Hardy and his elaborate fictional landscapes – wonder what Baroja would have made of Tolkien?

V. Stevenson August 2002

Pío Baroja

The Labyrinth of the Sirens

Extract: Life in the town (La vida en el pueblo)

Roccanera did not boast a separate aristocratic quarter; rich and poor houses stood side-by-side, which had always bred a certain familiarity between well-to-do and hoi-polloi.

There, as in almost all of Italy, the aristocracy was approachable and did not disdain commerce, following thereby the example set by the Medicis. The majority of Roccanera's rich seldom lived in town but for certain periods, descending at harvest time to collect the rent. The poor looked dirty, ragged and unwell; many, to judge by their colour, suffered from the tertian fevers. The burguers apeared outwardly somewhat suspicious and mistrustful, while the fisherfolk seemed the happiest of the inhabitants; it was in their quarter that singing and the strumming of guitars were mostly to be heard, and accordions were constantly playing.

Very few things changed in the little town. The stage coach came every day, morning and evening, halting at a great roadhouse where it would deposit a few passengers and a pile of papers and letters tied in canvas sacks and leather pouches. After relieving itself of its burden, it continued on its way amid clouds of dust.

Sometimes, in a waterlogged, unhealthy spot outside the city walls, some Hungarian gypsies would make camp with their windowed and chimneyed wagons, and one could hear the huffing of muzzled bears, and amongst the horses, scrawny and covered in sores, could be seen barefoot children, grubby and wild-haired; there were men, bearded and with lively gaze, and dark-skinned old women covered in rags.

During the very brief winter the town was morose and dirty; in the upper streets, formed by stony inclines, the water ran in streams; in the lower ones it collected in evil-smelling puddles.

Life in summertime, especially the afternoons, was languid. In the hours when the sun shone and the air baked, all movement was paralysed; the streets were deserted, the sea almost without a sail; only a few wagons passed along the dusty highway.

The blue sky was cloudless and the dry, hot air thrummed; in the abandoned streets one was taken aback by the mixture of odours both good and bad, by the fragrances of the gardens and the stench of the manure heaps.

At the large and spacious inn, before the entrance to an enormous hallway, waited a rickety coach with its spavined horses.

The coach doors, painted blue, were shut.

In the sunlight hours, the loafers slept on benches or doorsteps, a battered hat over their eyes; an atmosphere of silence and lethargy reigned as the church bells went on tolling the hours, one by one, in this suffocating calm.

With the growing shadows the wheelwright would bring his wheels out to the gutter, the saddler fill his horse-collars with unwashed wool, the grain-seller stroll among his sacks and baskets, hands clasped behind his back.

In the weavers' they wove baskets great and small, the shoemaker nailed his soles, and from the window of the sweet-shop came a buzzing of flies against the wrappings of the sweets and honey cakes.

At nightfall, after the fleeting impression of ebbing life one feels with the dipping sun, as its glow ceases to gild a tower or street corner, the town would awaken from its lethargy and come to life.

From the doorways emerged swarms of children and sweaty, unkempt women; conversation began, and one heard guitars and accordions, especially around the harbour; in the houses the lights began to glimmer, and on high, the stars; the streets swelled with people and happy, tumultuous, vibrant life.

The wagons arrived from the fields with fresh grass, and men and women came bringing bundles of firewood from the hills.

In July or August, when the wind blew from Africa, the entire town appeared dead. The sun beat down, giving a grey, almost ashen colour to the countryside; fine sand covered the vines and olive trees. Not a soul was to be seen in the streets of Roccanera, and the windows and shutters were closed; rubbish fermented in the middle of the gutter, and clouds of mosquitoes and black flies flitted above it. The dust entered the houses, the timbers creaked, and the furniture cracked.

One felt a great lassitude, a complete unravelling; only the cicadas and crickets seemed to have energy to chirp in the stifling heat. The insane, shut up in the hospital and excited by the south wind, gave vent to furious cries that were borne for miles upon the breeze.

Translation © V. Stevenson 1997 and 2002.

Original title: El laberinto de las sirenas. Madrid: Espasa Calpe, 1946. 7th edition 1984. p. 85-87