In 1898, Spain lost its last colonies in the Spanish-American war and suffered a national identity crisis that might not seem entirely unfamiliar to people in Britain today. The generation of 1898 writers, of whom Unamuno is the towering figure, probed the reasons for that catastrophic loss, proposing a radical reinterpretation of Spanish values. A longtime rector of Salamanca University (although forced into exile during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera), Unamuno is Spain’s most famous philosopher. On his return to teaching, after six years in exile, he famously began his lecture, “As we were saying yesterday.”
‘Saint Manuel Bueno, Martyr’, is a short novella, the story of an exemplary priest, a man of Christlike kindness, revered by his parishioners as a living saint. But when a nonbeliever tries to find God by emulating Manuel, he discovers that the priest’s faith is a travesty, because he does not believe in the resurrection. Manuel simply sees religion as the best route to a good and contented life and so strives to make it available to others. Should he be deplored for acting in bad faith, then, or admired, for helping others to believe? The idea that someone might espouse religion while not believing in God is not altogether original, but it appealed to me in my heated early twenties, perhaps because my own father was a philosopher-priest who was often preoccupied by doubt. I lived in Salamanca for six months before going to university, and used to sit in the room where Unamuno once delivered his lectures.
First published as ‘San Manuel Bueno, mártir’, 1931, translation published by Aris and Phillips Hispanic Classics 2009