‘The Novel on a Tram’ by Benito Pérez Galdós, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Gladós is the Spanish Dickens, a nineteenth-century writer of substantial, satisfying realist novels,the most famous being Fortunata y Jacinta. As a student in Madrid, I devoured this novel, especially a passage which showed Fortunata, a poor woman who suffers at the hands of a series of exploitative men, walking back to her lodgings in Chueca, a rundown area of Madrid. The narrative followed her all the way to my barrio – we were living in the same street! More than a century later, Chueca was still a dodgy part of town and the centre of Madrid’s sex trade. These days it’s very fashionable. Although he was a nineteenth-century novelist, Galdós had distinctly modern traits, and three of his books were brought to the screen by the surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel. ‘The Novel on the Tram’ (1871) is, in its turn, inspired by Don Quixote. Its protagonist is travelling across Madrid by tram, carrying a parcel of books. He encounters a friend who passes on some gossip about a Countess whose unkind and jealous husband suspects her of having an affair, and whose butler is blackmailing her. After his friend has got off the tram, the narrator falls into a kind of delirium in which he imagines that different people getting on and off the tram are characters from involved in this scandal. Apart from being an entertaining story, ‘The Novel on the Tram’ is a kind of paean to public transport:  

…a tram contains a miniature world of passions. We judge many of those we see there to be excellent people, we like their looks and are even saddened when they leave. Then there are those who, on the contrary, we loathe on sight: we hate them for ten minutes, rather rancorously examine their phrenological character, and feel real pleasure when they leave. And meanwhile, the tram, that imitation of human life, keeps moving, constantly receiving and letting go, uniform, tireless, majestic, indifferent to what is going on inside, entirely unstirred by the barely repressed emotions of that dumbshow, always travelling along those two endless parallel steel lines, as long and slippery as the centuries.

First published as La novela en el tranvía, translation in Madrid Tales, edited by Helen Constantine, Oxford University Press, 2012. Also available online, including in a translation by Michael Wooff at the Gutenberg Project)

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