Pío Baroja y Nessi

The Spanish novelist and essayist Pío Baroja y Nessi (1872-1956) ranks as one of the major writers of Spain's Generation of 1898. His many works consistently reveal harsh criticism of his country and a pessimistic view of life.

Pío Baroja was born on Dec. 28, 1872, in San Sebastián. In 1879 the family moved to Madrid, where at 15 he began to study medicine. He received his doctorate in medicine at the University of Madrid in 1893 and spent the next year as a country doctor in Cestona, a small Basque town. Disgusted by the hardships and petty intrigues of country life, Baroja renounced his medical post in 1895 and the following year joined his brother Ricardo in managing a bakery in Madrid. The shock of the Spanish-American War in 1898 provoked in him, as in many of his contemporaries, a poraries, a protest against Spain's social abuses and the corrosive influence of the Catholic Church. Toward the end of 1898 he began to contribute articles to the journal Revista nueva and made the first of many trips to Paris. Two years later Baroja published Vidas sombrías (Dark Lives), a collection of short stories, and his first novel, La casa de Aizgorri (The House of Aizgorri), a depressing tale about the ruin of an alcoholic family. This novel and El mayorazgo de Labraz (1903; Lord of Labraz) and Zalacaín el aventurero (1909; Zalacaín the Adventurer) form the first trilogy, Tierra vasca (Basque Country). Baroja grouped most of his novels into cycles or trilogies.

After the bakery failed in 1902, Baroja devoted himself entirely to writing, turning out two or more books almost every year until his death in 1956. He was extremely shy, and except for several trips abroad, he lived a secluded and sedentary life. Baroja wrote his best novels between 1902 and 1912; among them are Camino de perfeccíon (1902; Road to Perfection), La busca, Mala hierba, and Aurora roja (1904; The Search, Weeds, and Red Dawn), La feria de los discretos (1905), Paradox rey (1906; king Paradox), and El arbol de la ciencia (1911; The Tree of Knowledge). He also wrote about a dozen volumes of essays, of which the autobiographical Juventud, egolatría (1917; Youth, Egotism) is the best known.

Baroja's heroes are underworld characters— vagabonds, adventurers, prostitutes, anarchists—Whose cynicism and rebellious spirit embody the author's ideal of a life of action. Baroja believed that only action has any positive value in a hostile and absurd world. Personal failure is the dominant theme of a typical Baroja novel. Since the characters are committed only to a life of action, they lack a constructive purpose and are condemned to final ruin. The techniques he used to depict action in his novels include the sacrifice of structure to an almost haphazard flow of people, places, plots, and subplots, and the use of a style marked by short, choppy paragraphs.

Baroja enjoyed considerable fame within Spain and abroad, and many of his novels were translated into English. In 1935 he was admitted to the Spanish Royal Academy. His works influenced many younger writers, notably Ernest Hemingway, who visited Baroja in Madrid in 1956 to declare his debt to him. Baroja died on Oct. 30, 1956, at the age of 83.

Further Reading on Pío Baroja y Nessi

The most comprehensive account of Baroja's life and work is in Spanish, Fernando Baeza, ed., Baroja y su mundo (2 vols., 1961). The best analysis of his novelistic technique is the chapter "Pío Baroja" in Katherine P. Reding, The Generation of 1898 as Seen through Its Fictional Hero (1936). Gerald Brenan, The Literature of the Spanish People: From Roman Times to the Present Day (1951; rev. ed. 1953), contains useful information about Baroja.