Tristana from Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is a subversive novel that takes a sly look at the power structure in the relationships of its three main characters: Don Lope, an aging, dissolute roué, his ‘ward,’ the beautiful Tristana, and the handsome, wealthy young man she falls in love with, a painter named Horacio. This is the sort of novel guaranteed to elicit a range of responses from its readers, and that would make this relatively short book, clocking in at just under 200 pages, a great choice for book groups who’d like to sink their teeth into complex characterisations and slippery morality.
When the book opens, one of the main characters Don Lope Garrido, now well past his prime, is living in “cheap plebian rooms, with, as noisy neighbors, a tavern, a café, a shop selling milk fresh from a goat, and a narrow inner courtyard with numbered rooms.” That wonderful quote creates a cacophony of sounds surrounding Don Lope as he emerges from his surroundings as a rather slippery character:
The first time I encountered this gentleman and observed his proud, soldierly bearing, like a figure in a Velázquez painting of one of Spain’s regiments in Flanders, I was informed that his name was Don Lope de Sosa, a name with more than a whiff of the theatre about it and worthy of a character in one of those short tales you find in books on rhetoric; and, that, indeed was the name given to him by some of his more unsavoury friends; he, however, answered to Don Lope Garrido. In time, I discovered that the name on his baptismal certificate was Don Juan López Garrido; so that sonorous Don Lope must have been his own invention, like a lovely ornament intended to embellish his person; and the name so suited the firm, noble lines of his lean face, his slim, erect body, his slightly hooked nose, his clear brow and lively eyes, his greying moustache and neat, provocative goatee beard, that he really could not have been called anything else. One had no alternative but to call him Don Lope.
Even though Don Lope Garrido (and the name is explained in the footnotes) is 57, it’s still possible to see this dapper aging womanizer as the dangerous threat he used to be. Some of the measures he takes to hang onto the shadow of his vigour are laughable.
The age of this excellent gentleman, in terms of the figure he gave whenever the subject came up, was a number as impossible to verify as the time on a broken clock, whose hands refuse to move. He had stuck fast at forty-nine, as if an instinctive terror of the number fifty had halted him on the much feared boundary of the half century.
He’s spent his lifetime pursing women while evading the consequences of his actions, but now living on an “ever-decreasing income,” he floats on his past glory as a supreme seducer of women with a manufactured morality “which, although it seemed to have sprung solely from him, was, in fact, an amalgamation in his mind of the ideas floating around in the metaphysical atmosphere of the age, like invisible bacteria.” The situation with Tristana is perfect for Don Lope. She’s beautiful, innocent enough to fall for his manipulative arguments and as his ward, she’s entirely dependent upon him.
Don Lope Garrido–just to whet your appetite–was a skilled strategist in the war of love and prided himself on having stormed more bastions of virtue and captured more strongholds of chastity that he had hairs on his head. True, he was somewhat spent now and not fit for very much, but he could never quite give up that saucy hobby of his, and whenever he passed a pretty woman, or even a plain one he would draw himself up and, albeit with no evil intentions, shot her a meaningful glance, more paternal than mischievous, as if to say: ‘You had a very narrow escape! Think yourself lucky you weren’t born twenty years earlier.’
So there, in a few quotes, is a lot of information about Don Lope, who, IMO is the main character of the book–in spite of the fact that its title is the name of Don Lope’s ‘ward’ Tristana. The term ‘ward’ is applied sarcastically as beautiful, young Tristana, who fell initially into Don Lope’s power through the poverty of her parents and Don Lope’s generosity, is her guardian’s mistress. Locals theorize that Tristana is Don Lope’s niece or even his daughter (“there were even some who claimed to have heard her say ‘papa’, just like one of those talking dolls”), but in time it becomes clear that “she was nothing […] an item of furniture or an article of clothing, with no one to dispute his ownership.” Tristana, who has a great deal more power than she realizes (or is able to exercise) is, however, the celestial body that the other two main characters, Don Lope and Horacio orbit. Too young and naïve to initially understand her vulnerability, she grasps her situation in her guardian’s home too late, and when she begins to put up resistance to Don Lope’s despotic power, he, a lifetime seducer of women, unscrupulously checkmates her at every point.
The domestic situation in Don Lope’s house is at once bizarre and pathological, and gradually as the story develops we see how Tristana was initially under Don Lope’s thumb and how she now chafes under his control. Don Lope, once the great seducer, entranced women with his words, his wiles and his caresses, but now he alternates various roles to keep his control on Tristana, his “last and, therefore, dearest trophy,” so in one moment, he sits her on his knee and fondles her, and in the next he’s her caring, but authoritative parent who sends her to her room. This leaves Tristana, who’s a neophyte when it comes to manipulation, always one step behind her aging lover/protector/guardian, and while she knows she’s being manipulated and used, she can’t ever quite challenge the various arguments that seasoned seducer Don Lope sends her way. As a result, her resentment and desire for freedom grows, and then she meets Horacio, a young painter who understands her plight….
There were so many ways this novel could have ended, but Benito Pérez Galdós delicately constructs the most subversive route to his story’s conclusion. There’s love and tragedy but there’s also irony, domestic comedy and the massive egos of two of the three main characters, and that’s as much of the plot as I’m prepared to discuss.
A section of the novel takes the form of an epistolary as mushy love letters pass back and forth between Tristana and Horacio. At this juncture the novel lost some of its momentum, and yet at the same time, these letters were essential to question the nature and authenticity of love while showing how the three characters inhabit necessary roles for each other. Tristana and Don Lope eventually become almost caricatures of themselves while Horacio, always a lesser player in the game, does not.
Balzac was an enormous influence on Galdós and you can see this in Tristana in the way the author gently dismantles the layers of his characters with each new event as jealousy, rivalry, and tragedy challenge the triangular relationship between Don Lope, Tristana and Horacio. In this parable of power, self-deceit and ego, who will emerge the victor? And what will victory look like? Don Lope, the seducer, Tristana, his victim, and Horacio the lover begin by inhabiting the lives stock characters, but as the tale continues and the layers of this tale unfold, Galdós does not let his reader make easy moral judgments.
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa. Review copy/own a copy