The Spanish writer Benito Perez Galdos has never made the same impact in English as, for example, the great French realist, Emile Zola. Tristana, translated by Margaret Jull Costa in 2014, is the latest in a small number of translations of his novels which have appeared sporadically over the years. The title character is a young woman who lives with the ageing lothario Don Lope, though, as the novel opens, neighbours seem uncertain about their relationship:

“For a period of about two or three months, it was held to be the gospel truth that the young lady was Dom Lope’s niece. The contrary view – that she was his daughter – took hold… After which another opinion blew in, according to which she was none other than Don Lope’s legal wife.”

None of the above are true: she is, in fact, the daughter of a friend, whom Don Lope has helped out of debt on more than one occasion. When both her parents die, she comes to love with him, an arrangement which makes her part servant, part mistress. That the novel begins with attempts to define Tristana according to her relationship with a man is interesting, however, as her desire to create an identity which is not reliant on such a relationship is one of her driving forces:

“She felt restless, ambitious, although for quite what she didn’t know, for something very far off, very high up, which her eyes could not see.”

Her life changes when she falls in love with a painter, Horacio, and they set out on a relationship of smuggled letters and secret meetings. Both are presented by Galdos as entirely confident in their love, and even when Tristana confesses her relationship with Don Lope to him, Horacio dismisses any idea it will influence his feelings:

“I love you as much as I did before, no, more, always more.”

Don Lope suspects that she has “found romance” and we see he is more than a two-dimensional villain as his feelings are one moment angry, caring the next. When he plays the role of her father and rails about defending her honour, she scornfully reminds him she has none – “because you took it away from me, you ruined me.” His anger fades and it is clear that she has hurt him:

“My child, how it wounds me to hear you judge me like that, in such absolute terms… The truth is…Yes, you’re right…”

It is the complexity of the characters which makes Tristana such a rewarding read. Tristana, even in the raptures of love, still determines to become independent:

“It seems to me now that if I had been taught drawing when I was a child, I would be able to paint now and live independently, and earn my own living from my honest labours.”

Don Lope’s maid, Saturna tells her there are only three careers open to women: marriage, the theatre and prostitution, but throughout the novel Tristana remains determined to discover other talents.

Horacio and Tristana’s love seems likely to survive even their separation when Horacio must leave for the country with his aunt. Their letters to each other, which conduct the narrative at this point, suggest the strength of their affection, though in often irritating language (“lovekins”?). Perhaps there are signs of more than geographical distance, however, in their separate pursuits: while Tristana learns English, Horacio becomes a farmer.

When Tristana falls seriously ill, we are made to realise that with no formal relationship, Horacio cannot see her. His absence while she suffers gives the appearance of callousness, while Don Lope, in contrast, is caring. The novel itself becomes as morally complex as its characters, though in retrospect this has been clear from the beginning:

“The conscience of this warrior of love was…capable of shining forth like a bright star, but on other occasions, it revealed itself to be as horrible arid as a dead planet.”

Tristana’s feelings, too, have never been entirely set against Don Lope:

“The strange thing is that if this man were to understand I cannot love him, if he were to erase the word ‘love’ from our relationship and we could relate to each other in a different way, then I could love him, yes, I could, though I’m not sure how…”

Tristana is a reminder that the black and white reality we sometimes imagine we live in is, in fact, many shades of grey. It is realist in the sense that it falsifies neither a happy nor a tragic ending, but leaves us with the moral muddle we must so often accept in life.

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6 Responses to “Tristana”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    I read this quite a few years ago. While I don’t remember specifics of the plot, I have a vivid recollection of it being very sad. I will have to reread this one. Thanks, Grant!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Great review, Grant. I’m so glad you enjoyed this one. Like Melissa, I can’t remember the specific details of the story, but I do recall it being somewhat subversive – in an interesting way, if that makes any kind of sense. I think you’re right about the complexity – not only in the construction of nuanced characters, but also in the nature of narrative itself.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have this, probably in part in response to Jacqui and I think possibly Guy Savage, but have yet to read it. It does sound very good. Satisfyingly psychologically complex.

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