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Torquemada by Benito Perez Galdos (Columbia University: $25; 576 pp.)

July 13, 1986| Alan Cheuse | Cheuse is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's evening news-magazine All Things Considered. His new novel, "The Grandmothers' Club" (Gibbs M. Smith), will be published this autumn. and

IN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS, we who care about novels, the reading and the writing of them, and even the filming of them, would have an education so logical and so complete in the things we care about that our passion would have rendered this translation of some of the work of Spain's 19th-Century master utterly useless. Who among us wouldn't already have read Benito Perez Galdos in college, if not high school, along with Dickens and Balzac, the other two 19th-Century novelists with whom he shares a clear kinship?

But even the most serious among us have great gaps to patch in our reading--I know wonderful American novelists who haven't done their Theodore Dreiser and short-story writers who look blank when you mention Sherwood Anderson's work outside of "Winesburg, Ohio," and while it is difficult to imagine painters who don't know Giotto, I suppose they exist; and composers who can't whistle "Histoire du Soldat," they must be around, too, but they must be still quite young and not yet finished with their educations.

But then our American characteristic seems to be that none of us really ever finishes our educations, working by means of our passions as much as by any classical rules or clearly defined sense of history toward some kind of (temporarily) satisfying synthesis of self and society, soul and state. So why not let 40-year-olds keep on patching together an education with a big swatch of Galdos right now? In the great American university of the free spirit, there's no reason why, with this translation of a group of the Spanish novelist's "contemporary" novels in hand (he also wrote a number of historical novels in a series called "Episodios nacionales"), no reason at all why we can't all enjoy some Galdos here and now.

Or is there?

One thing becomes clear when you read Galdos with some sense of the evolution of the novel. He stands as an important fraternal novelist in relation to Dickens and Balzac, working as they did to give as complete a picture as possible of contemporary European urban life (and in the case of both Galdos and Balzac also devoting time and energy to a series of novels that demonstrate the historical stepping stones toward their present). But finally, his interests with respect to drama (which is to say plot-making), if not character and society, seem somewhat narrow by comparison with those of his French and English cousins.

The development of "Torquemada" makes this apparent. The eponymous hero, the man for whom the novel is called, is a moneylender of nervous disposition. When Galdos introduces him, he is actually re introducing him, since loyal readers have encountered him before (as we do when reading a lot of Balzac and find characters turning up in novel after novel, sometimes as major figures, sometimes as minor). "He was the same man we came to know," Galdos the narrator explains, "in the home of Dona Lupe . . . in his face there was the same strange mixture of the military and the ecclesiastical, the same bilious color, dark and somewhat sleepy eyes, his expression and manner denoting slight effeminacy as well as hypocrisy, his bald spot a little larger and a little cleaner, and all of him crass, slippery and repulsive, always ready when someone greeted him to offer his hand, which indeed was rather clammy."

The first short novel of this quartet gathered here thus introduces us to Torquemada (named after the infamous inquisitor of Spain's Middle Ages), whose evolution from loan shark to new capitalist entrepreneur becomes emblematic of the great shift and change in modern Spanish society.

The movement in character goes from inner to outer, since while we see Torquemada in the first book as it were on the job, that is, rushing from apartment to house to apartment throughout Madrid collecting the interest on the infernal loans that gave him his start as a manipulator of large amounts of cash, we also see him worrying and then mourning and grieving over the sickness unto death of his genius of a child. But the boy's death is soon forgotten, and in the next three novels, we follow the money-lender on his rise through Madrid society, watching him marry his way into impoverished aristocracy and then construct the variety of middle-class financial, social and psychological structures that we can easily recognize as the underpinnings of our own.

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