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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Hive

Camilo José Cela

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To purchase The Hive

Title: The Hive
Author: Camilo José Cela
Genre: Novel
Written: 1950 (Eng. 2023)
Length: 278 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Hive - US
La colmena - US
The Hive - UK
The Hive - Canada
La ruche - France
Der Bienenkorb - Deutschland
L'alveare - Italia
La colmena - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Spanish title: La colmena
  • Translated by James Womack
  • Previously translated by J.M.Cohen, in consultation with Arturo Barea (1953)
  • The NYRB edition (2023) includes several Prefaces by the author

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Our Assessment:

B+ : (very many) slices-of-life, neatly presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
London Rev. of Books . 13/7/2023 Tim Parks
The New Republic* . 3/9/1990 Christopher Maurer
The NY Rev. of Books* . 8/10/1992 Sarah Kerr
The NY Times Book Rev.* . 27/9/1953 Saul Bellow
The NY Times Book Rev. . 25/6/2023 A.N.West
Sunday Times* . 5/7/1992 .
TLS . 31/3/2023 Z.J.Jawad

(* review of the earlier translation)

  From the Reviews:
  • "The narrative is divided into fragments a page or two long, each introducing new characters and new maladies. Rather than trying to help the reader get a grip on all this information, Cela makes things more difficult. (...) While the characters are fragile, even in their possession of selfhood, the author enjoys total control. (...) The difficulty of keeping up dissolves into comedy. (...) In any event, we can be grateful that James Womack has produced this excellent new version, the first English translation of the complete uncensored text, even if the idiomatic quality of the original dialogue -- for which Cela is celebrated in Spain -- has been lost." - Tim Parks, London Review of Books

  • "The tone is unrelentingly sober, and there is only an occasional glimpse of human kindness (.....) The interest of this book, which is more dated and less memorable than Pascual Duarte, lies in Cela's skill at showing the uncertain and unforeseen ways in which human lives touch one another, and in his tireless observation of the seamy side of urban life." - Christopher Maurer, The New Republic

  • "Tallying a schedule for any of the characters is difficult since chapters switch between morning and evening of both days and rereport incidents according to different witnesses. As the novel “progresses” every few pages see a new but identically sweet, duped prostitute or girlfriend, and it becomes hard to tell people, especially women, apart. Hints of a traditional plot appear with the murder of an old woman, but come to nothing. Instead, we get to overhear dull speeches on logic by the victim’s academician neighbor and talk next door of a little girl’s constipation. (...) With action broken into the smallest possible units for study, The Hive collects so many details that it threatens to become an abstraction." - Sarah Kerr, The New York Review of Books

  • "Cela does not ramble so much as he jumps. (...) All of this is rather abruptly and sketchily represented, it is forceful and it is bald." - Saul Bellow, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In place of plot, there are unresolved predicaments (.....) None of these stories, in fact, is meant to be resolved, and none is more than a pretext for Cela to pursue what really interests him: the scurrilous anecdote, the thumbnail sketch, the fancy lexeme dug out from some obscure source -- diffuse forms of rakish ingenuity. When the bits work, they dazzle, mingling schadenfreude and pathos in a way that simultaneously charms and repels (.....) The Hive is a novel as still life, its characters frozen in postures of penury." - Adrian Nathan West, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The book is largely taken up with dialogue, and a legion of minor characters swarm briefly in and out of focus in a realistically metropolitan fashion. The title is appropriate to this urban density, although readers might feel that it is unfair to bees." - Sunday Times

  • "Like a film director on a dolly gliding from one scene to another, Cela handles his cast of 300 characters with elegant ease. The Hive remains the most important novel about the “hunger years” after the Civil War." - Z.J.Jawad, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Hive is, indeed, abuzz with activity. The first in a planned series called 'Unknown Paths', it is all bustle, seven chapters made up of short sections of action and interaction, moving back and forth across literally hundreds of characters in 1943 Madrid. (In a Prefatory Note included with the new New York Review Books edition -- the first translation of the complete and uncensored text -- Cela writes that the novel's: "action takes place in Madrid, in 1942", but in the final pages there is mention of the recent Tehran Conference, which took place in late 1943, so surely it is the latter.)
       In another Prefatory Note Cela (parenthetically) notes that: "this is a book of history rather than a novel". It certainly looks more like a novel, or a collection of episodes, telling stories from everyday life, focused on the common man and full of casual conversation, rather than documentary-factual and focused on the political figures and events of the day. If a work of history, then it is so more in the sense of the German Zeitodukument, a picture of its times -- a very lively and busy one at that.
       There's little point in attempting any sort of summary: The Hive is not novel-like in its construction, with one or several larger stories seen through. Instead, there are many dozens of stories, and even more casual interactions and exchanges, with only the occasional sense of continuation, A leading to B leading to C. A brief episode which notes how thirteen-year-old Merceditas has been sold by her guardian: "for a hundred duros; she was bought by Don Francisco, the doctor who runs the clinic", chillingly closes with her telling the child: "all Don Francisco wants to do is play with you, and anyway, it's got to happen one day, don't you get it?" is more or less all there is to this and all that's said about the girl's fate (though Don Francisco does figure elsewhere in the novel as well), just one of the many scenes briefly illuminating one of the lost lives of those times but not delving into their stories any further. (This particular episode is one of those that was apparently not included in the original editions (or first English translation) of the novel.)
       There are a few stories of sorts that advance over the course of the novel, a few characters that are prominent and whom Cela returns to again and again, including that of impecunious would-be poet Martín Marco ("who looks out on the city like a sick and persecuted child"), who wanders in and out (and whom the authorities wind up hunting, though he remains blissfully unaware of that). The long first chapter is set in the café owned and run by Doña Rosa, and she is also one of the more recurring characters. The café is a favored meeting spot where many of the characters go in and out, but not the only establishment some frequent, as the novel does spread out through much of Madrid, by metro and by foot.
       The Spanish Civil War is over, and Spain is neutral during the World War that is tearing apart the rest of Europe. While the ongoing war elsewhere is noted in the novel, Cela's book is mostly inward-looking: there are few reverberations (or, indeed, foreigners) from the rest of Europe in the Madrid depicted here. Everything is very local -- down to lovely little asides suggesting some of the social issues in the air at the time: "Doña Visitación thinks that one of the most effective ways to raise the condition of the working class is for the Ladies' Institute to organize pinochle tournaments". Many women have turned to prostitution, but The Hive cuts across many social classes (and, for example, "Doña Rosa gets a little bit fatter every year, almost at the same rate her money piles up").
       There is a murder, and though several episodes address it quite suspensefully -- from the son not discovering the body to the neighbors wondering what happened -- but Cela shows little interest in following through even with this to a traditional sort of resolution. There is suicide, too -- comic-tragic (onions are involved), as is, in fact, much of the novel.
       The Hive is full of stories of lives and fates quickly summed up, as with Sonsoles:

When she was just married she was beautiful, plump, gleaming, a joy to look at, but now, in spite of the fact that she is still young, she is a wreck. Her ideas were all wrong; she thought that the streets of Madrid were paved with gold; she married a Madrileño and then, when there was no getting out of it, she realized she had made a mistake.
       The Hive is very much a novel of its times, depicting life -- lives, in all their multitude -- under those conditions, and also specific to its place, a novel of Madrid presenting it both hard and lovingly -- and where, for example:
     The night closes, at about half past one or two o'clock in the morning around the city's strange heart.
       The Hive doesn't offer the satisfactions of the usual novel, especially of much resembling a 'plot' (much less being able to keep track of most the characters). But the conversation-heavy episodes are well-crafted, evocative little glimpses of an amazingly large variety of characters, a huge serving of slices of life across just a few days -- and there is enough continuity and cohesion, enough overlap of characters, that it is more than just a thrown-together collection of scenes and encounters. One has to be open to Cela's approach, with its obvious limitations (and occasional frustrations), and if one is, The Hive is a rewarding and enjoyable read.

       Note that the new New York Review Books edition (2023), presenting James Womack's translation of the previously unavailable in English complete and uncensored text, does include quite few of Cela's prefaces to various editions but not any kind of outside (or translator's) Introduction or Afterword, as is almost always the case with NYRB editions of previously published texts. Certainly, the story of the uncensored text and some observations about it in relation to the previous one would have been welcome. The volume also might have benefited from at least a few foot- or end-notes -- some us can't tell our duros from our pesetas, or what the deal with the 1903 reforms was .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 9 February 2023

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The Hive: Reviews (* review of the earlier translation): Camilo José Cela: Other books by Camilo José Cela under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Camilo José Cela lived 1916 to 2002. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989.

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© 2023 the complete review

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