A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

Back from my summer break in Portugal – that’s why there have been no posts for a few weeks.

The books I took with me turned out not to be a judicious choice. I’ll post about them anyway; although they weren’t to my taste, they have merits worth sharing.

Last spring when I visited Portugal for the first time – a short break in beautiful, shabby Lisbon – I read fiction with a Lusitanian connection: Pereira Maintains , by Antonio Tabucchi, and the pseudonymous Fernando Pessoa’s (the word in Portuguese just means ‘person’), The Book of Disquiet (I posted about both HERE; again, my response wasn’t entirely positive).


The Restlessness of Shanti Andía cover

The cover of my 1962 Signet Classics paperback, bought years ago

First: The Restlessness of Shanti Andía by Pío Baroja. I struggled through the first hundred pages, skimmed some more, then, I’m sorry to say, gave up on it.

Baroja had first interested me because he was born in San Sebastián (aka Donostia) in the Basque province of Guipuzkoa – I taught English there for a year some decades ago, and was interested to see what one of its most famous literary figures had written (one of the others is the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, 1864-1936, born in Bilbao, just along the coast from Donostia).

Between 1900 and his death aged 83 in 1956 Baroja published nearly 100 novels, and numerous volumes of autobiography, essays and other writings. This prolific output perhaps accounts for the looseness in structure and general aimlessness of Shanti Andía. Balzac was also sometimes prolix (but also capable of great characterisation, a quality I found missing in this novel).

First published in 1911, it’s a sort of picaresque fictional memoir of a dashing Basque seafarer – it formed part of a loose trilogy called ‘El Mar’, the Sea. Its title in Spanish, Las inquietudes de SA is difficult to translate; ‘restlessness’ suggests a sort of pique; ‘inquietud’ connotes unease, worry; restless as in desire to be on the move, a rejection of tranquillity. That’s Shanti: he can’t bear mundane life ashore, and longs for action, to see the world.

There’s no plot to speak of, then, just a sequence of episodes reflecting those ‘inquietudes’. The first section of the novel recounts the developmental experiences Shanti had as a boy and young man growing up in the Basque fishing village of Lúzaro, such as ‘borrowing’ a boat to explore caves said to be haunted, or trying to board a wrecked ship (an exploit that ends in near disaster). In this sense the novel reminded me of Stevenson’s yarns like Treasure Island (published 1883; indeed, RLS died in 1894, when Baroja was only 23, so he could have read him, though I have no idea if he did; RLS is a much more accomplished writer).

There’s a unifying principle, however, to the narrative: Shanti hero-worships his uncle Juan de Aquirre, who, like his father, was a sailor. The family is told the uncle has died, but Shanti in adult life discovers this is untrue; gradually the old mariner’s exploits are revealed (partly via a ‘found MS’ device beloved of gothic romance) – many of them unedifying, such as his stint serving on a slave ship. I admit I’d stopped reading attentively by then, so can’t say for sure if Baroja shows any sense of immorality in such activities.

Porto tram

My picture from inside the tram to Foz from Porto

Maybe reading this salty yarn in the urban environment of Porto was a mistake. The Atlantic is only a short ride away by charming antique tram from the picturesque city centre, but the riparian environment of the city didn’t harmonise with this book.

Porto, of course, is noted for its port wine, and I loved visiting producers’ vaults and seeing the replica rabelos – the flat-bottomed boats (with curved prows like an Arabian slipper) that plied the dangerous waters of the Douro, bringing the produce of the vineyards far upstream down to the city to be vatted and bottled by the likes of Taylor, Sandeman and Cálem.


Old photo of rabelos displayed on the wall of a port producer in the upstream Douro town of Regua










But — back to Baroja.

During Shanti’s apprenticeship to a Cádiz sea captain and his first voyages on the Philippines run, he becomes romantically (and disastrously) involved with their employer’s imperious daughter. Even more clichéd adventures and entanglements follow, with similarly implausible coincidences and complications that could have come straight out of medieval romance.

Shanti Andia title page

Title page of the Signet edition

I don’t think it was the fault of the translators, whose prose reads fairly lucidly, for the most part. It’s the boy’s-own content that I couldn’t get on with.

Maybe I should go back to Bernardo Atxaga.




Taylor's port caves

Inside the Taylor’s port wine caves



10 thoughts on “A picaresque Basque: Pío Baroja, The Restlessness of Shanti Andía

  1. Sounds like you had a nice time with the various port producers! The rabelos are quite something, aren’t they? I love hearing about these old traditions…

    • They built dams in the Douro some years back; before then the river was treacherous, and there were numerous accidents, apparently. The rabelos were designed to cope with the shallow draft and fierce currents. The Taylor’s cave was quite something: vats holding hundreds of litres of wine…and lovely wine, too.

  2. I’m sorry to hear the book didn’t turn out well for you. I loved Books 1-3, the boyhood memory section, but found the remainder uneven. John Dos Passos called it “romantic claptrap,” which is again harsher than my memory of it. I’ve found Baroja’s writing to be consistently better when he’s writing a “tighter” book or series of novels, such as “The Struggle for Life” trilogy. I see in my notes this quote from Book 3, Chapter 1, that (to me) captures the first half well:

    “I do not know why it is that the past is flooded with a magical melancholy—it is hard to understand why it should be. One recalls clearly that one was not happy in those days, that one was possessed by restlessness and sorrows, and nevertheless, one has the impression that the sun then shone brighter and that the blue of the sky was purer and more splendid. ”

    Thanks so much for your notes…and visiting the port vaults sounds like a blast!

    • Dwight: thanks for that comment; I was hoping someone with greater knowledge of Baroja would provide an alternative view. I found the first few books more engaging than the rest. Maybe I should give the ‘tighter’ ones you mention a try. I don’t like writing negative posts about a book, so when I do I’m always gratified when readers point out features that perhaps I had missed or need to reassess. That quotation is typical of PB’s prose at his best; he writes well about times past, with a melancholy pessimism. And yes, the port vaults & exhibits were brilliant! Thanks for dropping by & taking the time to comment.

      • I understand (and agree) about not enjoying writing negative posts, but if something doesn’t click for you it doesn’t. I think he’s worth checking out some more, although his books can be hard to find in English, but I can see where his style isn’t going to appeal to everyone. I look forward to reading more about your trip!

        • Thanks again, Dwight, and I enjoyed browsing your blog, A Common Reader, and would recommend it to anyone who finds mine of interest: he has some excellent posts there on some well-known books, and others I didn’t know. More on the Portugal trip is imminent!

  3. Sounds like a great trip but not a great book, or at least not a great book for that trip.

    And while I’m overusing “great”, isn’t riparian a great word? Delighted to see it used.

    • Max: glad you liked the word. It’s probably the first time I’ve used it in earnest, and shall deploy it cautiously in future! I had intended working ‘fluvial’ in there, but that would have been too much for one post…

  4. Hi Simon, welcome back! Any chance of a few blog entries full of photographs and some witty epigrams for those of us living vicariously through your travels? Am not totally enamored of Anthony Bourdain, but latest episode of his travel show through CNN is of him going to Porto. Planning to use a little of my TV-watching “budget” Friday to watch it. : )

    • Maureen: I hesitate before posting personal stuff like those photos, but I’ll try to comply. Porto was a lovely place to visit, and I’d like to explore further, like Coimbra, with one of the most ancient universities in Europe. Oddly enough, I nearly moved there with a chum many years ago; he had an apartment there, and we explored the possibility of starting an IT business together – he had the IT expertise, I had a little, plus could have taught technical English. Alas, it never came to be, but I’ve often wondered what might have been. But I loved my time in San Sebastián: the Basque country has a special magic, it’s an enclave of weirdness and has a special aura. Beautiful coastline, mountains looming over it, green and undulating – just beautiful. I’ll dig out an old postcard or two, if i can find them.

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