Here There Be Monsters: Rediscovering Contemporary Catalan Literature

Context N°24

Helena Buffery

In the run-up to the 1992 Olympics, the somewhat incongruous question “Do you know where Catalonia is?” appeared on full-page spreads in UK broadsheets, as well as in Time and Newsweek in the US. The campaign formed part of a project to use media coverage of the Barcelona Olympics as a platform from which to achieve wider recognition for Catalan cultural tradition, marking it as different from that of the rest of Spain. And there can be no doubt that the cultural policies and programming negotiated around the celebration of the XXV Olympiad contributed to placing the Olympic city, if not Catalonia itself, firmly on the international map. 1992, of course, was a year given over to other “discoveries”: the Spanish capital Madrid enjoyed the accolade of European City of Culture, and Seville hosted the International Expo, events that encouraged new audiences to uncover the cultural wares of a formerly fledgling democracy now arguably in full flight. But it was also a year marked by the commemoration of a more controversial encounter, the quincentenary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas in 1492. The map of discovery in 1992 was thus both heterogeneous and somewhat treacherous, a palimpsest that changed in aspect according to socio-economic, cultural and geopolitical location.
Twenty years later we might, of course, reflect further on the landscape revealed by that year of “discovery,” above all on the way in which it served to legitimize a view of the Spanish-speaking world as a shared cultural space unified by a common language, thus down-playing its multilingual and multicultural character. As far as Catalan culture was concerned, such a vision had in previous decades served as justification for the repression of a language perceived as a threat to the unity of the Spanish nation. The outcome of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) led to an intense period of cultural and political “purification” in Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands, with books burned, strict circumscription of cultural production in the local language, and the repression or forced reassignment of educators and public servants to other parts of Spain. The language and culture survived largely as a result of the resistance of writers, educators and citizens, who continued to use Catalan in so far as they were able, whether in clandestine journals, civic educational projects or, later, in the many publishing ventures that began to appear at the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as Francisco Franco’s dictatorship began to show a more liberal face in tune with the opening of the Spanish economy to international markets and tourism.
What is surprising is the quality of many of the works published during the period of cultural repression, from the poetry of Salvador Espriu, who by the 1960’s had been transformed into a mythical figure for his role in “saving the language,” to the soon to be canonical and internationally recognized classics Bearn o la sala de les nines, by the Mallorcan writer, Llorenç Villalonga, and La plaça del diamant, by Barcelona-born novelist Mercè Rodoreda, then living in exile in Geneva.
Less surprising is the emphasis placed on recovering, restoring and promoting this battered and fragile literary tradition in the years after Catalonia was granted the limited home rule negotiated during Spain’s transition to democracy. Aware that cultural legitimacy and prestige required external recognition, there was a focus on translation and internationalization, but this often centered on a limited number of works, and names  perceived to be “Universal Catalans,” and any shifts from this vision were generally owing to the personal interests of particular translators or academics. In English, especially, this meant that at first the most translated genre was poetry, with versions of classic texts by the fifteenth-century Valencian poet Ausiàs March, by the post-war civic poetry of Salvador Espriu, as well as by J. V. Foix, Carles Riba, Josep Carner, Joan Salvat-Papasseit, Jacint Verdaguer, Miquel Martí i Pol, and, more recently, Narcís Comadira and Joan Margarit.

As far as narrative is concerned, from the 1980’s the prolific translator David Rosenthal introduced works by Rodoreda, including a new version of La Plaça del Diamant, rendered lyrically as “The Time of the Doves”; Tirant lo Blanc, an extraordinary fifteenth-century Valencian novel; and Solitude by the pioneering woman writer Caterina Albert (Víctor Catala). Other narrative landscapes translated into English include the comically ambiguous and absurd worlds of Pere Calders and Quim Monzó; the intricate historical excavations of Jesús Moncada’s lost Aragonese universe of Mequinensa in The Towpath; Carme Riera’s heterodox depiction of an early-modern Mallorca irrevocably marked by the Spanish Inquisition (In the Last Blue); and the dark, all-pervasive ruins of the Spanish Civil War in Joan Sales, Jaume Cabré, Maria Barbal and Lluís-Anton Baulenas. Furthermore, the last few years have seen new vistas opened in the irreverent detective novels of Teresa Solana, in the monstrous anthropologies of Rodoreda’s posthumous novel, Death in Spring, and of Albert Sanchez-Pinol, and in the multicultural contact zones plotted by Moroccan-Catalan writer Najat El Hachmi. Other texts by Catalans available in English include the experimental writings of Salvador Dalí and Joan Brossa, Joan Fuster’s acerbic Dictionary for the Idle, as well as a wide range of plays by Sergi Belbel, Josep Benet i Jornet, and Lluïsa Cunillé, amongst others.
The landscape is quite a varied one, including works from different geographical locations, periods and genres, as well as more hybrid, experimental writing. Yet it continues to lack visibility, with relatively few reviews in English language media. In general the most conspicuous elements continue to be versions of a handful of late medieval and modern classics, alongside the burgeoning number of pseudo-historical mystery and crime novels set in Barcelona, many of them published originally in Spanish. The translations published by Dalkey Archive as part of its new Catalan Literature Series set out to explore new geographies, uncovering voices from parts of the Catalan-speaking territories outside Barcelona, and introducing more experimental texts, such as Espriu’s Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth and Miquel Bauçà’s The Siege in the Room.

In the first book in the series, Llorenç Villalonga’s The Doll’s Room (a reissue of Deborah Bonner’s excellent 1988 translation of Bearn o la Sala de les nines), the reader is taken on a voyage to nineteenth-century Mallorca, whose elite was still made up of ancient noble families with names harking back to the early thirteenth-century conquest of the island. The largely monolingual Catalan-speaking population, represented by its nostalgic, orthodox Catholic narrator, Joan Mayol, is undergoing an inexorable decline, which, in his rewriting of history, Mayol attributes to the influx of foreign ideas of progress and modernity. However, his inescapable attraction to the more subversive behavior and ideas of his enlightened, rationalist patron means that we are also able to glimpse a more ironic sub-text, that of Don Toni Bearn’s Faustian memoirs, which hint at dark family secrets of incest, cross-dressing, homosexuality, promiscuity and Freemasonry. Taking us through the changing spaces of a century seen through the life of a dying aristocracy, the novel pushes its readers to move beyond prevalent domesticating or exoticizing cartographies and capture the cultural specificity of everyday existence in a different space. Completed in the late 1950s, on the very threshold of mass tourism to the Balearic Islands, the novel tends to satirize the tourist’s worldview, whether through reference to Georges Sands’ mistaken belittling of Mallorcan peasants for believing that tuberculosis might be a contagious disease, or through the grotesque exoticism of the English “painter” Miss Murray, who sees everything through the lens of her late discovery of the senses on a previous visit to Southern Europe. In contrast, the narrative privileges the virtue of close contemplation, whether of beauty or monstrosity, in order to gain an insight into a lost world, so often presented in other parts of Spain, as a way of excluding difference, as having been “invented.”

Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth, rendered perhaps too poetically by Rowan Ricardo Phillips, is the first of Salvador Espriu’s narrative works to have been translated into English, and is made up of 34 stories, written and rewritten over a period of 40 years. First published in 1935, it was a text intended to break with the normalizing tendencies put in motion by contemporary standardization of the Catalan language. Set in a superficially abstract space—Lavínia, which masks the real identity of Barcelona—its stories range across the different spaces of early twentieth-century Catalonia, capturing a diversity of voices, distinguished by gender, geography, education, politics and social status, voices and dialogues which are themselves the subject of commentary and debate amongst the collective of actor-readers who populate Espriu’s narrative universe. The prevailing satirical tone would indicate that, on first publication, Ariadne was partly intended to be read as a roman à clef, reflecting the intergenerational hypocrisy and often grotesque social mores of its time. However, in later rewritings the immense socio-cultural gulf between Republican and post-war Catalonia is bridged by Espriu’s insertion of more nostalgic and mythical poetic landscapes, written in the 1940s and 1950s, incorporating the endeavor to create a space in which the Catalan language might survive. Thus, the obsession with death, deformity, carnivalesque ritual and social deviancy comes to symbolize a more general struggle for survival, whilst Espriu’s concern with communicating a range of registers to a rapidly changing Catalan readership, which lacks access to a variety of contemporary texts in its own language, suggests that style and message cannot be so easily divorced.

The texts published in The Siege in the Room, ranging from the prize-winning Carrer Marsala (1985) to the 1992 novellas El Vellard and L’escarcellera, at first sight offer a range of sterile non-sequiturs, which Martha Tennent has cleverly sought to place in dialogue with the work of Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, pointing to the underlying flight from the “literary” at the heart of Bauçà’s project. Fleeing from dialogue (the gregariousness of the socialization process so deplored by his invariably misanthropic narrative voices), here literature is not about representation or communication, but about its negative. Similarly, texts like Carrer Marsala present a photographic negative of Barcelona, of Catalonia and of the Catalan-speaking territories, traceable only in scant references to real places, as well as the often repugnant social practices associated with them. This is less the abstract space described by Tennent in her preface to the translation than a temporarily squatted non-space, a negation of what is understood through everyday social transactions as lived space. In later works, Bauçà’s anthropology of this curiously compelling kind of negative, non-lived space is linked explicitly to the particular cultural crisis experienced by the Catalan territories. Yet it is a space that can also be recognized as symptomatic of a more general late-modern malaise, where the signal to noise ratio becomes ever greater.

Bauçà’s posthumously published work, Rudiments de saviesa (Rudiments of Wisdom, 2005) includes the following poem-aphorism: “True surrealism / is an anthropological fact: / having nothing to do with art. / It appears only in tribes / on the small side, conscious / of their weak consistency—both recourse and expression—/ like the Belgians or the Catalans.” Considered in his lifetime as somewhat of an anomaly in Catalan literature, this maverick writer was himself described admiringly by Julià Guillamon as a tumor or excrescence on the face of contemporary Catalan culture. It remains to be seen whether such monsters have the potential to bring an elusive visibility to Catalan literary culture, shrouded as it is by the labyrinthine alleys, bars and bookshops of Barcelona that populate Spanish-language originals, such as Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. The three texts published by Dalkey Archive Press in 2010 present a diversity of Catalan landscapes that lie beyond the sparkling limits of the city of ivory, evoking Catalan-speaking chronotopes captured and mythologized at the moment of their dissolution and dispersal. They reveal a Catalan geography that historically, as is suggested elliptically in The Doll’s Room, stretched to parts of Italy, and even the Vatican (the Borgias themselves were of Catalan-speaking Valencian origin), but that now finds itself threatened with a kind of terminal, suicidal decline, transmitted through the violence, monstrosity and sadomasochistic tendencies represented in some of its literary excrescences.

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