I just finished my fourth book in the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017. Our Friend Manso by Benito Pérez Galdos was originally published in 1882 in Spain (translated by Robert Russell), and falls under the category of a classic in translation.
This is my third Galdos title and my favorite of the three I’ve read. I reviewed Doña Perfecta, and Fortunata and Jacinta previously. My friend Silvia has long praised the literary merit of Galdos and it was she who introduced me to the great Spanish author. If you’ve not met him you are missing out! I don’t pretend to understand all the ins and outs of literary criticism or how to analyze the finer details of a book. I take a simpler approach. Either I like it or I don’t! Our Friend Manso is a definite like.
Maximo Manso is the narrator of the story. He is thirty-five years old when the story that spans about fifteen years begins. He is a professor in a prestigious preparatory school in Madrid, a man who is ruled by methods which rules and orders his “actions and movements with a solemnity which is something akin to the laws of astronomy.” In other words, he is a man of habits in both thought and action. He is quite satisfied with the rhythm of his life.
Unfortunately, life happens, and as others enter his life the quiet, ordered life he thrives on undergoes changes; some good, some not so much.
He develops a friendship with his neighbor Doña Javiera and she asks him if he will take on the task of educating her son Manuel Peña who in her estimation has become a perfect rascal … “He’s made of good stuff, no doubt of that, the kindest lad in the world, and a heart of gold … But not a soul on earth can get him to study.”
Manso and Manuel spend time together studying in the mornings, taking walks in the afternoon. Manuel flourishes under Manso’s tutelage. And Manso enjoys the positive changes he sees in his “disciple,” how his rebelliousness and willfulness is being won over by Manso’s influence.
But there is also Manso’s “gadfly or mosquito,” Doña Candida, a widow, “who often interrupted the peace of my studious pursuits with her visits, and sucked the blood – coin, that’s to say – from my pockets, not without first having buzzed me and bored me with unbearable chatter and a sharp stinger.” His usual nickname for her is Caligula, after the ruthless Roman emperor. The only reason she has a place in his life is because when his mother was living she showed some kindness towards her.
Irene, who is twelve years old when she first enters Manso’s life is the orphaned niece of Doña Candida’s husband and who is being raised by her. She is painted as quite a pathetic little creature; having an anxious glance, malnourished, and very shy. He always gives her sweets when she comes on errands for her aunt, usually to extract money from him. He enlarges her life through books and kindnesses as well, and we see her grow up into a lovely young lady.
And there’s Manso’s brother José who returns from Cuba where he has lived for twenty years along with his wife, her sister, her mother, their three young children, a young Black boy about fourteen years old, and a girl of mixed race. The return of his brother brings much upheaval into Manso’s life; so much so that he confesses, he was “unable, yes, unable to forgive Christopher Columbus for having discovered the New World.”
The titles of the chapters are often quite interesting. He will often end one chapter with a thought or question and answer it with the title of the next chapter. A few of the sentences at the ends of some chapters end with a comma or colon, to be continued…
Chapter IX, last sentence,
“You’ve got to find me a governess, and quickly too!”
Chapter X, title,
INSTANTLY I THOUGHT OF IRENE
Chapter XV last sentence, ending with a colon,
Without even hearing her reply to my initial greeting, I asked her:
Chapter XVI, title,
“WHAT WERE YOU READING LAST NIGHT?”
I found this to be quite fun and don’t know that I’ve seen that done very often by other authors.
The story is full of humor and sarcasm. Many times I laughed out loud, and as usual when I am thoroughly enjoying a book, I begged members of my family to please let me read them a passage. And mostly they complied. I have no doubt that if you pick this one up you will feel the same.
Our Friend Manso is a perfect introduction to Benito Perez Galdos for English readers. It’s not too long, not too short, but rather it’s just right!
I only wish there were more works of Galdos translated into English!