The main character of Chaos and Night, Don Celestino, is an anti-hero of sorts. Frequently mentioned by the author in the same breath as the legendary Don Quixote, we are informed that Celestino is a man who has set fire to napkins in a restaurant in order to better express his feelings, a man who pees in wash-baisins if he believes his bill is too high, and a man menaced by a bumble-bee at night. We are also see that he is paranoid, owing to his past as a Republican in the Spanish Civil War against Franco’s forces.
This past has led to Celestino to live in exile in Paris for twenty years, along with his daughter. De Montherlant creates a vivid Paris, where every child is named Jean-Claude (or so it seems), and old women throw their teeth at pigeons when they run out of food for them. Celestino however lives in fear of his past catching up with him, much to the chagrin of his daughter. To him, Spain is dead. Yet when he suddenly receives word of his sister’s death in Madrid, he decides, together with his daughter, to go back to settle the estate, defying, as he sees it, the political forces that will be out to get him there…
Chaos and Night is split into two seperate parts. The first part is set in Paris, where de Montherlant introduces the increasing crachety Celestino and his manner of thinking. This first part of the book is an effortless read, the descriptions flowing off of the page and into the imagination. Humorous in places, intriguing in others, the more that is read about Don Celestino and his world, the more is desired to know. One of de Montherlant’s strengths is seemingly to create an interesting world out of nothing; one or two lines may be all that a certain background character had to occupy in the tale, but they become real due to a strange quirk or description from the author. The Paris of Don Celestino is deep and satisfying, and a joy to explore.
The same cannot be said for the second part of the story. Set in Madrid, it concerns Celestino’s fears about returning to Madrid, and the subsequent events that take place there. For some reason, it seemed as if the tale fizzled out a little in this second half. Certainly, the humour was not as apparent as it was in places in Paris, and there was notably less development of the world around Celestino, with the exception of bull-fighting, to which there is a whole chapter devoted. The Madrid section of the book seemed to sap the energy a little in places and reading almost became more of a chore, rather than a pleasure. The pace picks up a little in the last chapter, but overall, the second half of the tale is found to be lacking when compared to the first.
The actual book itself is wonderful. Published by NYRB, who were kind enough to send me an advance copy, the translation is excellent and has the odd helpful note to explain something obscure, but nothing like the hundreds of points that can obliterate a translated classic. The type is of a good size, not too tiny as you occasionally find, and not obscenely large either; it is easy on the eyes. The paper too is of good quality – not for this novel the pages that begin to dry up your fingers after an hour or two of reading.
Given the split between the two parts to the book, should the reader bother to take the plunge? The answer is yes. For want of a couple of plodding chapters, the second part of the book does develop the character of Celestino further, and there is the mystery to be solved of whether his paranoias of returning to Spain are unfounded or not. De Montherlant created an intriguing character in Celestino, and an imaginative world indicating his genius as an author. It is well worth submersing oneself into this world and enjoying what it has to offer, and so Chaos and Night is to be recommended.
by Henry de Montherlant
Published by New York Review Books Classics
Released on February 17th, 2009