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Ramón Sender: Two Novels
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Ramón Sender:
Two Novels

The Sphere , by Ramón Sender. Translated by F. Giovanelli. New York: Hellman, Williams, 1949.

The Affable Hangman , by Ramón Sender. Translated by Florence Hall. London: Cape, 1954.

There are many questions on which any piece of writing can take off—not glibly, or one hopes not, but because these 'questions' stay the one 'given,' in a context otherwise constantly in process of reformation. So—what does one believe in? Is the real real because one admits it? Tastes it. Feels it. Knows it? Or because it is?

We are ringed with filters attenuating all the impressions pouring in on us from outside . . . Those filters which are acting through all the forms of our sensibility constantly guard us against attack by light, sound forms. But the best of these filters is the mind. We have minds not primarily to understand but rather not to understand too much. What horrible or transcendent truths repair to our understanding and remain outside? Against what terrible revelations or evidence does our mind protect us?

This is quoted from the first of a series of 'mottos,' placed at the beginning of each chapter, which form an anterior 'novel' to the one otherwise occurring. The writing, or rather what the writing resolves as, is a continuing displacement of a man already beyond the character of a 'natural' reality in that (1) it is a question as to

Black Mountain Review , Summer 1955.


whether or not he is dead, yet he has not found death, so he is not; and (2) the book is placed on a boat, i.e., it is the geography of no geography but that which human disposition can arrive at.

More aptly, it is the journey to death, to a death realized, which is impossible—but which is necessary , when all calls to life have become so rotted, and ambiguous, that nothing remains outside the mind, not enough. Or, as Lawrence says it:

Oh build your ship of death, oh build it!
for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.

Sender says: "I am closer to my death than yesterday . . ." The progression of the novel is through circumstances, trails perhaps, or again and again questions—of the body: "And Saila came back to his mental constructions: 'I've told myself time and again that love is a "reintegration" and that it is both necessary and impossible . . . '" Of the mind: "There is a perfection upon which we all rest when we wish: reality." Of that complex, belief: "Faith was born before miracle."

And all of this comment decries, despairs, and distorts—what is being said, by this book. The form it takes, the 'mottos' juxtaposed against the 'action' and/or the literal events which form its sequence, are, also, the 'how it is, as it is,' which the mind, damned (is it), feels itself so obliged to repair to. To repair, to in fact be, also, present to—as 'it' happens. So in this instance Sender records in one man, Saila, this complex, this man with his hands, on the woman, yet un-on, or un-relieved. For example:

With her look she asked him: "Still? In the situation we are in? What for?" But Saila said to himself: "When every road has been blocked to us there remains the absurd feminine, the great chaos over which we can place our hand in order to feel the infinite accessible."

For the moment—there is no injustice, I hope, in using this novel as a means to suggest the world, the literal time, which encompasses it, and also, which it hopes to encompass. A wise man asks only questions. Because the answers to them, granted they have in fact been asked, lie in the man to whom they are asked. Sender is unlike, or rather differs from, most writers of so-called 'fiction' in that he is not so eager to persuade as to demonstrate (first to himself) the complexity of the idea of the world which he has been brought, of necessity, to consider—whether or not that 'world' is


in fact of a real kind, or, more literally, is the real world. We know—as we say in that now familiar tone of reassurance—that a world does exist, beyond our minds; yet we do not.

The person, child of experience—the return of reflection upon action—holds to a lineal or superficial idea of everything. It is born, grows and develops with that primitive tumour of the ganglia we call the brain.

And what is spirit? Is it flight? I sense that force which impels everything to disintegration, reflecting perhaps the very centrifugal impulsion of the planet. Gravity prevents or conditions our disintegration. The feeling of escape which disintegration communicates to everything we ourselves find in the tendency of our spirit first to self-sufficiency, and then to departure and detachment from self. This possibility of separation from, and even action against, the very self we recognize as a 'need to flee.' But at the very moment this need seems most imperious, a curious thing happens. That is, we return to the ganglia, and instead of fleeing, strengthen the unity of being; a reciprocal movement—it might be said—between the notion of essential being and the feeling of elemental being.

This is a resolution—a 'melting,' a 'separating into parts.' Yet—"Miriflor looked at him confused: 'You, you Spaniards . . . ' he said, unable to finish."


The world of Sender's most recent novel, The Affable Hangman , is one assembled, stumbled upon—as a man will stumble—again of necessity. We cannot call Ramiro "the affable hangman" until we have also stumbled, willynilly, into or upon, that thread of occasional purpose by which a man directs himself, given eyes and mouth, hands and legs, and a mind, and also a heart. Diotima tells Socrates, in Plato's Symposium , that:

On the day that Aphrodite was born the gods were feasting, among them Contrivance, the son of Invention; and after dinner, seeing that a party was in progress, Poverty came to beg and stood at the door. Now Contrivance was drunk with nectar—wine, I may say, had not Yet been discovered—and went out into the garden of Zeus, and was overcome by sleep. So Poverty, thinking to alleviate her wretched condition by bearing a child to Contrivance, lay with him and conceived


Love. Since Love was begotten on Aphrodite's birthday, and since he has also an innate passion for the beautiful, and so for the beauty of Aphrodite herself, he became her follower and servant. Again, having Contrivance for his father and Poverty for his mother, he bears the following character. He is always poor, and, far from being sensitive and beautiful, as most people imagine, he is hard and weather-beaten, shoeless and homeless, always sleeping out for want of a bed, on the ground, on doorsteps, and in the street. So far he takes after his mother and lives in want. But, being also his father's son, he schemes to get for himself whatever is beautiful and good; he is bold and forward and strenuous, always devising tricks like a cunning huntsman; he yearns after knowledge and is full of resource and is a lover of wisdom all his life, a skilful magician, an alchemist, a true sophist. He is neither mortal nor immortal; but on one and the same day he will live and flourish (when things go well for him), and also meet his death; and then come to life again through the vigour that he inherits from his father. What he wins he always loses, and is neither rich nor poor, neither wise nor ignorant.

An account of Love is, loosely enough, what later commentators have called the 'picaresque novel,' i.e., a story of a man who travels much, who becomes involved in untoward events for singular reasons, and who 'distills' (as the book jacket in the case of Sender's novel puts it) an 'idiosyncratic' philosophy.

Yet Ramiro is a hangman: "He felt real gratitude toward me [the story's narrator] because I had offered him my hand, knowing that he was a hangman . . ."; and Love would do no less.

But why does a man become a hangman—these days? Or, better, how is it that a man—in whom love moves, or else he is not—arrives at that 'authority' which allows, as Ramiro's instructor does: "It is not that one is ashamed of one's work. Someone has to do it, and nowadays they don't mistreat the pobreto —poor wretch—as before, but dispatch him neatly and rapidly . . ." And is not this, also, a rather familiar 'man's world'?

Faced with a loyalty to this or that idea, he finds himself on either 'side,' on the one hand witness of the killing of men and women with whom he has sided, and, later, on the side of those who have killed them, at another like incident, where men are forced to jump into a well and then sticks of dynamite are thrown in after them.

On the way back Ramiro was thinking: "This is more cruel than what they did to Chino and Curro Cruz and the peasants of Benalup. And the Duke, the priests of my town, the mayor, the judges know it or take it for granted. Everyone knows it and no one does anything


about it." They returned in silence. It suddenly occurred to Ramiro that it had been a good thing for him to make himself responsible for all that. To accept the responsibility that everyone shunned. With his presence he was already responsible. He wanted to be even more so. The word responsibility rang out inside him in an urgent way and with tremendous force. It was an obsession.

Sender's method, in this book, is a constantly shifting character of 'reality,' i.e., of fable, of naturalistic detail—of the supposed 'real' put against the hyper- or also-real. And in the narrative occur other 'stories,' for example, of Lucia, who is in love with her sister's husband, whom she denounces, whereupon he is killed. Ramiro thinks:

"I would like to make myself responsible for all the crimes in the world," he muttered to himself. "But how?" Then he remembered Lucia naked amidst the snow and he found her appealing. He liked not only her body but the disorder of her mind. He really believed that she had denounced Joaquina's husband and yet he regarded her as innocent. "She got into the game," he said to himself, "and had to do what she did, and now she is paying for it."

When Ramiro was a little boy, his mother "told tales that made [him] cry with pain, and then she would tell everybody how tender-hearted [he] was . . ." What is the man who will witness, and thereby 'do' what all others imply, but will not do—as, for example, we all know that this or that has to be done, yet wait for someone to do it. Is that why we have armies, etc. At the close of the book Ramiro and the narrator are sitting in a cafe, talking. Noise is heard, outside. A fiesta of some kind seems to be starting.

"But why all this?" I [the narrator] repeated, sensing an immense scandal in it all.

"I don't know. In any case it concerns me alone. Don't you worry, it's only because of me. It apparently has nothing to do with you."

He was more afraid than I. He looked at the cars lined up, at the patient crowd, and said very nervously:

"There is no doubt about it. It is the end. This is the end. Or the beginning. Who knows?"

People are all around the cafe, the building; the two men are 'prisoners,' and then going out, Ramiro asks "questions to the right and left of him, but no one seemed to give a satisfactory answer."

The procession was formed. The bands continued playing. Ramiro started marching under the canopy . . .


So that is the end of it. Thinking of the first book, The Sphere —why will we not believe, or try to, until the mind itself is broken, breaks back, forcing the world to declare itself. Finally? Or at least 'occasionally.' And of the second, The Affable Hangman —the sacrifice we make is a witness, of course, to that act; and is our authority for it.


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