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The House of Ulloa: Caciquismo, or the (Timeless) Rotten Boroughs of Spain

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán,  trans. by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves  (Penguin Classics, 2013)
The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán,
trans. by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves (Penguin Classics, 2013)

Leire Barrera-Medrano

‘Everywhere, it is true, politics is a cloak for self-interest, hypocrisy and lack of principle’, wrote Spanish feminist and intellectual Emilia Pardo Bazán in The House of Ulloa (1886).[1] The book is a masterpiece of Spanish literature relatively unknown in England that portrays, with clever doses of irony and bald fact, the roots of local corruption in Spain. When Pardo Bazán wrote of the bad practice of politics being ‘everywhere,’ she chiefly meant Spain; and she would, I suspect, still mean it today. Although political corruption concerns every European country nowadays, it is particularly widespread among the Spanish governing classes. The European Union Anti-Corruption Report on Spain released last February highlighted the extreme culture of corruption in the Iberian country, noting that 63% of the public believe that they are directly affected by corruption, the highest figure in Europe and well above the 26% average.[2] Perception in this case agrees with reality: it is estimated that there are over 1,300 public officials in Spain who have faced or are facing charges of corruption, let alone those currently under investigation but not yet charged. It is hardly surprising that with almost six million people without a job, the two main concerns of Spanish public opinion are unemployment and the general economic situation; but right after that stands the political class, corruption and fraud.

what makes this novel truly timeless and helps us to comprehend the current events in Spain is its depiction of local politics and electoral fraud. The characters may be drawn from a hundred-year-old political milieu and the style highly parodic, but the methods and ends are alarmingly identical.

Penguin’s decision to reissue Pardo Bazán’s novel in August 2013 could not have been more fitting. It was that month that the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy faced charges of accepting illegal payments, and new corruption scandals seem to make the news almost every month, involving even the royalty: Spain’s Princess Cristina was questioned in court last February in connection with a corruption scandal involving her husband’s business dealings. But in spite of major cases like these that directly concern the central government, the vast majority of corruption in Spain lies in local government. Just one week ago, more than 50 prominent regional political figures were arrested suspected of involvement in a bid-rigging scheme. In fact, many experts consider that Spain’s real challenge is to find a way to overcome its public governance problem. Right after the end of the Franco regime in the 1970s the focus was on giving power to regional and local governments, to compensate for the systemic repression of national identities within Spain – Catalan, Basque and Gallician – during forty years of dictatorship. National administrative controls, however, were progressively weakened under the notion of necessary greater and unrestricted local autonomies. The law was ignored and checks negleted. As a result, many regional elected politicans wrongly assumed that they had unrestricted power to do as they saw fit. This current situation takes us back to late nineteenth century, when local corruption first expanded in Spain through caciquismo, a democratic system subverted by the power of local bosses (caciques) who successfully influenced the electoral process in their favour in a manner similar to the English eighteenth-century rotten boroughs. To better understand this process, Pardo Bazán’s The House of Ulloa constitutes an early and unrivaled fictional dissection of the historical origins of local corruption in Spain for an English readership.

The roots of corruption

Portrait of Emilia Pardo Bazán, Joaquín Vaamonde Cornide (1896). Wikipedia Commons.
Portrait of Emilia Pardo Bazán, Joaquín Vaamonde Cornide (1896). Wikipedia Commons.

The term cacique began to be commonly used in Spain in the 1870s. In the years between 1868 and 1874 Spain witnessed a Revolution that put an end to the monarchy of Queen Isabella II, a one-year provisional regency, a two-year rule of a new liberal king brought from Italy and a two-year Republic; in other words, profound political instability. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1874 under the moderate rule of Alfonso XII of Spain aimed to create a new political system that ensured stability by rotating the Liberal and Conservative parties in the government. This presumed stability, however, was only possible through electoral fraud, in which the caciques were used to manipulate national election results locally. The system created a feedback loop: the central government needed an assured majority in the chamber, for which they needed the support of the caciques in the local sphere, and the national representatives paid for that support with favours and recommendations, thus sustaining and reinforcing the figure of the cacique. As a result, resentment of the system increased over time, and prompted the appearance of important nationalist movements in Catalonia, Galicia and the Basque Country – which, as mentioned above, were repressed in the twentieth century during Franco’s dictatorship and reemerged during the democratic transition, with disputable consequences.

Social discomfort with such a corrupt system soon penetrated Spanish literature, and by the 1870s many Spanish writers were recurrently including the poor practice of the cacique in their works. The figure of the cacique was everywhere, known by everyone: in 1884 the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language (Real Academia Española) acknowledged the popularization of the figure by including the term in its dictionary. Later on, all major Spanish late nineteenth-century writers, including Benito Pérez Galdós, Pedro Antonio de Alarcón and Juan Valera, exposed and condemned the falseness of the system and reflected the increasing distance between the people and the ruling classes that caciquismo represented. But it was Emilia Pardo Bazán, in her masterpiece The House of Ulloa, who best reflected such reality, explaining the causes and consequences of the appearance of the cacique on the Spanish political scene.

The House of Ulloa is set in a rural town in Pardo Bazán’s native Galicia before and during the revolution of 1868. Pardo Bazán recounts the story of a degenerate aristrocratic family and delineates an unsurpassed portrait of Galician rural society in the midst of the liberal revolution, showing the ongoing conflict between social classes, the modern and the old, the city and country, the moral and the amoral. Perhaps more appealing for the English reader, she inaugurates a uniquely Spanish hybrid literary style, in which she blends political satire, tragedy, the gothic and the grotesque with what has been defined as ‘Catholic Naturalism’ or ‘Spanish Naturalism.’ Pardo Bazán was convinced of the necessity of modernising Spanish letters, which she attempted to do by bringing Zola’s naturalism to the Iberian country literature. She started an important literary controversy in which she championed a brand of naturalism that affirmed the free will of the individual and ending up adding, to this semi-imported style, more properly ‘Spanish’ hints of Catholic spirituality. This ‘Catholic Naturalism’ makes Pardo Bazán’s style one of the richest in Spanish fiction, but also difficult to translate. It displays an elaborate lexical range, from Galician colloquialisms to pathological terms, constantly insisting on detail and data. Despite these difficulties, Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves’ translation (originally from 1990) is much improved on the only other extant one from 1907. The Galician colloquialisms which Pardo Bazán mastered are sadly lost, but the elaborate and highly colourful style is still present. Language aside, what makes this novel truly timeless and helps us to comprehend the current events in Spain is its depiction of local politics and electoral fraud. The characters may be drawn from a hundred-year-old political milieu and the style highly parodic, but the methods and ends are alarmingly identical.

Fight with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya (ca. 1820-1823). Wikipedia Commons.
Fight with Cudgels, Francisco de Goya (ca. 1820-1823). Wikipedia Commons.

Pardo Bazán depicts the tricks and sophistries of two ruthless caciques in persuasively blunt language: ‘when Barbacana isn’t ruling over the district his place is taken by another cacique who is even worse –the one they called Trompeta, who swindles the poor peasants and sucks every drop of their blood.’[3] She condemned openly that these caciques did not hold authentic political views or ‘gave a hoot’ about the burning issues of the day in Spain, but that for reasons of expediency each one represented and upheld a party and a particular creed: ‘Barbacana, who, before the Revolution, had been a Moderate, now declared himself a Carlist. Trompeta, who had been a Unionist […], had now progressed to the extremes of victorious liberalism.’[4] She also offers a humorous yet shockingly accurate description of an election which, ‘with all its acrimonious suspicions, promises, recriminations, relentless toing and froing, letters flying here and there, makes life intolerable. Indeed, if it was not for the fact that it is soon over, it would surely kill those involved, through stress and total exhaustion.’[5]

Despite her aristocratic background, Pardo Bazán hardly held traditional political ideas. Sometimes classified as a conservative, Pardo Bazán was a paradoxical figure who typifies many women writers of the period as they tested the limits of traditional patriarchal society. She invoked her Catholic faith and traditional Spanish values as a shield against accusations of radicalism, while advocating education and other opportunities for women and actively participating in international feminist congresses. She managed to create an ironic and mocking style that openly denounced the traditional –and masculine— political tactics in Spain: ‘Ideas have no part in the game, only people, and the issues at stake are the meanest imaginable: petty grudges, personal enmities, miserly gains and primordial vanities.'[6]

 Escena parlamentaria en el Salón de Sesiones del Congreso de los Diputados, Eugenio Lucas Velazquez (ca. 1854-1855). Wikipedia Commons.

Escena parlamentaria en el Salón de Sesiones del Congreso de los Diputados, Eugenio Lucas Velazquez (ca. 1854-1855). Wikipedia Commons.

Alongside politics, Pardo Bazán also reprobated the existing corruption of the Spanish Church, which contributed to the prevalence of electoral fraud. In the book, various members of the church take advantage of their position and support a certain candidate with their dubious actions and tamperings. Pardo Bazán portrays the bigotry of a backwards church which rejected any novelty, more concerned with perpetuating its status than with helping the lower classes and addressing the nation’s burgeoning spiritual crisis. The book also foresees how critical the church’s increased involvement in political issues was to become, eventually dividing the country into two marked and irreconcilable bands – the liberal middle-classes and the conservative clerical and military establishment – that would later spark the civil war.

The House of Ulloa is a fine portrait of a particular period in Spanish history and an explanatory window offering a glimpse of its future; but, most of all, it serves as a mirror of that corrupt España Negra of the late nineteenth century in which some elements of contemporary Spain still insist on viewing themselves.[7]

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1 Emilia Pardo Bazán, The House of Ulloa, trans. by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 193.

2 The complete report can be viewed here: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/home-affairs/what-we-do/policies/organized-crime-and-human-trafficking/corruption/anti-corruption-report/docs/2014_acr_spain_chapter_en.pdf.

3 Emilia Pardo Bazán, The House of Ulloa, trans. by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves (London: Penguin, 2013), p.139.

4 These are all direct allusions to the following Spanish political parties: Moderate Party (1834-1874), Carlist Party (founded in 1833), Liberal Union (1858-1874) and Liberal-Conservative Party (1874-1931).

5 Emilia Pardo Bazán, The House of Ulloa, trans. by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 204.

6 Emilia Pardo Bazán, The House of Ulloa, trans. by Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 204.

7 España Negra, from the Spanish ‘Black Spain’: the recognition of Spanish identity in the horrible, in gloom and dark. The term was first coined and explicitly outlined by the Spanish artist Darío de Regoyos (1857-1913) and the Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916) in the collaborative work La España Negra (1899).

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