Discovering Miguel de Unamuno

by María L. Trigos-Gilbert

Miguel de Unamuno is the writer of the masterpiece called San Manuel Bueno, mártir, Saint Manuel Good Martyr; this is one of his best works. The life of Unamuno wasn’t easy since he was always crying out for acceptance in the Spanish world. Unamuno was a native of the Basque Country, and as a consequence this didn’t count in his favor. His language and his demeanor differed greatly with the Spaniards’, people from Spain. Nevertheless, he attended the best universities and studied Spanish as much as any educated Spanish speaking person would have done it in during those years (1865-1936) in the European country of Spain.


His work speaks for himself, and it speaks a language of excellence. The passion, that we see in his works, is tremendous. Mr. Unamuno is well known around the world, and in case you say, “How come I haven’t heard about him?” I would just say that it may has been a lack of choices at those times that you have had the possibilities of reading different authors from different countries. It is never too late when there is still time!

Lack of Faith; Good or Bad?
Unamuno is one of those writers who makes ourselves ask where does his fiction start, and where does his fiction end since there are moments that his work has been related to his own life, the life of Saint Manuel Good Martyr. It is also mandatory to say that Unamuno forms part of that famous ’98, 1898, Generation. This is a generation of chaos, confusion, in Spain during that time. Spain has been experiencing a huge crises which is generalized in the Spaniards’ society, government, economic, and military system. Saint Manuel Good Martyr touches all those aspects, except the military system. Yet Unamuno emphasizes the religious life that the Spaniards have been having for a long time in the Catholic religion.

Unamuno is almost challenging the Spaniards’ way of thinking as if he is saying, Let’s question our faith; do we really believe? Or are we just accepting what it has been taught to us? It is the constant battle within oneself that the religious people of Spain face. It is the constant debate within oneself: Should we take existence as matter of God’s work? Or as a matter of men’s invention? Those questions have been in the Spaniards’ mind for a long time, and perhaps in everyone’s mind around the world. Saint Manuel Good Martyr is the portrait of a self sacrifice, living in a society that has been made to believe no matter what. Mr. Manuel believes in God, but he has a very difficult time accepting paradise, an everlasting life after physical death.

Life After Death?
Mr. Manuel is a priest of the Catholic church; he is preaching to everybody, but he would not talk about life after death, and even more he tells them that there is just one life. This life is on earth. So they must make the best of it, hoping to live life as a huge dream with nightmares filtering in it. He is always busy, helping his town in all possible tasks. His life is a constant work after work, avoiding the thought of the so-called paradise or even the so-called hell. So Mr. Manuel makes of earth his forever promised land, eternity. He prays everything that the Catholic church prays, but “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and in the eternal life.”

Manuel’s Disciples
This lack of faith is driving him crazy, and about to give himself away, but his two best disciples, Angela Carballino and her brother Lázaro Carballino, practically save him from saying to all his church and town his deep feelings. He confides his thoughts and feelings to Lázaro, a young man who is not a religious person. Lázaro becomes a believer in God with Mr. Manuel’s teachings and talks; yet Mr. Manuel makes clear to Lázaro that he doesn’t think there is a paradise or hell. All those things are right here on earth as far as Mr. Manuel is concerned. He tells Lázaro to pretend his faith because he doesn’t want the people in the town to feel, think, or believe that there is not hell or paradise.

When Lázaro tells his sister, Angela, how he becomes a Christian, Angela is speechless. She has some sadness and bitterness toward such a conversion. Angela is the one who believes in God and all the Catholic church teaches, though she questions some of the teachings and beliefs.

Manuel’s Fragility
Angela and Lázaro don’t question or judge Mr. Manuel, their priest. Angela feels a deep compassion toward Mr. Manuel, and now understands the inexplicable sadness that draws his face at times, although he works his gestures pretty well in order to hold himself up in the religious world. For Mr. Manuel it is enough to say to his people the trust that he has what the Catholic Church professes.

He literally says, “To believe in the Catholic Church and its beliefs are enough, enough!” He shows an absolutist way of conducting his services and Catholic life, but deep inside he is fragile and extremely vulnerable to all those beliefs.

Blind Faith
Unamuno shows through the Spanish mind of Mr. Manuel, and that is the stubbornness toward progression, technology, and sciences besides the lack of freedom to question a church’s methods as if there is nothing beyond what has been established.

It could be said the fear of confronting something that one’s faith doesn’t or won’t explain, paralyses the possibility of using the time’s science and technology advancements. This is what Unamuno is trying to point out to the reader. Unamuno is telling Spain it is okay to question; it is okay to have different beliefs, and it is okay to use technology and science tools to get what we need. He is telling Spain to wake up and smell the coffee. Why would people have a blind faith? Why not to question? Why? Why not? Unamuno knows what is not to be accepted; he knows how it feels to be overlooked by the so-called important and religious people of Spain. This is why his work at times seems kind of personal.

A writer, whose name I do not remember, once said, “The matter of writing is a painful road. You end up being and meditating of those undesirable places and peoples that have been making your life’s collage. Yet you also get in touch with those good memories that some other people and places have left. The matter of writing is serious” I must admit that I am quoting this author whose name I have already forgotten because although he didn’t say every single thing as I wrote it, I am not the one with those thoughts and must respect his words. Yet I do agree with the author greatly, “The matter of writing is serious.” You may even remember the famous Robert Frost, “. . . the road less traveled . . . ” Yes, this is the writer’s work a bit spacious, but never so lonely.

Faked Faith
Mr. Manuel is like an existentialist Christian; he knows that he doesn’t have a way of proving his beliefs or the lack of them, nor does he have a way of proving them wrong. Yet it would be very nice for him to prove either one, but it won’t happen. Mr. Manuel the martyr drives many people in his town closer to God with a faked faith, but Lázaro knows his secret and becomes his partner in the task.

We would think that Lázaro should hate him for his lack of believing and his many sermons contradicting his thoughts. Yet it happens to the contrary; Lázaro thinks of him as a real good man, good saint, ” . . . Sister, he is a saint, a real saint . . . because his cause is a holy cause, super holy . . . for the peace, for the happiness, for the illusion if you would, of those that are charged to his care not a fraud.” That’s the plan that these two religious partners, Mr. Manuel and Lázaro, have to make people believe and keep their beliefs. This kind of confidentiality among these two crazy guys, if you would call them so, ties them forever, for all the remaining time of their lives.

Mr. Manuel grows older and each day is graver to him, to his rare faith and work. He dies and before he dies, he is sure to tell these two disciples of him, Lázaro and Angela, to please keep believing and if not FAKE IT. He tells Lázaro when he is dying with a very ill voice that there is not more than this earth. He thinks that he is Moses. Lázaro is Joshua, and he must try to do better than he has been doing, but must not expect too much out of nothing.

Uanmuno’s Universal Novel
I guess that by this time you are almost about to vomit. I feel the same way when I am reading Unamuno’s novel because I don’t conceive the idea of someone who chooses a faith demanding profession without the needed quality if we may name it “quality” the matter of having faith. Why would a person become a priest, a Catholic priest, if he doesn’t believe there is a paradise or a hell waiting for us after physical death? I don’t know, and I have found out that Unamuno’s work is pretty universal because what was thought to be a unique problem in Spain, seems to be an ubiquitous problem.

Spain: Yesterday and Today
Mr. Manuel may have become a Catholic priest because it is Spain’s main choice, a productive and an astounding choice of all times. We must recall a bit of Spain’s history: Spain in 1492 sent Christopher Columbus on a huge important voyage. He counts with the Spaniard queen’s and king’s money support and with the Catholic Church of Spain’s blessing. What do they do in order for the whole journey to turn out like a real success? They send Christopher Columbus with many priests on the three ships. Why would they do that? “Because if you are not a Catholic, you are ‘lost’.”

The Catholic church is managing Spain as much as the queen and king are in that time of Spain’s powers. They continue to manage Spain’s life, and it is pretty remarkable to be a priest plus it is profitable. Now, I guess that you may be saying that things haven’t changed, and that they don’t seem that way just in Spain. I live in the northeast side of the USA’s south side, and it seems to me there are many people who have God in their “hearts” like a money-maker. I do believe that God has money, and please don’t think that I am being disrespectful. I am just being sincere. God has money, but He is not like a Miss Universe coach, preparing a bunch of girls to go into competition against other.

Questioning the Title
The other question that comes to my mind is the name of Unamuno’s novel. Is Mr. Manuel a good man? Is Mr. Manuel a martyr? In my opinion he is not a bad man, but he is definitely not a martyr. A martyr is someone who suffers and dies for his cause. Mr. Manuel doesn’t die for his caused in the novel; he dies of old age as more likely most people die. I don’t like people who make themselves martyrs because they don’t seem to have a clear and an honest cause. You may have a problem with my previous thought, opinion, but at least I am trying to make my point across. He, Mr. Manuel, doesn’t have to pretend to believe; it is his choice. He doesn’t have to put such burden on Lázaro, nor on Angela, but he is about to scream to the whole town his lack of beliefs.

It is almost like running for the presidency of a country, knowing deep inside there are no solutions for the country. It is like offering a total healing to a terminally ill person when one knows that it won’t be possible. Mr. Manuel is running against all that progression means for Spain and its people. He is denying the fact of the unstoppable changes that Spain is going to face. Why would a person use religion to dispute reality? As he says in the novel, “Drugs, they want drugs.” Is religion a drug? It may be so if one doesn’t think for oneself as any other thing or subject may be in life, unless you ponder the so-called facts.

Why would Lázaro and Angela still respect the man, their teacher, when they find out that he doesn’t believe what he is preaching? The possible answer is that they also have many questions as Angela lets Mr. Manuel know. “Sinners, why are we sinners? Forgiveness, where and what is our sin?” Mr. Manuel never gives her a straight answer, but just says, “Angela, if you believe, keep believing. Pray for us, for Lázaro and me, pray for Jesus Christ.” Mr. Manuel thinks that even Jesus Christ needs all the prayers he may get from all those who really have faith in life after death. Lázaro and Angela have many debates in their minds, trying to believe all the time, although reality points something different. Here is the answer; they must show tenderness and understanding toward Mr. Manuel because he is not alone with his huge doubts.

To Believe or Not to Believe
Have you question your beliefs? I have done so, and I have done it many times plus I will keep doing it while I am on this earth. There seems to be things that make us doubt God’s existence as there are many other things that point the indubitable existence of God. Is it okay to question one’s faith? I do think that it is very healthy to do so; otherwise, you may ended up having a blind faith which is not helpful nor healthy. Since I came to the USA, I have gotten sick of seeing so many people with their bumper stickers saying how much Jesus loves them and loves me. Yet how come I feel that the majority are almost showing off?

Most women love to hear from time to time how much their husbands love them. Now, if you ask any of them, what they prefer, they will simply tell you, “I would love to feel it and see it a lot more than I would love to hear it, IF the words don’t match the sentences.” Are men different from women? Oh, yes, they are. I lived with an alien, a man, but as people say, “We don’t stand the thought of living without them, nor with them.”

Personal Faith
People don’t care how much one knows about religion. People want to know that you and I care, PERIOD! Mr. Manuel does a good job showing people that he cares. He lives doing all kinds of works for them, yet his only and huge mistake is to get involved in a demanding job that is related to faith and to the love of God.

At times I have had my doubts, and I must confess that I have kept them to myself. Why have I done such thing? Well, because it is not nice to tell everybody how thin my faith is at times. Have I kept preaching the Gospel to people in spite of my lack of faith? Yes, I have done so just as Mr. Manuel does in the novel. Have I told anyone about it? I am telling you! Yet there is a difference between me and Mr. Manuel; I believe in Hell as much as I believe in Paradise. That’s why I must behave well! I don’t know about you; I just should speak for myself. It is a personal matter between you and God.

Five Points of My Faith
I have a last question: Do you think that Mr. Manuel is going to Hell or to Paradise? Hum, good question, isn’t it? I will answer that according to the Catholic church beliefs.

A) You are not saved from Hell by good deeds, yet you are not going to Paradise, Heaven, without good deeds.

B) You are not saved if you don’t believe there is a God and that there are things which he has created for our sake and for a purpose on this earth.

C) You are saved by the Grace of God; you are not saved because of your good deeds, nor are you saved because you are an intelligent and sharp person.

D) If one really believes, he must confess God’s name among all human beings.

E) If one really believes, he/she will know there is a life after death, for good or for bad. Where is Mr. Manuel standing? We know that he doesn’t believe in life after death, physical death.

Conclusion
So, is Mr. Manuel going to Paradise? No, he is not! Am I having a legalistic point of view? Yes, I am. Do I have the right to say who is going to Heaven and who is not? No, I don’t have that right. Therefore?

Well, it is up to God who is getting in and who is not! I am pretty thankful toward God that I am not Him because I am not merciful as He is. I am not as good as He is. I guess that we are all thankful that our entrance into Heaven doesn’t depend on our friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, neighbors, or citizens. Yet, how come we feel that we are always put on the spot? People are quick to point to our mistakes, and we are quick to point to theirs. It is a never ending issue.

Now, although our entrance to Heaven doesn’t depend on someone’s acceptance toward us, I must say that our bad attitudes may keep someone from believing that there is a God, a Paradise, and a Hell. Should we watch our behavior? I think that we should not become so religious in order to have a good behavior. Yet I do think that we must have a relationship with God and a GOOD ONE! Otherwise, life feels more empty than it already feels. Am I preaching to you? YOU BET! Am I being pushing? No, I am not. I am just expressing my thoughts as you do from time to time. I know that to talk about faith is a touchy subject.

Our dear Unamuno knew that while alive, but it didn’t stop him from writing about it, and let me tell you it was pretty difficult to write about those issues in Spain because Spain is not well known for its acceptance of different religions or thoughts. Spaniards are more emotional and faith-driven than logical, if we may use that last term. Are they illogic people? I don’t think so. I just think that we all have our passions. We live and die for those passions, a matter of choice. Life is a constant choice!

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