Recently, one of my friends asked me to organize a joint reading about this book. Everytime I see a classical author I run away panicking and, in fact, my father has a collection of books by Pérez Galdós and they are big editions, illustrated and commented on by historians and philologists, which look like Terrifying History Books. But my friend said she had read some of his novels before and they were great and, as she is my friend, I agreed to try.
Pérez Galdós wrote 46 books called the National Episodes, and Trafalgar was the first of all. He tried to write for the everyday people, not only for the erudite; he created attractive fictitious characters that were involved in certain situations of our history and wrote the stories in a simple language so that everybody could understand. Just like Ken Follett and his ilk do nowadays!
All people know about Trafalgar is the basics: Britain won, Admiral Nelson died, and this is the reason that a square was created in London, with Nelson’s statue in the middle: to commemorate the battle. But what really happened, with its details, is what Perez Galdós is going to tell us.
Gabriel is a fourteen-year-old boy, orphan, who had found a job as a servant of an old couple: Mr. Alonso Gutiérrez de Cisniega and his wife, Mrs. Francisca. Mr. Alonso had been a captain in the Navy, but now he is retired, still dreaming of joining in great battles and victories. Mrs. Francisca is more practical and realistic (‘Haven’t you been defeated enough times?’ she asks her husband) and is the one who wore the trousers in that marriage. They have a daughter, Rosita, who Gabriel fell in love with, but she is engaged to a handsome army officer, so Gabriel can’t do anything about it, even though he thoroughly tries to.
One day, one of Mr. Alonso’s friends, called Marcial, goes to their house and begin talking about a skirmish that is about to happen in Cádiz. The favourite of the Spanish king, Godoy (a kind of Prime Minister in that time), had signed an agreement with Napoleon: Spain had to ally itself with France against Britain, and the Spanish and French Navies were going to leave Cádiz in a few days. Marcial has also fought in the army but he had been wounded several times, so at this time he only has one arm and one eye and a leg made by wood; because of this he is called “half-man” by his friends. He is so typically Spanish that when he addresses the English captains he literally translates their names – or so he thinks (Collingwood for him is Cornet!) -, and he invents the words he forgets during his conversations. And here they are, an old man in his seventies, a fourteen-year-old boy and half a man talking about joining in the battle, imagining the victory and the glory, and forgetting about their real possibilities of success. And yes: finally they go to Cádiz without Mrs. Francisca knowing. Far from the bold heroes of legend, here we have the real “soldiers” who joined in the battle. At least we can say they were brave.
They enrolled in the largest of the ships ever built: the Santísima Trinidad. It was like a cathedral to Gabriel’s eyes, with its white sail and its one hundred and forty cannons. It was 18th October 1805, and that day thirty-four ships, French and Spanish, left the coast of Cádiz under French orders. Three days later they spotted the English Navy and the battle began.
The battle would have been very cinematographic. Gabriel tells us how they prepared the ship: the sawdust on the floor for the blood, the servants obeying their masters’ orders, the strange calm just before the first gunshot… And then, chaos. Admiral Nelson turned out to be a better strategist than French captains were, and he really showed it: the English Navy tried to separate their enemies, and Gabriel found the Santísima Trinidad fighting against seven English ships, with no way of getting help by the others. The fight was bloody, several soldiers and captains died and in only two hours time the Trinidad had surrendered, the English boarded the ship and – surprise! – began helping the wounded with their exquisite politeness, and trying to fix the boat. It’s a surprise because I don’t think the Spanish would have done the same if they had won the battle: they probably would have been rough with the prisoners, I’m pretty sure. English wanted to take the Santísima Trinidad to Gibraltar, in order to own the largest ship ever, but they didn’t succeed: the ship was so damaged that it sunk in the middle of the Atlantic,
our Spanish national pride sinking with it…
Gabriel thinks about the meaninglessness of war while he watches the Trinidad disappear in the sea, asking himself why people have to fight against others just because their government wants them to, and how similar the Spanish are to people all over the world.
I won’t say anything about the fate of the other characters; you only have to know that the battle was as cruel as battles are.
I was surprised that it was such an enjoyable read, full of laughs at the beginning, and action later, with remarkable characters which I will remember for a long time: Marcial, Mrs. Francisca and, of course, Gabriel. I assure you I’m going to read the rest of the National Episodes to follow the adventures of young Gabriel. How different from other classic authors is Pérez Galdós writing, and what a wonderful idea of my friend to encourage me to read it. I’m still afraid of classics, but I’ve realized that the “impossible ones” are only two or three authors.