‘An Unbeliever’ by José Martínez Ruiz or Azorin: Short Story Analysis
‘An Unbeliever’ is a compact and straightforward short story penned by Spanish writer José Martínez Ruiz also known as Azorin. Azorin was a political radical of Spain and wrote short stories depicting Castile’s people and monuments’ lives. Castile was an old town in Spain. It is also a historical region of Spain. Its extension is often ascribed to the sum of Old Castile and New Castile regions, as they were formally defined in Spain’s 1833 territorial division. In Castile, Don Jenaro, the protagonist of this parabolic short story, has an experience that makes him a ‘believer’. This experience could have been coincidental or an unearthly act on the part of something. Don Jenaro is a nihilist. He mentions in the story that he believes in nothing, mostly nothing religious or superstitious.
Don Jenaro is an extreme form of an atheist or a complete nihilist with an amicable and non-cynical tendency. He mentions in the text that he does not:
- Expect anything from anyone.
- Desire anything from anyone.
- Fight for no cause.
- He does not believe in anything.
I read a book this year 2020 titled Seven Types of Atheism by John Gray, which talks about the various forms of atheisms. Don Jenaro’s atheism would be a mix of the fifth and fourth type. The fifth type would be atheism, similar to the writings of Marquis de Sade, with a combination of Don Jenaro’s radical views on politics, which he picked up from the modern political religion of his time in Spain, which would be the fourth type. Check out my review if you want to know more about the various kinds of atheism. By the way, I am a practicing Roman Catholic who is a nihilist. If you want to know more about my peculiar bookish life, please read my memoir Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. You can get it from my website or Amazon.
Don Jenaro does not believe in anything. When he is asked about his belief system, he mentions an incident in the life of a novelist, Eladio Pena. Now poor Pena was bitten by his dog, the very symbol of faithfulness gone askew. This incident so influenced Jenaro that he did not want to believe anything that this world had to offer because times were so bad that dogs were biting their masters. He repeated the incident to anyone in Madrid who asked him about his religious beliefs or belief in the supernatural. Even though we see the rise in theosophy and mesmerism in Jenaro’s part of the world during the nineteenth century, he still claims that he has no religious or superstitious beliefs precisely because no one could refute the point about the faithlessness of humanity. Whenever Jenaro would comment on the dog biting Pena, his questioners would leave him alone, because it is a fact that:
- Human beings deceive each other.
- They are not faithful to each other, even if they are in a serious relationship.
- Humans were not filled with gratitude for anyone, not even God.
- Life seemed to have gone mad rather than an opportunity to worship God.
- People were acting brutally and aggressively with each other.
- People were making the truth a lie and the lie a truth.
These are some of the main points given by Jenaro for why he believed in nothing (doesn’t this sound so familiar?). Jenaro felt it made no sense in believing in anything when life was full of strife. He even comments on the plus-points of mediocracy. He loves being mediocre because he has seen people with ideals strive for that they cannot achieve or cannot retain once they have completed their goals. So why bother in the first place? Live a comfortable enough life and live in righteousness. Jenaro lived a peaceful life in Madrid, Spain. However, because people were constantly questioning him about his beliefs, he shifted to Castile, where he had spent some part of his childhood. There he wears his gold watch chain, uses his old-fashioned smoking tools, and smokes his rolled-up cigarettes with abandon. He goes to the club, and everyone respects him there for who he is. The very fact that he could dress so well and go to a posh club regularly indicated that he was well off. His philosophy of life had worked for him. He was living life not as a hypocrite but as a true nihilist.
However, one day, all this changes when he comes across an undertaker’s shop on an untraveled path. Jenaro gets a wrong conception in his mind, which ignites his primitive abhorrence for coffins and undertakers or dead dealers. He stops traversing down that path. He makes it a point never to walk down that way ever. Even with his friends, he diverts from the track and never goes down that way. This is how obsessive-compulsive patients get their thoughts; the random negative thought spring to mind, and action with absolutely no relation to reality is performed by the person who got the idea. Such thoughts emerge from mostly primeval tendencies that we have in our genes. It is a gene-related abhorrence that humanity generally seems to have towards the dead, coffins, and people who deal with the dead. We see this common tendency in Jenaro as well.
But then something goes wrong. One day he makes it a point to go down that path. He stops mid-way because a mysterious force paralyzes him, and he retraces his steps. He emerges from this path to be greeted by a friend and servant who give him the startling news that his wife had a near-fatal accident. She would have died with her head being cut off at the exact time when Jenaro had been walking down that path. Luckily, she would survive but was injured. There are indications given in the text showing us that superstition would prevail where religion had failed in Jenaro’s case. This is because human beings need to believe in something; it takes a self-realized master to overcome this innate tendency of belief in human psychology. From that day, Jenaro believed in something, and so no longer wore his gold watch chain, stopped using his old-fashioned smoking instruments, and stopped smoking. He was a man of his word. Since he believed in something, he had no right to say he did not believe.
The story is modernist with a parabolic tendency, which is common among the European continent writers. The prose is like some of the famous nineteenth-century parabolic writers. The text also contains the impressionist viewpoints of Azorin about Castile monuments. Castile’s monuments seem to be symbolic of the fact that nations may come, and nations may go, buildings may come, and buildings may go. Still, emotions related to a place somehow get elusively or mysteriously crystallized in the area. Our feelings make up our beliefs and then our superstitions. This was brought out very poignantly by Azorin in this short story.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story for you. I have a vast collection of short stories, novels, and essays by Spanish writers in my office-cum-writing hut, which I will fish out to share on my blog.
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