The Tree of Knowledge

Rasha al Raisi

Pío Baroja , the well-known Spanish writer (1872-1956)-, described his book The Tree of Knowledge as “the most accomplished and completed of all my books”. And while reading it I couldn’t agree more.

The story takes place between 1887 and 1898 and focuses on one main character: Andrés Hurtado. The book is divided into seven chapters, each chapter focuses on a different stage of Hurtado’s life starting from being a medical student in a university in Madrid; through his work experience in a fictional farming town called Alcolea in Castilla-de-Mancha; to moving back again to Madrid to work in the slums as a hygiene doctor and ending with his marriage to his old friend Lulu.

The fourth chapter is the densest as it’s a philosophical dialogue between Hurtado and his uncle Iturrioz– a medical doctor too- where they discuss society, science and the ideas of Kant and Schopenhauer. Even the title of the book is mentioned in this discussion. The tree of knowledge was in Eden and its bitter fruit: “ends up destroying humanity”, according to Iturrioz.

Baroja gives a vivid description of life in Spain during a turning point in its history: losing the last colonies in Cuba, Guam and the Philippines. He also paints a clear picture of society at that time and the vast gap between the Bourgeois class in Madrid and the peasants in rural areas.

Through his friend Lulu, Hurtado witnesses the life of the Spanish working class in a particular Madrilenian neighbourhood and hears their different stories. Women maltreatment is also evident in many chapters of the book, from domestic abuse to his own medical experience: training at the female ward in a mental hospital and later working as a hygiene doctor in brothels, feeling helpless facing the horrors of human trafficking.

Being a physician is a hard job as Hurtado seems to be struggling with two different sides: his colleagues (the corrupted ones and the ones who are too comfortable with the ancient practices) and with his ignorant patients who can’t relate to him being a man of science and philosophy and not of God. Baroja takes the readers in an emotional ride as they accompany Hurtado at different stages of his life: from being the young rebel who condemns his society to the mature man whose ideals clash with the harshness of reality.

Hurtado’s pessimism and sense of futility of life increases at every chapter. His compassion with his patients takes a toll on him and he finally decides to react. One of the things that I enjoyed most while reading the book is the description of different scenes and side characters. Interesting to know, the novel is based on Baroja’s experience as a medical student. He practiced medicine for a short time – and managed the family bakery- before becoming a writer. Baroja is considered one of generation ’98 -the time of the Spanish-American war- important writers along with other famous names such as Azorín and Unamuno. He’s known for his nine trilogies including: The Basque (1900-1909) and The Struggle for Life (1922-1924).

Shortly before his death in October 1956, Hemingway- who considered Baroja a great influence- paid him a visit and said: “Allow me to pay this small tribute to you who taught so much to those of us who wanted to be writers when we were young. I deplore the fact that you have not yet received a Nobel Prize, especially when it was given to so many who deserved it less- like me- who am only an adventurer”. The Tree of Knowledge is a gripping masterpiece till the last page.

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