Abel Sanchez (Unamuno)

Abel Sanchez is a novel written in the beginning of the twentieth century by Miguel de Unamuno a Spanish author of Basque origin. I read the novel after reading “Viento del Sur,” from Ian Gibson, who claimed that the theme of this novel details a very common feature of the Spanish society: the role of envy. It was a remark that explained a lot to me — after five years in Spain — so I decided to read the novel. Unamuno previously wrote Mist (Niebla) in which the protagonist wants to commit suicide at the end of the novel, an action that is “impossible,” explained to him…

Abel Sanchez — a story of passion — has a similar style as Mist, but the relatively short story encompasses a whole lifetime and is written without too many details; a plain and ordinary story. At first sight. It is about the lives of Abel Sanchez and Joaquin Monegro, explicitly referring to the Abel-and-Cain parable of the bible. Both are friend from early childhood. On the first page the conflict is presented: he (Abel) is social, for which people feel sympathy outward going, living on the street and Joaquin is the “nerd” (in modern terminology), studying hard and antipathetic. The climax of the conflict as felt only by Joaquin is when Able seduces Helena. Joaquin was never able to draw her attention, but nevertheless he is jealous when Abel starts to see her (after asking her to model for him).

Joaquin’s “strategy in life” is to revenge and to develop himself as a successful physician and incredible skilled rhetorician. But although people value his rhetoric – in a scene where he reveals the real beauty of one of Abel’s paintings – he cannot compete with his rival who is not really a rival from Abel’s viewpoint: “medicine is also an art,” and very useful, but what matter is what people (society) value most.

This is one of the issues in the work to question the real value of the artist (The artist as creator as in the previous novel Mist) versus the work of the scientist and the role of reason. Joaquin senses that he should receive the honor for his contribution but only Abel is rewarded. Which makes Joaquin (more) jealous.

Another puzzle is whether Abel intentionally abducts Helena (explicitly referring to the Greek Helena, as in Spanish the H is not used, a comment I lent from Felix de Azua who introduced the novel) or that the envy of Joaquin is rational and reasonable. This is the main topic of the story and more profound and elaborated than the element of revenge, which is not really an issue (in my opinion).

The story is full of envy as events continue; Abel’s son becomes an apprentice of Joaquin. It then seems that the odds’ change as Abel’s son values Joaquin more than his father “who is only an egoist.” But as the story continues and both become grandfather, however Abel’s Grandson doesn’t like Joaquin at all and the story as well as Joaquin’s envy reaches a climax.

Readers who appreciated Mist will like this novel too. For me it was revealing to see how implicit knowledge about Spain becomes acknowledged: I really think that Unamuno was ahead of society and understood it well. Envy does play a role in every society but more than average in Spain it does; according to Unamuno, Envy is said to be the Leprosy of Spain.

But in Spain there is a lot of critic about this viewpoint. In his foreword, Felix de Azua minimizes the potential influence of the novel in understanding Spanish society. “He was a man who didn’t leave his room in Paris,” summarizes de Azua Unamuno’s stay in France showing that he resembled Joaquin more than Abel; “the story of passion,” is biased by his own envy. It is a story in black-and-white where Abel is white and Joaquin black (Mo-“Negro”?). An (other) interesting detail explained by de Azua, I didn’t notice myself was the following. The maiden-name of Helena was Puig, indicating a Catalonian origin and showing that: “Unamuno intention was to find a name that had the same symbolic suggestion as Abel; the cold, egoistic and esthetic Helena had to be Catalan.” Rivalry in Spain remains, whether or not based on envy. Evaluate for yourself… Or just read the novel as it is without all possible interpretations. A real beauty.