“Look, in Barcelona there are thousands of tall tales… The plot is the least of it. The real thing is how to write it. How to put things down, how to make them interesting and alive. I’ve tried it many times, but I’ve given up. I’ve found a simpler way to make a living…”
“I’m not ready to give up yet…”*
This passage from the recently translated Catalan novel Private Life by Josep Maria de Sagarra details a conversation of two young men at a Barcelona bar in the 1930s. But I swear that I heard these same sentiments just the other day…
Catalan literature is, in the general order of Romance literatures, exceptional. Catalan is the only literature in the Mediterranean arc that, despite dating back to the Middle Ages like the other romantic languages, has survived to the present day without the buttress of a state of its very own. Yet.
The language’s geographical domain covers Spain, Andorra, France, and even Italy, thanks to the Sardinian town of Alghero. The map of Catalan literature crosses frontiers corresponding to the historical territory of the medieval frontier province of the Crown of Catalonia and Aragon. Today Catalan not only survives but thrives in a community of nine million speakers.**
Let’s focus on Catalonia’s 20th and the expanding and evolving 21st century literary tradition. Poets Josep Carner and Salvador Espriu, the fiction writers Mercè Rodoreda, Pere Calders, Llorenç Villalonga, Josep M. de Sagarra and Joan Sales have made their mark alongside UK titans George Orwell (best known for his dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm) and Colm Tóibín (prolific, contemporary Irish novelist whose time spent in Barcelona inspired his first novel, The South). Orwell and Tóibín pay homage to Catalonia in their texts’ Homage to Catalonia and Homage to Barcelona, respectively. These autobiographical texts are required reading for English-language writers and their children living in Barcelona.
In the 21st century, writers Jaume Cabré, Quim Monzó, Albert Sánchez-Piñol, Sergi Pàmies, Eduard Márquez, Jordi Puntí, Maria Barbal, Francesc Serés, Carlos Ruiz Zafón and others have made and continue to make their international mark, with the help of translators and influential foundations such as JIWAR, the Institut Ramon Llull and PEN Català, contributing to the global boom in interest of Catalan literature. Catalonia’s rich literary tradition, undeniable; to be a part of this organic and thriving tradition, thrilling.
Why write in Barcelona? In 1995 I first visited Barcelona to see Gaudi’s work with my own eyes; the slides in the darkroom in college did not do Casa Batlló, Sagrada Familia, La Pedrera justice. I fell in love with the city and in retrospect, I wonder why I didn’t stay. I returned several more times, and later, after I married, with my family. On this adventure, my family joined me at JIWAR in Gràcia.
What does it mean to write in Barcelona? I take inspiration from the city’s “thousands of tales,” its architecture — the Modernisme, the hidden gardens – interior and secret, the rooftop terraces, clothing drying on lines like Nepalese prayer flags, the exquisite tiled floors, nature-inspired vibrant stained glass creations on windows and doors that create tinted light, the sea, the narrow stone side streets with Catalunya independence flags proudly strewn and the wide bourgeois passeiges, the spires of the Sagrada Familia piercing the skyline, Tibidabo waiting in the mountains, beckoning like a palace; the people — warm, friendly, expressive, cosmopolitan; the sounds — of the gas canisters’ clanging, shades rolling up and down, cooing doves, playing children, buzzing construction, whirring scooters, tolling church bells; the food– pa amb tomàquet, fuet dangling, the fresh fruit, vegetables and cuts of meat arranged tenderly like jewels. The Vales, Déu-s (day-ohs which reminded me of Harry Belafonte), Bon dias, Bona nits, café solos… sunrises, sunsets, the moon and the stars, all visible in this magical city. This is Barcelona.
The following excerpts from my work-in-progress provide a glimpse of the protagonist Esmé’s perspective, a perspective gradually rendered unreliable, repetitious, tampered by her mind’s descent into dementia.
excerpt from Chapter 45
Barcelona: Tonic of Modernity
Feeling at peace was a long time in coming. The shock of the prognosis, the disappointment within her family, the stress — albeit laced with excitement — of planning the trip, her trip melted away. She was here, here in Orwell’s Catalonia, Tóibín’s Barcelona, her Gràcia. She was home. Returning to Barcelona felt like a tonic to Esmé.
Writing can be based on biography, autobiography or just plain reflection, experimentation and whim. Ideas morph– fictionalized, edited, rebooted, assimilated — into a story. For this blog, I’ve chosen a lighthearted excerpt from my novel’s manuscript in homage to JIWAR and a particularly beloved longtime resident.
excerpt from Chapter 51
She left her home and walked toward Coleridge Lane, a short distance away. She saw the house before the number, knowing which one would certainly be Miss Margaret’s. The deep orange gabled house with wisteria winding its way along maintained trellises and lavender-lined walkway to the front door was just the place where Esmé thought the librarian would live. As she turned up the walk, she saw what must have been one of Miss Margaret’s plump cats, sunning himself on the porch.
He was a lot of cat. The borderline feral furry tabby spent his nights on the neighborhood prowl and his days sleeping on the porch. There wasn’t a mouse, chipmunk or vole for yards with that fur ball on the job. Even raccoons shied away from the orange beast.
He purred and hopped toward Esmé. Yes, he hopped. Esmé glanced down at the large puff ball and noticed only three legs extending from his body. The cat was a tripod. Woken from his nap, he deftly ambled from spot to spot. The cat moved swiftly, with the grace of a burly wide receiver. When he nuzzled up next to Esmé, she wasn’t sure whether to be repulsed by his dirty, pricker-infested fur or enamored by his muscled perseverance and kind demeanor. Without a second thought, she accepted the cat’s advances and gave him a good, thorough pet before ringing the bell.
Within moments, Miss Margaret answered the door dressed in vintage elegance. Her red-lipped smile mirrored Esmé’s own enthusiasm and curiosity.
“Come in, dear Esmé, come in! I see you’ve met my little Pelut!”
Esmé thought, “Little?” but said, “Yes, he’s a sweet cat. Very furry!”
“Yes, he is. Pelut keeps me busy,” she said, as she welcomed Esmé inside her home. “What fun we are about to share! There’s no turning back now. Your education into couture is about to begin.”
Esmé couldn’t have prepared for what she saw next.
*De Sagarra, Josep Maria. Private Life. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago, 2015. Print. 254.
Moltes gràcies, JIWAR!