El ángel de Sodoma
utterly confused category”: Michel Foucault’s memorable phrase sums
up the fortunes of sodomy as a juridical category, the paramount role
played in the West. But it also suggests the productive
role that sodomy has played and can play as a site of
pleasures that are also refusals of normative categories. It suggests
an impetus for reclaiming
Generally referred to as one of the first Hispanic novels to explicitly deal with homosexuality,(1) it is not surprising that, given the topic, Alfonso Hernández Catá’s El ángel de Sodoma was virtually ignored by traditional criticism.(2) More puzzling, however, is the fact that it remains so within the growing and fruitful field of queer studies. Indeed, although often mentioned in passing, El ángel de Sodoma is conspicuously absent from almost every collective volume published on gender and sexuality in Hispanic literature in the last decade,(3) and has been the object of only two recent articles by Juan Carlos Galdo and Emilio Bejel.(4) A possible explanation for this near silence may reside in the critical perception that it is, in fact, a homophobic novel. In turn, such an assessment may be due to the circumstances surrounding (literally) the second edition of the novel rather than to the novel itself.
First published in 1928, El ángel de Sodoma saw a second edition only a year later, this time featuring two important additions, a prologue and an epilogue, written by two prominent figures at the time, Gregorio Marañón, a doctor, and Luis Jiménez de Asúa, a lawyer. The mere fact that a second edition was published so soon speaks of the relative success of Catá’s novel. This is reinforced by the addition of the framing texts, as if a successful novel on homosexuality had to be properly controlled in its meaning, its readers properly guided in their interpretation, making sure that, as Galdo observes, “el lector entienda correctamente el mensaje que se formula” (29). This was, indeed, the explicit intention of Marañón’s prologue, which, as Bejel notices, is insistent on the need to contain “conceptual dissemination” (“Positivist” 66). For the Spanish physician, “todo libro de investigación o de divulgación, lanzado al público, corre el peligro de convertirse, en muchas manos impreparadas, en un libro de pornografía” (34). If this is the case of scientific texts, “¿cuál no será la magnitud del peligro en los libros literarios, en los que el tema se despoja de la disciplina investigadora y en los que el ámbito de los lectores no tiene ninguna limitación?” (35; my italics).
The issue of authority is at the core of Marañón’s essay and it could be argued, as Bejel does, that Marañón wants to challenge the authority of artistic discourse in favor of that of science: “he weaves a strategy whose objective is to assimilate or hinder the artistic or literary discourse, which also establishes itself at that time as a device of considerable authority” (67). Jiménez de Asúa, for his part, is less explicit about the dangers of literary texts and readily acknowledges his lack of authority in the literary sphere. Nonetheless, he claims to have “afanes de lector vigilante” (239). Vigilant indeed, he proceeds to explain how the novel must be understood, despite having said that his is not “una crónica de crítica literaria” (239). Both Marañón and Jiménez de Asúa extol the merits of the book and its author, but behind the open praise there is a barely veiled anxiety about the very nature of the literary text, its authority and its openness to interpretation; therefore, both must be curtailed by the joint effort of doctor and lawyer. Considering the way the novel has been read ever since, their effort paid off. Despite understanding the framing texts as repressive, literary critics have interpreted the novel precisely as Marañón and Asúa intended, reading it as a mere vehicle for the scientific and nationalistic homophobic views put forth in their essays. This reading presents us with a paradox: if the novel was so in tune with Marañón and Asúa’s views, why did it need such a repressive frame in the first place? Rushing through the text, critics have read the tragic end of the protagonist as final proof of the text’s repressive stance. Instead, I propose reading it under a different, less punitive light. El ángel de Sodoma does follow a tragic mode but, as Gregory Woods argues, “it is possible to conceive of a strongly committed literature which makes use of tragedy to argue for, not some bland New Age Arcadia of argument- and dysfunction-free love, but for the maturely rigorous freedom to fuck up one’s own life without the interference of envious homophobes” (285).(5) Choosing to open, rather than close the text to alternative readings may yet prove to be a more productive enterprise and, certainly, a less repressive one.
In this essay, then, I propose to read El ángel de Sodoma not in order “to know how the novel tries to adapt itself to Marañón and Jiménez de Asua’s ideas” (“Positivist” 72), (6) but rather in order to uncover what it is they found so dangerous in Hernández-Catá’s novel that they saw it necessary to constrain it both figuratively, controlling its meaning, and physically, surrounding the materiality of its text with their own. (7) Rather than a homophobic and staunchly nationalist text obsessed with punishment and exclusion, as it has been presented thus far, the novel is, I will argue, a highly polysemic narrative in line with other modernista novels, a text that rather than casting the homosexual as a danger for the health of the (Hispanic) nation, (8) compels us to question concepts of gender and sexuality, and to reject notions of community and nation based on homogeneity, seclusion, and stagnant myths of the past. Weaving and probing religion, science, and the law, the three pillars of sexual and national exclusions, El ángel de Sodoma deals from the start with the concept of justice and requires its readers to take an ethical stance regarding sexuality, nation, and difference.
Coming Out of the Town’s Closet
The narrative structure of El ángel de Sodoma follows quite closely that of other modernista novels. Loosely related to Huysmans’ À rebours and Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (which is explicitly cited in this text), the novel begins by presenting the decomposition of a family, the Vélez-Gomara. As in other modernista novels, but unlike Huysmans’, the protagonist, José María, is the only member of his family who has managed to avoid this moral decay and whose life becomes the object of the narrative. A seemingly simple story, the narrative reveals itself to be far more complex. (9)
When the laborious and caring mother suddenly
frivolous, abusive, and alcoholic father, don
Aun cuando el tutor fuera el capitán Bermúdez Gil, puede decirse sin hipérbole que el consejo de familia lo constituyó la ciudad entera. Bastaba que cualquiera hallase en la calle a los huerfanitos para que, olvidando sus faltas individuales, ensombreciese el semblante y dijese agitando el índice a modo de bastón presto a agrandarse para el castigo:
- Es preciso ser serios y andar más derechos que velas ¿eh? El nombre de vuestro padre y lo que ha hecho por vosotros, lo exige. ¡Y si no!...
Sin esta amenaza difusa y sin la admiración que el fin del padre y su incomprensible lección heroica añadía a los blasones deslustrados, habrían sido por completo felices. (59-60; my italics)
What becomes clear early on is the moral double standard that governs the town, ready to scold and punish the children, while ignoring its own moral shortcomings. The narrator seamlessly weaves the symbolic and the literal in order to expose the terrible irony of the situation. After his death, the squandering father is transformed by the town into an almost totemic mythical figure of authority, a phallic source of a law that is channeled through the town’s pointing “finger,” like a “stick ready to swell.” The weight of the mythical God-like figure is such that the children are eventually unable to recall their father as anything other than the image constructed by the town: (10)
Esa frecuente recordación de la heroicidad, de la excepcionalidad paterna, deformando el recuerdo real, creaba del muerto y de sus deberes para con él una imagen solemne, exigente, adusta casi, que constituía la única sombra proyectada contra sus vidas. Apenas si podían reconstruir ya la imagen física del suicida y el alma, en cambio, tomaba la figura de un misterioso acreedor vengativo a quien habían de pagar en dolorosa moneda. (66-67; my italics)
Because of the town/father’s “diffuse” panoptic presence, the Vélez-Gomara children live in a constant state of threat from “las tentativas de tiranía por parte de varios conocidos y de la asistenta; de abuso por parte de los comerciantes; de intromisión por parte de todos” (64; my italics). Tyranny, abuse, meddling are the immoral means by which the town purports to care for the children “in the name of the Father,” hiding what ultimately is a self-serving operation: “Los forasteros pudieron advertir que el noble gigante constituía uno de los orgullos de la ciudad, y de haber sido tan baratos de mantener el noble y sus vástagos como la leyenda del barrio fenicio o del estandarte secular del Ayuntamiento, el pueblo no habría consentido aquel desenlace” (55). Like city monuments and legends, the family name helps preserve the town’s own identity through its connection to a glorious past that it refuses to relinquish at any cost, afraid of change, of having to reconsider its own self image. In contrast, the Christ-like figure of the mother, who “a diario renovaba el milagro de los panes y los peces” (50) to keep the family and the house afloat, is never mourned by the town, nor her name remembered, since it is only the father’s name that fixes the meaning of the community’s identity and guarantees the survival of the patria. It is significant that as José María tries to keep them from interfering too much in his family’s affairs, he will begin to be known in town as “la madrecita,” which although seemingly a compliment is, nonetheless, a reminder of the threat that, as I will argue, José María poses for the town’s patriarchal law and self-perpetuation.(11)
Upon returning from one of his practice trips for the Nautical School where he studies, Jaime, much changed and grown up physically and sexually, takes José María to a circus that has come to town on his ship. He wants his brother to see a woman who works there and with whom he is involved. It is at the circus that José María faces his own sexual desire for the first time.(12) To his surprise, first, and horror soon after, he discovers that his desire is not directed at the woman his brother brought him to admire, but to her male partner on stage: “sólo una figura perduraba en su retina y en sus nervios: la del hombre… ¡La del hombre joven y fornido nada más!” (91). Unable to sleep, José María goes into a long journey of self-loathing. (13) In a fashion typical of other modernista characters, he spends hours analyzing himself, tracing his own desire, trying to understand the genealogy of what has just been revealed to him, his sexual self: “se puso a mirar dentro del precipicio abierto aquella noche en su ser. Una claridad sulfúrea iluminaba los resortes más recónditos de su vida, hasta el confín de la niñez. Todo se encadenaba y explicaba. […] Los menos conscientes movimientos de su alma y de su carne, coordinábanse y adquirían sentido” (96). The first explanation he finds is genetic, as he sees himself as having two sexes at once, an androgynous by birth: “¿De cuál antepasado le venía la degeneración? ¿O habría brotado en él por mal milagro, invistiéndole del funesto deshonor propio del cabeza de una estirpe de sexo espurio, marcada por la Naturaleza con la ambigüedad del hermafrodita?” (97).(14) Convinced that his is a congenital “disease,” he decides to “cure” it, to “correct” it, “lo mismo que al jorobado se le pone un aparato ortopédico” (102), by eradicating his feminine half: “quitarse de su nombre aquel María invasor, y sería José, José nada más, para siempre” (103). Although highly esteemed and admired by everyone, José María feels the panoptic weight of the town and of his father’s memory (one and the same thing, as we have seen). He oscillates between moments of utter self-hatred, calling himself a liar who conceals a dirty secret, to instances of desperation when he feels accused of something for which he is not responsible:
¿Qué culpa tengo yo? Si fuera un vicioso, un vil caído por lujuria en la renegación del sexo, merecería que se me escupiera! ¡Pero, si dentro de mí, me siento blando, femenino! ¡Si desde niño gusté de cuanto las mujeres gustan! Si la Naturaleza, o Dios o Satán iban a hacerme mujer y, cuando ya estaban puestos los cimientos de mi ser, se arrepintieron y echaron de mala gana arcilla de hombre, ¿qué he de hacer yo? (117)
Pressured by his father’s myth, he soon reverses his previous thought and blames his mother, whom he imagines wishing for a girl and, as a result, changing his fetal destiny at the last minute.(15) José María pledges to honor his father’s name and fight his desire, although the narrator, once again, registers the irony: “Y, parásito hasta después de muerto, el padre llenó la casa con su presencia espiritual, exigiendo intereses de sacrificio al acto de haberse matado después de concertar un seguro y al haber recogido de sus ascendientes un apellido heráldico” (118, my italics). The narrator does not let us forget that neither father nor town are worth José María’s sacrifice, and it is this certainty that lingers, as we will see, after the tragic end of the novel.
José María begins by fighting his own body, and the novel recounts in painful detail his attempts to erase any trace of femininity and enhance the qualities he –and society— assumes to be signs of the masculine. For a few pages, the text almost becomes a study on gender construction: he works out every morning until his muscles begin to grow and show; he learns how to smoke and walk with a cane; he sunbathes often and foregoes shaving everyday in order to have a “rougher” look; he wears less fine clothes; and, finally, he even removes the crucifix (“hombre desnudo al fín” ) from his bedroom. And yet, after all that work, José María starts questioning those very same social assumptions regarding gender: “más respondían al concepto masculino infinidad de mujeres que tantos hombres débiles, fofos” (142).(16) José María then decides to look for the “cure” for sex in sex itself. He goes to a brothel and, when that fails to work, he convinces himself that a conventional marital path (having a girlfriend, getting married, and having children) will “save” him. After dating Cecilia for some time, he realizes his mistake and plans to end their relationship. Just then, and after three years of silence, Jaime sends him a letter that will change everything.
Jaime explains that he has become a smuggler in
Cambiar de nombre: ¡qué cosa tan turbadora y, por lo visto, tan fácil!...Cambiar de nombre, bautizarse a sí mismo, cortar el cordón umbilical del alma y reconocerse solo, único eslabón irresponsable desligado de toda cadena… […] La idea, para José María nueva, de que se pudiera cambiar el nombre, le produjo primero estupor y luego una perspectiva lejana y confusa de esperanza. El nombre aquel por el que llevaba tantos años sacrificándose; el nombre que era orgullo de la ciudad, apenas salvadas unas leguas, ‘por el ancho mundo’, no era nada, nada. (175)
The idea of a rebirth, of changing his name and freeing himself from the chains of the past held by patriarchal law, of finally becoming who he wants to be, gives José María new hope as he realizes that his attempt to transform his body and his desire is a misguided one. As he breaks up with Cecilia and both of his sisters finally get married, José María begins to see the possibility of a new kind of life. There is a significant change in tone in the narrative at this point. After years of despair and self-loathing, José María comes to accept himself and slowly begins to take control of his life. What he had only glimpsed before, now becomes clear after his brother’s letter: “él podría huir, quitarse el escudo, la responsabilidad de ser hijo del padre suicidado heroicamente; […] todas las horas penosas dábalas ya como pago de la que un día, lejos, habría de permitirle encararse con la vida y decirle: “¡Así soy! ¡Fuera falsa virtud, fuera vergüenza de mostrarme según me hicieron!” (177-8). This moment of self-affirmation as he readies himself to face a society only concerned with “falsas virtudes,” is a clear instance of empowerment and unabashed assumption of a particular identity: “¡Así soy!” There are no apologies here. At peace with himself at last, José María is “envuelto en una atmósfera de serenidad” (198).
While waiting for the couples to return from their honeymoons, he starts planning his trip. Determined to leave his town behind for good, he is inspired by a sense of “carpe diem,” and the duty to live one’s own life. Upon visiting his boss at the bank, an alert patriarch only a few years ago and now a deteriorated old man, he is further convinced of the necessity of leaving and living: “al verlo ahora babeante, apagadas las pupilas sin cuya luz la proa de la nariz era como vestigio de naufragio, la idea de llegar a ese estado sin haber sido siquiera una vez ‘él mismo’, robustecíale la decisión de irse” (204). In a drastic reversal of his previous feelings of condemnation, José María now sees himself “condenado no a muerte sino a vida” (204) by being “él mismo.” If always respected and admired, he is now revered like a Christ figure (a representation that foreshadows his final act of martyrdom for the “sins” of the town that will kill him): “Todos cuantos lo frisaban advertían el influjo de aquella bondad anhelosa de emplear en su ciudad natal el último filón de su tesoro. Los mendigos ciegos le conocían los pasos y lo bendecían al acercase. En todas partes se celebraba su llegada” (205). Nonetheless, the pull of the “name of the father” is still strong, and self-loathing creeps back when he decides to pay his last visit to the spot where his father crashed. But it does not last long, and when his sisters return and he is getting ready to depart, the irony of his past sacrifices is, once again, revealed to him: “Tanto sacrificio por un nombre, ¿a qué conduce? Todo tiene su punto de vista…Para la Compañía de Seguros tu padre no fue un noble, sino un villano listo, ya ves” (211). When the train finally takes him away, his sense of freedom is carefully described, as is his revelation regarding the vastness of the world versus the smallness of his town. A sense of cosmopolitanism, another dominant element of modernista texts, pervades these pages: “¡Qué grande era el mundo! […] El concepto de las magnitudes y la diversidad de la vida adquirían de estación en estación realidad sensible en su conciencia” (213). José María is slowly coming to terms with the possibilities ahead and the enjoyment of being “él mismo” rather than think and analyze, he abandons himself to feelings: “Aquel goce de sentirse él solo, él sin testigos fiscales, él sin cadenas, bien valía la pena no pensar. ¡Ah, qué placer el de atreverse a mirar cara a cara a un mancebo en una estación […]. Nunca se había atrevido a tanto… Su audacia avanzaba aún más que el tren” (214).
There is only one chapter dedicated to his days in
Back at the hotel, however, the seeds of his first
already growing. Upon arriving in
This is José María’s last sacrifice:
own body, his own self immolation on the altar of a fake God that the
meticulously built to the family name in order to protect and
itself. The last irony of the novel is hinted at in the apparent
its final sentence: “Un largo estrépito de hierros y de gritos
pasó sobre su carne virgen e impura” (235). The virgin body of
José María is deemed nonetheless impure in a foreshadow
town’s final accusative act as the news of his death arrives.
María will have died utterly in vain and this may be his saddest
mistake: not to remember the fate
of both his brother and his father. In the
last letter that Jaime wrote, he had said: “Moriría de
un tiro o de un trago de agua salada Nicolás Smith, y nadie
sabría nada del Jaime Vélez-Gomara que dejó un
a la espalda su casa con blasones y su pueblo mezquino para ir mar
hacia el ancho mundo donde el nombre de mayor alcurnia es brizna del
(176). José María should have known better: the
mezquino” did find out that Jaime, not Nicolás Smith, was killed
as a smuggler bringing “shame” on the family, just as the
“pueblo mezquino” had “known” that their father had
killed himself. However cautious father and brother might have been,
found out, or simply invented, the “truth.” The
novel, then, ends with yet another
futile sacrifice for a town that is morally corrupt and, as such,
reminds us of
another notoriously corrupt town, the
Angels and A Straight
Much has been said about the scientific and legal discourses that framed El ángel de Sodoma in its second edition, but little about what has traditionally been the third pillar of homophobic discourse, religion. That Hernández Catá’s novel founds its symbolic structure in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition is obvious from its very title, but much like the novel itself, the title is far from straight (pun intended). Indeed, its apparent oxymoron is packed with meaning asking to be unraveled.
A first reading may lead to the basic understanding that the two contradictory terms of the title are simply alluding to the fight within José María, as Jiménez de Asúa asserts in his 1929 epilogue: “Hernández Catá encierra en las dos frases contradictorias del título de su novela El ángel de Sodoma el drama íntimo de un homosexual heroico que se entregó a la muerte sin claudicar” (255), that is, the angel kills himself rather than giving in to Sodom, i.e. homosexual desire. This reading may be warranted in the text only at first, when it shows José María’s internal “drama” between what he perceives to be good and evil. This conflict ends, as does Asúa’s interpretation, when the protagonist comes to understand that good and evil may not be the simple “natural” concepts he has been led to believe: “Todo tiene su punto de vista…” (211). This Nietzschean realization of the main character opens up his will to live, his certainty that “lo que dejamos de hacer por miedo a los otros, ya no lo podremos hacer nunca” (178) and finally, rather than reject himself and his desire, José María embraces both. He has certainly done much good to others for love, but also much harm to himself for “fear” of others.
In the end, as in the beginning, the main conflict
between José María and the insidious panoptic gaze of the
between his goodness and the town’s selfishness and pettiness. His
is not born within, but creeps in from the outside: “Debemos proceder
Christian tradition has associated the crimes of
However, before saving him, God gave
Reframing El ángel de Sodoma
Martí, about whom Hernández Catá published a book
year as El ángel, wrote “Cree
el aldeano vanidoso que el mundo entero es su aldea, y con tal que
quede de alcalde, o le mortifique al rival que le quitó la
novia, o le
crezcan en la alcancía los ahorros, ya da por bueno el orden
[…]. Lo que quede de aldea en América debe despertar”
(11). As has been noted by virtually every critic of his work,
Catá was a cosmopolitan writer, as were most of his fellow modernistas. El ángel de Sodoma
is a novel that echoes
Martí’s famous admonishment about the pettiness and
of the “aldeano vanidoso.” It is difficult not to read the novel as
a denunciation of the town’s moral hypocrisy vis-à-vis
María’s honesty, as a criticism of small town mentality, of its
obsession with sameness and a mythologized past that is eternally
legends, banners, crests, and family names. A novel that so explicitly
dialogues with Genesis, itself a nation-building myth, El
ángel de Sodoma is a sophisticated critique of
“foundational fictions,” of paralyzing nationalist discourses and
their ultimate totalitarian, panoptic stance against difference and
critique, in sum, of the stagnation and self-righteousness of societies
obsessed with themselves, their pureza de
sangre, as it were. In this regard, the novel’s protagonist, his
virgen e impura” (235, my
italics), stands in the company of Martí’s Juan Jerez –
suffocated by his cousin in Lucía
Jerez—, Díaz Rodríguez’s Alberto Soria –crying
his “finis patriae” at
the end of Ídolos rotos—,
and Larreta’s Ramiro fleeing the decadence of an intolerant empire in La gloria de don Ramiro. Hernández
Catá takes that
tradition one step forward in its rewriting of the biblical tale of
Hernández Catá had lived through
El ángel de Sodoma is a novel that affirms difference and warns against the repressive force of homogenization, be it sexual, national, or otherwise. The plot may seem straightforward, but the novel is certainly not, in more ways than one. Despite its apparent simplicity, the text crafts a complex web of meaning and a symbolic structure in which science, law, and religion, the three pillars of homophobic and other exclusionary politics, are combined in order to question and ultimately undo those very politics. Under the apparently overwhelming weight of the framing essays by Marañón and Jiménez de Asúa, critics seem to have been unable to recover the literary text itself and have reduced it to a repetition of the same, an unproductive reproduction of the normative phallic discourse of its surrounding repressive texts.(27) On the contrary, under the real admiration of Marañón and Asúa for Hernández Cata’s work, there was much anxiety over, and fear of, a novel that threatened to exceed their own ideas and the limits of their specifically legal concern, a text that concealed in its pages too radical a proposition regarding gender, sexuality, and identity, that could, in sum, be read as a critique of heterosexual norms and patriarchal laws. Given the positions of Marañón and Asúa, such a text had to be contained. In so doing, they established an interpretive path that has greatly limited the reception of novel. It is due time that we answer the epigraph’s question of justice, though this time regarding the novel itself, and reclaim the polysemic quality of El ángel de Sodoma and its power to talk back to those and other homogenizing forces.
It could be
argued that El ángel de Sodoma is, in fact, the first
deal with homosexuality, if not with same sex desire.
Unlike Augusto D’Halmar’s Pasión
(2). Hernández Catá was already a well established writer by the time he published El ángel de Sodoma and some of his novels and short story collections had seen several editions. Despite his success (or may be because of it), his extensive body of work remains largely understudied. He began his literary career in 1907, at the height of modernismo, the literary movement within which his oeuvre has been rightly placed. In fact, the modernista novel, as I will argue, is a necessary point of reference when dealing with El ángel de Sodoma.
David W. Foster’s seminal work Gay and Lesbian Themes in Latin
American Writing (1991), El ángel de Sodoma has
completely absent from important contributions to the general field of
studies in Hispanic cultures such as Emilie L. Bergmann and Paul Julian
Smith’s ¿Entiendes? Queer Readings, Hispanic Writings
(1995), Daniel Balderston and Donna J. Guy’s Sex and Sexuality in
Latin America (1997), Sylvia Molloy and Robert McKee Irwin’s Hispanisms
and Homosexualities (1998), Susana Chavez-Silverman and Librada
Hernandez’s Reading and Writing the Ambiente (2000), and Dieter
Ingenschay’s Desde aceras opuestas. Literatura/cultura
gay y lesbiana en
Casado’s article “El ángel de Sodoma: el contexto
literario homoerótico en la época,” rather than a study
the novel, offers a brief but interesting overview of its literary and
(5). According to Gregory Woods, the “tragic mode” was common throughout the West “in novels published between the Wilde trials in 1895 and the growth of the liberalising social movements of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s” (218). As Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) shows the tragic mode as a form of vindication of same sex desire has by no means disappeared from cultural representations.
(6). Galdo performs an identical operation: “El interés convergerá ahora en apreciar cómo aparecen desarrollados estos elementos en la novela y en qué medida se cumplen los presupuestos teóricos en el interior del discurso ficcional” (24).
(7). It is worth noting, however, that Hernández Catá included an epigraph before the prologue, framing the frame, as it were. In this epigraph (not to be confused with a second epigraph at the beginning of the actual novel), the writer is forced to defend his topic to an unnamed interlocutor. Given the issue of “authority” in Marañón’s text, the writer’s answer, “como la química científica, la artística puede obtener de los detritus esencias puras. Más trabajo y menos lucido, dirá usted. ¡No importa!” (7), can be read as a defense of literary authority on the matter. This defense is further enhanced by the presence in the book’s inside flaps of raving reviews of Hernández Cata’s works by some of the most prominent writers and critics of the time (Galdós, Pardo Bazán, Rodó, Díez-Canedo, Alfonso Reyes, Fernández Flores, among others). Literary authority, thus, manages to have the last word in the successive frames of the second edition.
(9). Classic examples of the same structure are Silva’s De sobremesa (1896), Díaz Rodríguez’s Sangre patricia, and Larreta’s La gloria de don Ramiro (1908). José Fernández, Tulio Arcos, and Ramiro are exceptions, albeit in different ways, to their families’ decadence. This is important beyond the mere literary reference. Placing José María in such company can help us better understand the novel. As I argue elsewhere, unlike their French counterparts, modernista characters, at odds with their surroundings, are travelers, exposing society’s moral shortcomings and questioning established assumptions.
(10) The narrator tells us that the town chooses to believe that the father killed himself so that his children could cash out his life insurance, while forgetting that he was responsible for their precarious situation in the first place. Although he never clarifies it, the narrator casts some doubts on the veracity of the town’s version.
(11). This connection between José María’s and his mother’s authority within their house is established in the text immediately after the father’s funeral when José María takes control and, together with his sisters, cleans the house from top to bottom: “Dijérase que sólo don Santiago había muerto, y que, libre de su corpulencia ensuciadora y holgazana, ella, con las arañas de sus manitas tejedoras de orden, dirigía, por primera vez del todo, el hogar” (58; my italics). It also emphasizes the Christ-like qualities of José María himself, which will become clearer as the novel progresses.
(12). Like the passing foreigners that noticed how invested the town is in the preservation of the family name, the circus people are also outsiders. As such, they manage to open a breach in the enclosed space of the town, both for José María and his brother. As Galdo points out, the circus and the docks are “espacios excéntricos […] de liberación […] puntos virtuales de fuga que escapan al dominio de la norma patriarcal” (27). Moreover, by definition a nomadic, traveling enterprise, the circus further accentuates the stasis of the town and functions in the novel as a bearer of change.
(13). Narrated in both direct and free indirect speech, we witness José María’s own thoughts. The violently homophobic vocabulary employed to describe his desire is, then, his own and not that of the narrative voice. José María shows, as it will be clear later, his internalization of normative discourses, the Foucaultian panopticon at work.
(14). José María reproduces here the view that, according to Foucault, characterizes the modern conception of homosexuality: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43). José María finds that hermaphodism inscribed in his very name.
(15). To the biogenetic explanation, José María now adds what we could call a “supersticious” or “magical” one in his mother’s imagined wish. Later on, José María will add yet another that could loosely be called freudian and that he develops as he imagines raising a son away from “las faldas de su madre, como lo criaron a él; un hijo que en vez de jugar a las muñecas y andar con niñas estaría de continuo al sol, entre los pilluelos” (168-9). José María says he read about it in a science book at the municipal library (169) in a veiled reference to Marañón, who, according to Paul Julian Smith, “quiso reconciliar las irreconciliables disciplinas de la endocrinología, la morfología y la psicología freudiana” (28). Ultimately, the novel questions all explanations, favoring the “así soy” rather than the reason why.
(16). The genetic constitution of the two sisters is another element in the novel that plays critically with the intersection of the biological and the social. Humorously, we are told that Amparo and Isabel-Luisa were born with exchanged mouths, that is, that Amparo’s red, thick, and voluptuous lips should have been Isabel-Luisa’s who is olive-skinned and a brunette. Inversely, Amparo, who is blond, fair, and delicate, should have had Isabel-Luisa’s thin and light lips. The lips, not the rest of their bodies, determine their sexual behavior: while Isabel-Luisa is cold and calculating (characteristics socially attributed at the time to blonds), Amparo is passionate and romantic (despite being blond). This playful and apparently unimportant detail of the novel is obviously charged with meanings. For one, the alleged “anomalies” (62) of the women seem to carry no social stigma and, in fact, no one even notices them. José María, on the other hand, fears social rejection because of his own “anomaly.” Both the mouth and the penis are just body parts, biologically speaking, but their social significance marks, in the text, the difference between life and death. This is not only a critique of social conventions, but also a parody of Marañón’s theory of bodily constitutions. Another example are the man José María meets in Paris and, arguably, the circus man, whose desire does not preclude them –as José María himself first thought— from having a “Herculean” (read “masculine”) body. For more on Marañón’s morphology, see Smith and Galdo.
(18). This scene provides an explicit counterpoint to two previous ones: the first, after the circus, when, José María looks at his body on his bedroom mirror with shame (101); the second when as he walks through town, he sees “un afeminado grotesco” and feels as if “ante un espejo cuya luna, en lugar de devolverle su imagen real, le diera la del ser risible y vil en que podía llegar a trocarse si dejaba libre sus instintos” (166).
This is not without
importance: even in a cosmopolis
Asúa’s interpretation, nonetheless, carries an interesting
possibility that betrays his own anxieties regarding homosexuality. According to him, the angel (read
had to kill himself in order to stop his own attraction for
I quote the Bible in
Spanish in order to keep its language as close as possible to that of
the novel. For more on different
the episode of
(23). The letter that his brother-in-law, Claudio Osuna, sends José María at the end of the novel expresses a wish to join their names in the family banking business: “Ojalá que la razón social pueda algún día ser: ‘Osuna-Vélez-Gomara y Compañía’” (230). The limited presence of outsiders further highlights the claustrophobic and incestuous environment of the town. See note 12.
annunciation, in fact, takes place in Genesis, when the same angel who
(25). Although omitted, any reader familiar enough with the Bible can recall the rest of this biblical chapter and the meaningful dialogue in which Abraham persistently bargains with God. By bringing our attention to it, the novel requires us to consider the very nature of justice in the same fashion that Abraham does, forcing God and the readers to accept that it is not just to kill any innocent together with the guilty.
As it is well known,
the highly unpopular “Moroccan War” had a major impact in Spanish
politics and daily life. The war
also became object of literary production.
José Díaz Fernández’s El blocao. Novela de la guerra marroquí
was published on 1928, the same year as Catá’s novel, but
in 1923 Ernesto Giménez Caballero had already published his Notas
marruecas de un soldado, for which he might have been imprisoned
(Fernández Cifuentes, 352-354).
Although the novel takes
In fairness to
Marañón and Jiménez de Asúa, when judging
work, critics have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, unfairly
their ultimate legal goal while rightly denouncing their homophobic
path. It is certainly true that their
medicalizing discourse was substituting one form of oppression
Nonetheless, and although their end does not justify their
importance of the end itself ought not to be overlooked.
That is, both Marañón and
Asúa quite clearly state that homosexuality should be
not only in
T. Desmond. “
Daniel and Donna J. Guy, eds. Sex
and Sexuality in
Balseiro, José A. “Un libro de Hernández Catá.” Bulletin of Spanish Studies 6 22 (April 1929): 60-3.
Bejel, Emilio. “Positivist Contradictions in Hernández Catá’s El ángel de Sodoma.” Anales de Literatura Españolas Contemporánea 25 1 (2000): 63-76.
---. Gay Cuban Nation.
Emily and Paul J. Smith, eds. ¿Entiendes?
Chávez-Silverman, Susana and
Librada Hernández, eds.
Cruz Casado, Antonio. “El ángel de Sodoma: el contexto literario homoerótico en la época de Lorca.” Soria Olmedo, Andrés; Sánchez Montes, María José; Varo Zafra, Juan. Federico García Lorca, clásico moderno (1898-1998). Granada: Diputación de Granada, 2000. 503-13.
Fernández Cifuentes, Luis. Teoría y mercado de la novela en España del 98 a la República. Madrid: Gredos, 1982.
Fernández de la Torriente,
Gastón. La novela de
David W. Gay and Lesbian Themes
in Latin American Writing.
Michel. The History of
Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley
Galdo, Juan Carlos. “Usos y lecciones del discurso ejemplar: a propósito de El ángel de Sodoma de Alfonso Hernández Catá.” Chasqui: Revista de Literatura Latinoamericana 29 1 (May 2000): 19-32.
Jonathan, ed. Reclaiming
Hernández Catá, Alfonso. El ángel de Sodoma. Madrid: Mundo Latino, 1929. 2nd ed.
Ingenschay, Dieter, ed. Desde aceras opuestas. Literatura/cultura gay y lesbiana en Latinoamerica. Madrid/Frankfurt: Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2006.
Martí, José. “Nuestra América.” Nuestra América. Buenos Aires: Losada, 1939. 11-23.
Mejías-López, Alejandro. “‘El perpetuo deseo’: esquizofrenia y nomadismo narrativo en De sobremesa de José Asunción Silva.” Revista Canadiense de Estudios Hispánicos. Forthcoming.
Mira, Alberto. “After
Sylvia and Robert McKee Irving, eds.
Hispanisms and Homosexualities.
Sagrada Biblia. Versión directa de las lenguas originales. Eloino Nacar Fuster and Alberto Colunga Cueto, O.P., eds. Madrid: Editorial Católica, 1974. 24th ed.
Smith, Paul Julian. “Yerma y los médicos: García Lorca, Marañón y el grito de la sangre.” Soria Olmedo, Andrés; Sánchez Montes, María José; Varo Zafra, Juan. Federico García Lorca, clásico moderno (1898-1998). Granada: Diputación de Granada, 2000. 21-33.
Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature. The Male Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1998.