The second most famous Spanish author, after the progenitor of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, is Benito Perez Galdos, whose literary stature is generally acknowledged to be equal to that of Honore de Balzac, Emile Zola, or Dostoevsky. But Galdos is still a rare bird in English-language shelves. Those who know him probably get to him through Luis Bunuel’s idiosyncratic adaptations of “Nazarin,” Viridiana,” and “Tristana.” Galdos’ singular masterpiece, “Fortunata and Jacinta,” is Spain’s answer to “Anna Karenina,” and similarly lengthy, but didn’t even earn an English translation until the 1970s. To my knowledge, no translation exists of “Los Episodios Nacionales,” Galdos’ 40+ novels saga. TRISTE!
“Dona Perfecta,” from 1876, is considered a fine but minor novel, “transitional” because it does not fully embrace the stark realism for which Galdos would soon be known.
The plot is simple: Don Jose de Rey is a young engineer returning to Orbajosa, the native country that his aunt, Perfecta, rules with a steely kindness. Jose has plans to marry his cousin Rosarito, the Dona’s daughter. (It’s not as cringy as it sounds! Different times! Times when girls like Rosarito fainted in the arms of their suitors as soon as the chaperones looked away!)
The young ones fall in unimpeded love for one brief afternoon, but nothing as it seems in Orbajosa, a dreary land known only for exporting garlic cloves. The name, a Galdosian invention, is a joke: the villagers claim it derives from the Latin Urbs Augusta, “Great City”, but what it connotes to Spanish ears is more like “Weedy Patch.” The characters are symbols as much as they are characters, with names that drip unrealistic irony: who can be surprised when the titular Dona Perfecta, who everyone acclaims as being perfect, turns out to be otherwise? Or when the village priest, Don Inocencio, turns out to be full of cunning malice?
Don Jose makes the almost immediate mistake of opening his big city mouth and riling up the the condescending priest with a failure to appreciate the irrefutable greatness of the local cathedral. Before the week is over, town gossip has pegged the young engineer as a Libtard-Atheist-Protestant-Socialist Fat Cat sent by the Government from Madrid to destroy the lives of good Catholic country people. Small disagreements with his family turn more and more turbulent, until Don Jose can barely open his mouth without deeply aggrieving some villager or other.
The villagers, of course, smile to the young man’s face while prepping the pitchforks.
The ending is both surprising and inevitable. Traveler, if on a winter’s night you should find yourself among good country people, GET OUT.