Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Felipe Avadoro

I realize the inherent foolishness of diagnosing someone who a) lived approximately 300 years ago, and b) never actually lived because he's a fictional character. Still, it's hard for me to read the parts of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa about Don Felipe Avadoro in 2015 without imaging him as someone on the autism spectrum.

The symptoms of autism typically become apparent in early childhood, however, and we are told nothing about the early life of Don Felipe Avadoro. Juan Avadoro (a.k.a. Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief) describes his father's eccentricities as developing in adulthood, possibly in response to the shock of losing his wife.

He had the reputation of being the most serious and methodical man of his age. He was so methodical, in fact, that if I told you the story of one of his days you would at once know his whole life's history, or at least the history of the time between his two marriages, the first to which I owe my existence and the second which caused his death by the irregularity it introduced into his style of life.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

Juan Avadoro's mother died giving birth to him, and the child is raised by an aunt while Don Felipe retreats into his house in inconsolable grief. Eventually he emerges, at least in a limited capacity — from that point on, he orders every minute of his life through precisely regimented routines. The structure allows him to enjoy life's simple pleasures while limiting the amount of human contact and human chaos he experiences.

Several pages in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa are devoted to Don Felipe's daily routine:

The first task of the morning for my father would be to open the door of the balcony which looked out over the Calle de Toledo. There he would breathe in the fresh air for a quarter of an hour; then he would open the window which looked out on to the side-street. If there was anyone at the window opposite, he would great them courteously, saying 'Agour,' then close the window. 'Agour' was sometimes the only word he would utter all day, for although he was passionately interested in the fate of all the plays performed at the Teatro de la Cruz he would only manifest this interest by clapping, never by speaking. If no one was at the window opposite he would wait patiently for someone to appear so that he could perform his courteous greeting.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 12

As the day (every day) progresses, he attends Mass, meticulously checks how well his maid has cleaned his Madrid apartment, and rolls 24 perfectly uniform cigarettes, which he smokes at specific times throughout the afternoon and evening. When possible, he attends plays at his preferred theater, the Teatro de la Cruz. When there's no performance there, he walks to Moreno's Bookshop to listen to the conversation of the educated gentlemen who gather there, but he never joins in.

The closest that the passive Don Felipe comes to engaging with this group of "some of the finest minds in Spain" is overhearing them complain about the difficulty of getting good ink. He takes up ink-making, eventually setting up a huge earthenware jar (called a Tobosesca tinaja, or Tobosan jar) over a stove in his apartment, in order to better mix and heat it. Soon all the literary figures in Madrid are coming to his house to respectfully request some of his high-quality ink, and he is dubbed Don Felipe del Tintero Largo (Don Felipe of the Large Inkpot).

It's entertaining to read about all of Don Felipe's eccentricities, but it's also a little sad. The pleasant, safe little life he constructs for himself is revealed to be extremely fragile.

Juan Avadoro recalls that his father was absent from his childhood, whether because he "feared that the sight of me would revive memories of the beloved person whose death I had unwittingly caused or whether he did not want my infant cries to disturb his silent habits." When Don Felipe finally agrees to see the boy in his apartment, the boisterous Juan climbs up on a tall cupboard, slips, and falls into the vat of ink; his aunt smashes the huge jar, saving Juan's life and flooding the room. The promise of a relationship between father and son, as delicate as the large inkpot, is shattered.

Image "Crisis on the desktop" by Alan Cleaver, 2010.

Later, Juan becomes aware that the parasitic meddler, Don Roque Busqueros, has designs on his father and his money. The plot is to get Don Felipe to marry one of Busquero's relatives, but Juan, who has been banished from his father's presence and is supposed to remain in seclusion because of a penance imposed on him by the Inquisition, is unable to do anything to protect his father. Don Felipe is so predictable that he's easy to manipulate.

The relative in question, Señorita Gita Cimiento, is moved into one of the apartments opposite his, so naturally Don Felipe greets her and her mother every morning when he comes out on his balcony. Señorita Cimiento acts quiet and retiring, and can be seen mixing colored inks and preparing sticks of sealing wax, so that Don Felipe feels a kinship with her.

The devious Busqueros employs Don Felipe's passion, ink, as a weapon against him. For years the quiet man has enjoyed receiving the praise and thanks of men of letters who utilize the fine black ink he creates. Now a stranger comes to Don Felipe's apartment with an empty ink bottle, but instead of praising the virtues of ink, he lists all the evils it can be used for:

The stranger was none other than the implacable Busqueros. 'Señor Avadoro,' he said to my father, 'you make up a liquid here which has done much evil in the world. So many plots, so much treachery, so much trickery, so many wicked books — all have flowed from ink, not to speak of love-letters and all those little conspiracies against the happiness of husbands and against their honour. What do you say to that, Señor Avadoro? You say nothing, but it's your habit to say nothing. Never mind, I'll speak for both of us. That's my habit, more or less, Now, Señor Avadoro, sit down on that chair and let me explain my idea to you. I claim that from this bottle of ink there will come out ....'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 54

And the ink does come out, all over Don Felipe's clothes, when Busqueros tips the bottle over. As if to confirm Busqueros's theory, the ink proceeds to make more and more trouble, as Busqueros, after refilling his ink bottle, leaves the tap on the earthenware jar open, so that ink runs all over the floor. Finally, on the pretense of testing how durable the large inkwell really is, Busqueros hits it with a pestle; it breaks, and the room is flooded (again!) with ink. It drips down through the floor into a cloth merchant's shop downstairs, where all the inventory is ruined. Don Felipe is evicted from his apartment and ends up living — where else? — in an unoccupied room owned by Señorita Cimiento's mother.

Nine days later, Busqueros brings in a legal document, unrequested, for publishing the banns of marriage for Don Felipe and Señorita Cimiento. He preys on the older man's shyness and fear of conflict:

'Señor Avadoro,' he said, 'your coming marriage is no longer a secret. All Madrid is informed of it, so if you intend to put it off the relatives of Señorita Cimiento will assemble in my house and you will come there and divulge to them the reasons for the delay. That is a courtesy you cannot dispense with.'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 54

Faced with the threat of such embarrassment, and minutes later with the presence of an inexplicably weeping Señorita Cimiento, Don Felipe caves and signs the document. In the days that follow he is just as easily led to the church to marry the young lady who, he soon discovers, is not a solemn, submissive, silent muse, but rather a "lively, noisy flibbertigibbet." Immediately afterward, Busqueros maneuvers him into signing away, in ink, his power of attorney and all his estate.

Don Felipe briefly hopes that, now that his young wife and Busqueros have control of his money, maybe they'll leave him in peace, but no, Busqueros launches into a description of all the social activities and obligations they intend to drag him into. Don Felipe has some kind of stroke — described as "a state of lethargy" — from which he never recovers. He soon dies. Was this always the intention, or did his tormentors think they were doing the quiet recluse a favor by initiating him into Madrid's social whirl? With Busqueros involved, it's hard to say.

Don Felipe's son Juan takes a fatalistic attitude about the loss of his father:

... that was the end of a man who wasn't born with even the degree of physical and mental strength sufficient to give him an average amount of energy. A sort of instinct had led him to choose a way of life which was proportionate to his powers. He was killed by people wishing to propel him into active life.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 54

Personally, I see it differently. Upon reflection, Don Felipe seems to me less like someone on the autism spectrum and more like someone who, having experienced deep grief and pain, attempts to organize and control his life so perfectly that such emotions can never touch him again. All the messiness of life is controlled and contained, like a reservoir of ink in a great earthenware jar. Is it any wonder that, whenever a chaotic personality like Juan Avadoro or Don Roque Busqueros enters the quiet sanctuary, the jar is inevitable smashed, with catastrophic consequences?

This character is introduced in Day 12.