Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, WRITER (1833 - 1891)
by Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Born in 1833 in Guadix, fifty-four kilometres from the provincial capital of Granada, Alarcón was a Spanish novelist who specialised in realistic depictions of Spanish life. Like so many of his and the future generations who went on to become writers, he studied law at university, a prospective career he was happy to abandon in favour of theology. He would soon swap these studies and settle on a literary life - setting up the publication, El Eco de Occidente, whilst staying in Cádiz.
His early attempts at writing brought him into contact with a group of like-minded souls who became fellow tertulianos of the group christened ‘La Cuerda' (The Cord), a tertulia or literary gathering that included the likes of Manuel Fernández y González, the novelist, and the Italian tenor, Giorgio Ronconi. It is perhaps an oversimplification to classify Alarcón as just a realist, his output was more varied than a first glance would indicate. Certainly, there are elements of costumbrismo, that very Spanish depiction of everyday customs and life so beloved of novelists like Fernán Caballero, yet his characters also display more than a few touches reminiscent of the Romantic Movement.
In addition, he wrote travel literature, including an account of a journey from Madrid to Naples and an expedition on horseback around the Alpujarras. Indeed, he was something of a pioneer in Spanish travel letters, a field traditionally dominated by the English, French and Germans. Subsequent writers have credited him with an approach that interwove vivid description and novelistic elements, a technique which influenced future generations.
|Contempory engraving Pedro Alarcon|
In the English-speaking world he is best known for the novel, El sombrero de tres picos (The Three-Cornered Hat), a text, set in Arcos de la Frontera that tells the story of a miller, his attractive wife and the local magistrate who has designs on her. The three-cornered hat in question represents ‘power' to those who wear it - a power that is satirised by the author. There is much switching of clothing, the occasional pratfall wonderfully reminiscent of Cervantes, and an ending that provides a suitable moral for those involved. Alarcón prefaced his work with an explanation that the tale would be recognisable to anyone in Spain, even admitting he had first heard a similar account from the local pícaro, employed as a goatherd.
As many people know the story from Manuel de Falla's ballet and music as they do from Pedro's story, but the same could also be said of Carmen and Prosper Mérimée. Another interesting twist in Alarcón's literary career was El clavo (The Nail), an early take on detective fiction that critics have compared to Edgar Alan Poe. A nail is discovered embedded in a disinterred skull, a happenstance that leads to an unfolding mystery, and the first real detective story in the Spanish language. Pedro also plays with the reader by creating three female characters who are subsequently found to be the same woman.
Politically, Alarcón became progressively more traditionalist from his liberal beginnings. He was a member of the Unión Liberal, a party of monarchist moderates. Owing to these connections, he held office as a deputy, senator and ambassador to Sweden and Norway. At a similar period in his life, he became a member of the Real Academia de la Lengua, that bastion of the Spanish language and arbiter of good linguistic practice. Despite criticism from some of his former colleagues, they still lauded his status as a man of letters.
For those who enjoy a literary journey, following in the footsteps of Pedro's trip around La Alpujarra, is worth considering. He immortalised his experiences in the book of the same name. This snippet gives a flavour of the text: ‘The tones, the colour, the light, the atmosphere, everything is completely different here. A sky, almost always cloudless, and of a pure, intense and sparkling blue, primarily acts as a background to all decoration, dispersing with its vivid brilliance any vagueness, mystery, obscure contours, any ill-defined fantasies'.
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón, the novelist, story teller, reporter, sometime poet and politician, died in 1891 at the relatively young age of fifty-eight. Although he lived the later years of his life in Madrid, both his home town and nearby Granada have remembered one of their own with memorials. In Guadix he is seated on a plinth, his shoulders draped in a cloak; the inscription reads ‘Guadix to its illustrious son'. The provincial capital, Granada, has him in less formal pose, sitting on a bench in the Avenida de la Constitución, his legs crossed, with a book comfortably open in one hand.
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards have written Andalucia - A Literary Guide for Travellers, published in September 2016 by I. B.Tauris. It may be purchased online directly from the publishers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers or from Amazon. This compliments their previous work, Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers (Literary Guides for Travellers)