Abel Sanchez has a lot of philosophical gems in it. I’m saddened because it’s difficult for me to remember them all. I read it somewhat sporadically over the course of a ten days or so. The main theme of the book is the concept and action of Envy, and the connected (possibly larger) concept of Power.
1. A Misguided Jerk
Joaquin Monegro is afflicted with Envy every moment of his life. Sometimes author Miguel De Unamuno varies its cause, suggesting throughout the book that it’s either a demon, a sickness, a potion taken, or all of the above. The truth may be, at least up to a certain point in the book, that Joaquin is just an asshole. And here’s why.
In their childhood, Abel Sanchez is supposedly the superior to Joaquin. Joaquin appears superior on paper, but he feels last place in all that goes on. For instance, Abel supposedly wins over all of Joaquin’s friends because of a superior charisma. Obviously, this happens to all of us: there’s an ebb and flow to the social game. I was never the most popular kid in grade school, but I won some and lost some. It had to be that way for everybody; it hurts but we get over it.
As the two grow and come to embrace their vocations, Abel becomes more famous with his painting than Joaquin at his medicine. Being a painter and practicing medicines are two fairly different things. It’s initially difficult for me to understand Joaquin feeling maligned in this circumstance. They make some illusory but pretty connection: Abel paints like a scientist and Joaquin practices science like an artist… But all of this can be left behind.
If Joaquin had will for temperance and could see beyond his coming in second, he could – as I say – get over it. (even more idealistically, he could be happy for his friend)
2. A Malignant Psycho
After certain scenes, and especially in the end, I think it’s consciously insinuated that Joaquin is fucked in the head. He dedicates his life to outdoing or destroying Abel, thinks Abel and his wife Helena are out to get him, can’t love his own wife Antonia, etc. The book’s style (or at least the translation I have) seems willfully infantile, so it never delves deep into psychology. That’s an asset though as it allows Unamuno to lace in more philosophical meanings to the events. Still, Joaquin strikes me as paranoid, narcissistic, delusional, depressed, manic.
It seems strange, but there are times where he seems in touch. He seems to act correctly (as in: composed), and consequently things seem to be okay for a time. I’m going to touch on that later though.
Someone (probably Joaquin) near the end of the book calls Envy both “a form of family relation” and one’s perception of a threat of their existence being “obscured” by another. Something that is being tackled then is forms of connection. It would appear something like Envy is an effective means of connection, though less savory than – say – love. (I also don’t believe it’s sustainable in the real world – envy probably eventually divides for good if it’s too strong and lasts too long. But it makes a good adhesive for a narrative.)
3. Enviable Fellows
If this is a story about family then it’s a story about the human family. After all, this is something of retelling of Cain & Abel. Cain & Abel are the third and forth human beings ever, and like Adam & Eve, the path they all take (chosen or otherwise) will logically dictate the course of the rest of humanity. If Adam & Eve’s real progeny are Knowledge and Sin, then Cain & Abel bring Envy and Wrath.
What’s there to be envious of, for Joaquin or for anyone? Joaquin is angry about literally everything Abel achieves, thinking Abel is simply spiting and debasing him in the process. There’s an interesting choice here about what Unamuno is discussing. It could be about those who have versus those who have not. I don’t know if I would take this route, for more seems to be at play. Joaquin isn’t really envious of Abel’s material goods and achievements. He doesn’t want to be a better artist. He doesn’t merely want to outdo his enemy by amounting more things that are better. He’s looking to outdo Abel in every conceivable area. He’s envious over what Abel’s status and things mean – a concept of better and worse. He wants Abel’s superiority.
4. A Nice Place To End Up
Power is an end that brings whatever is desired as long as it’s held. There are a great variety of ways to end up with power, to gain control. One argument I probably picked up in 2009 that I always thought interesting was conflict resolution as a means to gain power.
I don’t know if anyone compromises – that is: loses something – unless they think they’re going to gain more. Even if it’s not immediate, a great strategy for gaining things is Losing To Win. It’s like having good credit; benefits will eventually be reaped. This is where I find a great deal of interest in Joaquin’s apparent moderation in the middle of the book. He lauds Abel’s artwork, he confesses his demons to his wife Antonia, and he just generally seems to be closer to freedom.
He may not have known it, but I believe he was losing to win. He had to let his interest go – outdoing Abel on every level – to gain that clarity. His final end must surely be comfort, satisfaction, and happiness. The “demon” in him pushes this end to be brought about by destroying Abel. He has a taste of the alternative: freedom brought about by suppressing the demon. But it comes back.
I do believe that something like this – overcoming “demons” of any kind – is empowering. It makes me wonder how much of power is good or can be exerted towards the good. After all, you can’t be empowered unless you have power, and empowerment is a cornerstone of a lot of great stuff like civil rights, feminism, etc. I would wonder if empowerment is at odds with equality? I guess I can see equalization being empowering for everyone.
5. A Perfect Man
So what about Abel? He’s the title character, and yet he’s almost the invisible man; infinitely discussed but rarely present. For about 90% of the book, Abel seems utterly oblivious. He stumbles into fortune, talent, charisma, and reaps all the benefits. Joaquin in childhood is called “the more willful of the two,” whereas Abel is passive and, yet, is said to be more likely to do as he pleased.
Joaquin is always envious, and he clearly has issues of insecurity and self-loathing from childhood. The curious thing is that Abel seems flat-line. He has no distinguishing characteristics aside from being born with Power. And seems to embrace it as he embraces his eventual fame. It’s almost a mystery how he deals with his power, how he wields it, how he feels about it. Almost all a reader can perceive of it is through the fucked up lens of crazy Joaquin.
But there are two moments to give anyone pause thinking Abel is either perfect or benevolent with his superiority. One is his wife Helena. He weds Helena with the knowledge that Joaquin is in love with her (she’s Joaquin’s cousin too). Helena seems to play off the belief that Joaquin has of: If Helena is not in love with me, Joaquin, then she must be in love with someone else. I’m pretty sure Helena is a bit of a manipulator. She knew Joaquin loved her, knew he was best friends with Abel, and still put her knife in and left it the rest of the book. Abel would be a moron if he didn’t know – he did. But despite being – I believe – less conniving than Helena, he still did wrong by his friend, and I don’t believe he ever owns up.
The other moment is when Abelin – Abel and Helena’s son – tells Joaquin that Abel is a shitty father who is seldom home, is off philandering, and has little interest in raising a son. He says Abel doesn’t seem to have much of a care about art, only a care for fame. And he says – most mysteriously – that Abel speaks suspiciously too well of Joaquin.
This all points to Abel not being the benevolent benefactor he makes himself out to be. Unamuno words keep Abel and his intentions exceptionally opaque, and these parts are either a glimpse or an effort to mislead. It’s not entirely relevant which – if Abel is being deceitful, he does so with either enough subtlety or enough consideration to defend himself. And while this makes him an asshole, they don’t lock people up for being imperfect.
Joaquin is pretty much a nutcase. He’s obsessed and it destroys everyone he loves. He should just live his own life, with or without this person around… and so should you. The funny thing is that throughout the story, Joaquin doesn’t seem unsuccessful at all. He’s a doctor, he’s not of ill-repute, he seems rich… All his dreams but one came true, and it wasn’t even a good one. Such is the sadness of mental illness. Existentially speaking, he’s a corpse for almost the entire book. The poor man!