The Mysteries of Barcelona

Posted by cdelano on October 26, 2011 in Cristina Delano, Guest Blog tagged with

Published the same year as Juan Martínez Villergas’s Los misterios de Madrid, José Nicasio Milà de Roca’s 1844 Los misterios de Barcelona offers a version of the misterio genre that is specific to the political and social concerns of Barcelona. Like Martínez Villergas, Milà de Roca sets his novel in the tumultuous 1830s, and explores the tensions caused by the Carlist War and the liberal conflict.  In the midst of this political turmoil, the novel’s central mystery unfolds: a Cuban orphan is dispossessed of her inheritance by her corrupt guardian, and seeks to recover her fortune and discover her true parentage. This mystery highlights the crucial connections between Barcelona and Spain’s Caribbean colonies. Los misterios de Barcelona is an inherently imperial text, and the fears it reveals have as much to do with Barcelona’s economic dependency on the colonies as they do with political instability on the Peninsula.

Milà de Roca employs the Gothic to represent the problematics of empire control when the metropolis struggles to maintain its own stability. The Gothic has always explored the uncanniness of the colonial, and represented “colonial settings, characters, and realities as frequent embodiments of the forbidding and frightening” (Paravisini-Geber 229). The colonial space, a “bifurcated, ambivalent space” (233), is a strange mix of the familiar and the foreign, and the inhabitants of these spaces also possess this ambivalence. Milà de Roca’s novel is populated by criollos, indianos, and mulatas, all figures of the colonial era that problematize Spain’s notions of national identity.

The novel begins with Carolina’s attempt to commit suicide by jumping into the sea. Carolina has been seduced an abandoned by Jorge Gollo, a handsome young criollo (a Spaniard born in the colonies). Carolina is the daughter of a wealthy Cuban plantation owner, Pedro Palmas and his slave, Encarnación. Palmas recognizes his daughter in his will and provides her with an inheritance. After Palmas’s death, his trusted friend Juan Bardisa becomes Carolina’s guardian. However, Juan Bardisa soon dies, and Francisco Piló usurps Carolina’s fortune for himself. Piló returns to Barcelona with Carolina, and delivers her to José Bardisa, telling him she is Juan’s daughter. Carolina is raised by her corrupt “uncle” and her true identity is hidden by Piló’s lies. The presence of Carolina becomes for Piló the specter of his guilt, and he resolves to permanently rid himself of Carolina. Piló pays Jorge Gollo to seduce and abandon Carolina, and in so doing he destroys her honor and provokes her suicide attempt. Carolina is ignorant of her true origins, and the novel becomes a quest to discover her identity and recover her fortune. Various members of Barcelona’s alta burguesía help Carolina discover her origins, including an attorney, Beltrán, who she marries by the end of the novel. In Borrowed Words, Elisa Martí-López aptly demonstrates how Carolina represents colonial capital that must be controlled and legitimized by Barcelona’s ruling classes (110).

The principal threat to the Barcelona bourgeosie’s control of colonial wealth and to the concept of a culturally unified nation are the colonists. Both criollos and indianos (native-born Spaniards who had lived in the Americas) were unstable figures in the Spanish imaginary. Indeed, George Mariscal has noted that the indiano “was invented through writing” (59) because he presented such confounding notions of otherness. In the early modern period, the indiano represented a radical break with the traditional economic and social structure:“As a product of contact with the colonies and thus one of the first transatlantic constructs, the indiano would be textualized through a complex semiotic field of difference […]. In effect, although the majority of indianos were native-born Spaniards, aristocratic writers would consistently represent them as “ethnically other” (Mariscal 56). The otherness of the indiano extended to the categorization of his behavior and moral fiber. An indiano was morally suspect, cast as an interloper or threat to the social body (55-56).

The representation of Jorge Gollo mirrors that of the indiano. The son of a wealthy Havana landowner, Jorge has been sent to Barcelona to continue his law studies. He is extremely charming and intelligent: Jorge is gifted “with this strange and precious understanding that nature has gifted to the sons to the Antillies” (Milà de Roca 142).  But this charm is deceptive, and allows Gollo to seduce Carolina and other vulnerable women. Despite his charm, Gollo has a darker side, and is also a “libertine and a gambler” (142). He soon accumulates gambling debts, and to settle them, he resorts to a life of crime. He begins by falsifying letters, and soon he joins a group of criminals, and together they “know how to wear all the right clothes, they adopt all the characteristics, disguise their faces and change their voices” (145). Gollo’s Jekyll-and Hyde-like nature is the double character of the Gothic villain, who embodies both familiarity and otherness.

The threat of Gollo to Barcelona’s women is also a threat Cannon Schmitt has proposed that “threatened femininity is central to the Gothic precisely for its function as a crucial but contested site in discourses of identity, chief among them the discourse of the nation […] victimized womanhood embodies the nationalist narrative in miniature” (11). Schmitt reads the Gothic mode in the English context as essential to the concept of nationhood in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century England. By presenting models of Continental depravity and corruption, the Gothic novelists of England created a binary system in which moral and good “Englishness” could be defined. The portrayal of pure women tends to embody the ideals of the English nation, which was also under the threat of corrupters and violence. The English Gothic’s portrayal of Inquisitorial dungeons and corrupt priests served to “give shape to an irrational, sexually predatory, un-English Continental manhood” (Schmitt 17). The un-English man is the principal threat to the English woman. In Los misterios de Barcelona, Milà de Roca avails himself of a litany of criollo stereotypes to describe Jorge Gollo: uncommon charm and grace coupled with licentiousness and greed. Jorge’s representation as a handsome seducer reflects the Gothic’s tendency to sexualize national difference (Schmitt 83). Unlike the chaste and responsible Beltrán, Jorge’s lasciviousness and gambling point to a lack of reason and control. Gollo’s actions nearly resulted in Carolina’s death, or symbolically, the loss of Spanish control of colonial wealth. Milà’s portrayal of Jorge as the wanton criollo ultimately paints him as un-Spanish, and suggests the impossibility of incorporating criollos into Spanish society. They instead belong to the third space of the colony, which is where Jorge Gollo returns at the end of the novel.

Michael Iarocci has proposed that we must read Spanish literature of the nineteenth century through the lens its imperial identity; despite the fact that by the mid-1800s Spain had lost most of its colonies, it still considered itself to be an imperial power, and even expected for a time that the new Latin American nations would be short lived and would soon be reincorporated into the empire. Spain’s vanishing empire and struggle to create a national identity are both inscribed in its uneven transition into the modern age. Milà de Roca’s Gothic criollo seducer must be expelled from the nation to guarantee the economic and hegemonic survival of Barcelona’s bourgeoisie.

Works Cited

Iarocci, Michael. Properties of Modernity: Romantic Spain, Modern Europe, and the Legacies of Empire. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2006.

Mariscal, George. “The Figure of the indiano in Early Modern Spanish Culture.” Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies 2.1 (2001): 55-68.

Martí-López, Elisa. Borrowed Words: Translation, Imitation, and the Making of the Nineteenth-Century Novel in Spain. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 2002.

Milà de Roca, José Nicasio. Los misterios de Barcelona. Barcelona: Imprenta y LibreríaEspañola y Estranjera, 1844.

Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth. “Colonial and Postcolonial Gothic: The Caribbean.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. 229-258.

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