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The Hive

The Hive

by Camilo José Cela, translated from the Spanish by James Womack

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The March 2023 selection of the NYRB Classics Book Club

The translator Anthony Kerrigan compared Camilo José Cela, the 1989 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Curzio Malaparte—all “ferocious writers, truculent, badly spoken, even foulmouthed.” However provocative and disturbing, Cela’s novels are also flat-out dazzling, their sentences as rigorous as they are riotous, lodging like knives in the reader’s mind. Cela called himself a proponent of “uglyism,” of “nothingism.” But he has the knack, to quote another critic, Américo Castro, of deploying those “nothings and lacks” to construct beauty.

The Hive is set over the course of a few days in the Madrid of 1943, not long after the end of the Spanish Civil War, when the regime of General Francisco Franco was at its most oppressive. The book includes more than three hundred characters whose comings and goings it tracks to hypnotic effect. Scabrous, scandalous, and profane, The Hive is a virtuosic group portrait of a wounded and sick society.

Additional Book Information

Series: NYRB Classics
ISBN: 9781681376158
Pages: 296
Publication Date:


Over three winter days, as Hitler’s forces falter on distant battlefields, Cela jump-cuts from scene to scene with cinematic brevity. Terse, urgent, agile, the narrative skips from life to life, mind to mind, with all the breakneck hurry of the urban crowd….For all its sadness, Cela’s laconic, swift-moving prose pushes forward with exhilarating energy.
—Boyd Tonkin, The Wall Street Journal

The Hive remains an inevitable monument in Spanish literature, an updated [Goya's] Disasters of War, whose vignettes revolve around the endurance of the Spanish character through the ravages of poverty and despotism.
—Adrian Nathan West, The New York Times Book Review

Three hundred characters in 260 pages. How do you possibly keep track of so many names, so much intrigue?….But the blurring of identity is in line with Cela’s reduction of human beings to a few basic needs….In this limbo between realism and absurdism the characters struggle for survival….It was more or less inevitable that such a negative vision of life in Madrid would be banned under Franco’s dictatorship.
—Tim Parks, London Review of Books

There is a secret slot for Cela at his best, as lone of the great prose stylists, plural, of Spain —a man dangerously like us.
—Roberto Bolaño

Cela is the Goya of Franco's Spain.
—Paul West

It is not to be wondered that the French censorship disapproves of Cela’s novels . . . his literary affiliations are of the most radical; they are with Camus and Sartre, with Moravia, with Zola and French naturalism.
—Saul Bellow

His best work . . . a carnivalesque reconstruction of the Spanish tradition, a nightmarish, surrealistic depiction of human endeavor.
—Julio Ortega

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