Review: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas

I received a review copy of this title from the New York Review of Books via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 1890 and this English version has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

My Review:
Bonifacio Reyes has spent his whole life carrying out the commands that others have bestowed on him.  When he is a young man he is coaxed into eloping with Emma Valcárcel , the spoiled only child of Don Diego Valcárcel, a prominent lawyer in what Alas describes as a “third-rate provincial capital.”  When the couple’s plans are thwarted and they are captured , Emma is confined to a convent and Bonifacio is banished to Mexico where he will live a sad and lonely existence for the rest of his life.  Or so he thought.

When Emma’s father dies she is finally released from the convent and as her father’s sole heir, she lives a comfortable and pampered life.  Despite the time that has passed, Emma continues to pine away for her beloved Bonifacio but in order to avoid a town scandal, she wants a different husband first before she marries Bonifacio.  Emma manages to capture a sickly husband who doesn’t last very long, and once she is done playing the role of mournful widow, she has her family track Bonifacio down in Mexico where he is working for a newspaper.  Bonifacio is easily lured back to Spain where, within three months, he becomes the kept husband of Emma.

Alas slowly unravels Emma’s dark side throughout the novel.  Emma declares very early on that the honeymoon is over but she keeps her handsome Bonifacio around her, dressed in the finest clothes, to show him off to the rest of the provincial town whenever it is convenient.  Bonifacio spends most of the day playing a flute which he finds among his deceased father-in-law’s old papers.  The couple appears to settle into a comfortable, yet affectionless, existence together:

Emma never asked him about his interests nor about the time they filled, which was most of the day. She demanded only that he be smartly dressed when they went out walking or visiting. “Her” Bonifacio was merely an adornment, entirely hollow and empty inside, but useful as a way of provoking the envy of many of the town’s society ladies. She showed off her husband, for whom she bought fine clothes, which he wore well, and reserved the right to present him as a good, simple soul.

The turning point that really sours their marriage is a miscarriage that Emma suffers which affects her health and prematurely ages her.  After this distressful brush with death, Emma becomes an unbearable tyrant and unleashes all of her frustrations and abuses on Bonifacio.  Alas’ story reads like a tragicomedy in which neither partner in the marriage is happy but neither party can be without the other.  Bonifacio is on call in the evenings so that he can rub unguents and lotions on his wife’s sickly body and while he does these and other demeaning tasks for her she hurls abuses and insults at him.  The most awful part of this for Bonifacio is not the name-calling or even the completion of these tasks, but the sheer noise that Emma raises when Bonifacio is carrying out his duties.  Bonifacio craves, more than anything in life, to have peace and quiet in his house.  Whenever Emma calls his name, the poor man shutters:

Telling Bonifacio off became her one consolation; she could not do without his attentions nor, equally, without rewarding him with shrill, rough words.  What doubt could there be that her Bonifacio was born to put up with and to care for her.

Bonifacio, who prides himself on his appreciation for music and the arts, finds a second home at the local theater where a troupe of second rate opera singers have temporarily set up shop. Bonifacio finds the peace and quiet he so craves among the opera singers who view him, at first, as a cash cow and as a sucker that will pay for their expensive dinners.  Bonifacio gets into a couple of touch spots trying to get money out of his wife’s uncle, who serves as the family accountant.  Bonifacio quickly realizes that the best way to get into the heart and the bed of Serafina is to give her partner Mochi money whenever he asks.  Bonifacio engages in a passionate and sensual love affair with Serafina and he carefully keeps his musician friends away from his home and his wife.

At this point in the story Alas ramps up the comedy as Bonifacio and Emma engage in an elaborate game of cat and mouse.  Emma has gradually been recovering her health and is only pretending to be an invalid.  One night when Bonifacio comes home from the theater smelling of rice powder, Emma suspects that he is having an affair.  But instead of screaming and yelling at her husband, she seduces him and for the first time in years they start having sex again.  The sex, though, becomes, like Emma’s character, a bit crazy and depraved.   Emma admits that she has been hatching a maniacal plan to bring down both her adulterous husband and her accountant uncle who she believes is stealing from her:.

The first part of her plan is carried out when Emma insists on going to the theater and meeting Bonifacio’s music friends with whom he has been spending so much time.   But while at the theater, Emma is herself smitten with one of the opera singers, a baritone named Minghetti.  Emma and Minghetti flirt shamelessly with one another and arrange to see each other on a regular basis when Minghetti offers piano lessons to Emma.  This is where the story reaches its pinnacle of farce as Emma and her lover carry on right under Bonifacio’s nose.

It is also at this point that Emma finds out that she is pregnant.  Bonifacio becomes maudlin and sentimental over the fact that he will now have a son and promises to changes his ways.  He swears he will take more financial responsibility for his family and he gives up Serafina as his lover.  Bonifacio’s final act of absurdity is his refusal to believe that anyone besides himself is the father of Emma’s baby.  The novel concludes with this one statement that Alas puts in the mouth of his unheroic hero which deftly mixes the tragic and the comic: “Bonifacio Reyes believes absolutely that Antonio Reyes y Valcarcel is his son.  His only son, you understand, his only son!”

 

About the Author:
LEOPOLDO ALAS (1852–1901) was the son of a government official, born in Zamora, Spain. He attended the University of Oviedo and the University of Madrid, receiving a doctorate in law. A novelist and writer of short stories who adopted the pseudonym Clarín (Bugle), Alas was one of Spain’s most influential literary critics. He became a professor of law at the University of Oviedo in 1883 and published his first and best-known novel, La Regenta, in 1884; his second novel, Suúnico hijo (His Only Son), was published in 1890. He died in Oviedo at the age of forty-nine.