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Réquiem por un campesino español: Pages 47 – 49

1938: Mosén Millán, the parish priest is preparing for the Requiem Mass which is to be held to celebrate the life of a young peasant, Paco, killed one year earlier in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War. He sits in the vestry, praying and recalling various stages in Paco's life in which he was personally involved. He hopes that Paco's friends and relatives will come to the service; most of the town had been friends with Paco, except the two wealthiest families: don Valeriano and don Gumersindo; another wealthy family, that of el Señor Cástulo Pérez had been neither a friend nor an enemy.
While he is preparing for the service, a young altar boy, un monaguillo, who is helping the priest prepare the church for the service, comes in and out of the vestry. At various stages during this process, Mosén Millán asks him if any relatives have arrived for the service; he asks the altar boy if he remembers Paco - it would have been hard for him not to have remembered Paco since he had seen him die from Sr. Cástulo's car where he had sat with the priest to administer the last rites. The altar boy remembers the people of the town having composed a Romance or ballad on Paco's death and as he comes and goes from the vestry, he recalls snatches of this ballad. Mosén Millán realises that the peasants would still be threshing in the fields and this might explain why they hadn't yet arrived for the service. Looking down at his shoes that needed repairing, he remembers that the shoemaker - not a churchgoer but some who had always treated Mosén Millán well – and Paco had been good friends too.
Summary of notes from Réquiem por un campesino español, MUP, 1991
1. Mosén Millán: the original title of the novel. Mosén is an Aragonese name meaning padre in Castilian. Sender's choice of Millán as the priest's surname is significant from both a religious and Military perspective:

  1. Millán: the victorious mediaeval patron saint of Castile during the Reconquest;

  1. General Millán Astray: founder of the Spanish Legion whose motto was ¡Viva la muerte!

The priest's name, Mosén Millán, symbolises the Church's historical partnership with the aristocracy and the Army in the establishment and maintenance of the Catholic Imperial order; it is further symbolised in the text by the dark patch the priest's head has left on the wall of the vestry over a period of time:

'...con la cabeza apoyado en aquel lugar del muro donde a través del tiempo se había formado una mancha oscura' (p. 48)
He mechanically recites his prayers in the language of the liturgy, Latin:
'Cincuenta y un años repitiendo aquellas oraciones habían creado un automatismo que le permitía poner el pensamiento en otra parte sin dejar de rezar' (p.47)
The fact that Latin is a dead language – and one which the villagers don't understand – symbolises for the reader the distance between Mosén Millán and his parishioners, including of course, Paco.
During the first two pages of the text, therefore, the reader is aware of a certain realism in this particular story: the priest who represents the church, the establishment, which, in turn, stands for an age-old partnership with the aristocracy and the Militia, a timeless, motionless state symbolised by the patch on the wall, as mentioned above. For Sender, too, the priest represents:
'...la inercia de la historia y el peso de aquella inercia'
Mosén Millán feels trapped by this inercia and static state that is the Catholic Church and all it represents. The grasshopper, caught in the branches of a bush symbolises this:
'...un saltamontes atrapado entre las ramitas de un arbusto trataba de escapar, y se agitaba desesperadamente'. (p.47)
Paco's colt (el potro) that Millán hears from the vestry symbolises the antithesis of the static state of the church, and contrasts with the trapped grasshopper; note the use of suelto:
'...el potro de Paco que anda, como siempre, suelto por el pueblo'. (p. 47)
To summarise, therefore, these initial symbolic allusions in the context of the characters and the settings of the novel:




MM: alive, static, waiting

Paco: dead; potro/romance: memory of Paco


Rich families, Paco's enemies

Relatives, shoemaker, town - Paco's friends


Vestry (enclosed, static)

Garden (open, free)


Trapped grasshopper

Colt running freely

Mosén Millán himself quotes from Saint Matthew's gospel (5:13, The Sermon on the Mount) when he says he has arrived at the biblical age when salt loses its flavour:

'Era viejo y estaba llegando - se decía - a esa edad en que la sal ha perdido su sabor, como dice la Biblia'. (p.48)
Ironically, Mosén Millán fails to understand its message that the Kingdom of God begins in this world by loving one's neighbour as oneself; salt was commonly used to purify and preserve: as a representative of God on earth, the priest fails to preserve society (Paco) from the forces of decay (Nationalist forces, supported by the church); in other words, he has failed to act, but has remained static in accordance with the nature of the established church, as detailed above.

2. Other names and their meanings
The familias más pudientes, p.47, are the conservative element, seeing Spain at the time of the novel in terms of its Catholic Imperial past and Sender's choice of their names is significant in establishing these characters as pro-Nationalist:

  1. Valeriano: 3rd century Roman emperor who ordered a persecution of the Christians and unsuccessfully tried to restore order in the Empire. Parallels can be drawn here since, later in the novel, when the young Falange fascists, the señoritos arrive in the town (p.85) as a riposte to the republican uprising; he is made mayor by the Falangists.

  1. Cástulo: name of Iberian city which changed sides during the Punic Wars, siding first with the Romans, then with the Carthaginians and then reverting to the winning side of Rome. This is 'double-crossing' and changing sides is significant in the novel since it is Sr. Cástulo whose car is put at the service, first of victim (Paco - p.95 as a 'confessional') then of Paco's executioner (El Centurión -p.96).

3. The romance
The romance, or ballad, was, at this time in Spain, a popular way for villagers to commemorate the life of someone considered a hero; it represents the anonymous voice of a collective memory and is seen as a secular commemoration of Paco's life. The reader encounters the first few verses of this romance at the start of the novel (p.48); these ominous foreshadows of the fate awaiting Paco are interwoven subsequently in the text during the sequences in which the priest is preparing for the service, ie. the 'present' as opposed to 'flashbacks' that occur in the novel, brought on by the priest's recollection of moments in which he was personally involved in Paco's life. These 'present' sequences emphasise the spiritual divorce of priest and village as Mosén Millán prepares for the service and the villagers stay away in passive resistance.
Parallels in the ballad can, at this early stage in the novel, be drawn for the reader (note the words sentenciado, camposanto and centurión p. 48):
The centurión was the commanding officer of una centuria, 100 soldiers, a term used in the Falange, the fascist movement set up by José Antonio Primo de Rivera some years earlier. The Falange had been modelled on the Roman legions:
Falange/Roman legion Paco/Christ
These initial verses of the ballad, therefore, set the scene of the Requiem Mass: from an historical point of view, Paco has been killed by right-wing Nationalist forces during the Civil War; from a symbolic point of view, he is being compared to Christ killed on the cross. Just as Paco is seen at these early stages in the novel as a Christ-like figure, so the reader must decide to what extent the priest can be seen as a Judas-like figure, i.e. to what extent he is guilty of betraying Paco, as the novel continues.


Updated Jan 2006

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