Just an hour away from Barcelona, and slotted between the Bertí cliffs and Montseny National Park, lies the municipality of Figueró-Montmany: a rugged rural terrain of extraordinary natural beauty. While the area is now popular with trekkers and climbers, through the first part of the 20th century it was an inaccessible backwater that experienced dreadful poverty and suppression. This contrast between beauty and obscurity intrigued one of the most acclaimed Catalan writers of the turn of the last century, Raimon Casellas.
London-based artist Eva Bosch dedicated three years to editing an English translation of Casellas's classic novel, Els Sots Ferestecs (1901), which has been recently published under the title, Dark Vales. This strange, poetic novel is rooted both physically and psychologically in the landscape of Figueró-Montmany, where Eva herself grew up. As she explained to Barcelona Metropolitan, the title refers to peculiar features of the zone: deep craggy ravines and potholes that bore into the earth and seem almost bottomless. These sots play a literal and symbolic role in Dark Vales, which was translated by acclaimed British scholar Alan Yates.
Tell us about the author and his relationship with Montseny
Casellas was born in Barcelona to a well to do family. He lost his father when he was nine months old and his mother rented a place in the village of Figueró-Montmany where they holidayed, or escaped there for health reasons—during the yellow fever epidemic of 1870, for example. Casellas knew the landscape intimately and this is reflected in the geographical accuracy and emotional engagement of his descriptions.
What was your personal interest in the book?
I felt I could relate to it: it takes place in the village where I grew up in the 1950s during Franco's era. Then the village was poor and repressed, but 1901, of course, was a much cruder era. I relate to both the physical and the psychological elements: take the title, the 'Sots', physically, if you look down into them you feel you're going to be sucked in! They're popular with climbers today, but I recall, when I was little, my father, often, used to collect dead bodies from them—youngsters who had tried to climb them without ropes and things and fell... They play a symbolic role in the book, too. They represent a state of mind: the darkness, dumbness of the villagers.
Why is Casellas' such a dark portrayal of the area and its people?
It's a landscape both poetic and psychological. The turn of the century was a period of trouble, both in public life and in Casellas' own life. It was a time of great poverty in Spain and in Catalonia, where the issue of Catalan identity was very much in play and came to a head with the violence of the setmana tràgica uprising in 1909. Tragic Week is the name used for a series of bloody confrontations between the Spanish army and the working classes of Barcelona and other cities of Catalonia during the last week of July 1909. It was caused by the calling-up of reserve troops to be sent as reinforcements when Spain renewed military-colonial activity in Morocco. Only the rich could pay their way out of the recruitment. The book was originally published as a series, but Casellas, a Catalan nationalist himself, had a major falling out with his publisher at Le Veu de Catalunya. In 1910, he died—and is thought to have killed himself. After his death, the book was lost. The Civil War and Franco era suppressed Catalan culture, and it wasn't until the 1980s when the late, great historian Jordi Castellanos brought Casellas back to life, publishing two remarkable books about him. Casellas is now considered one of the most important Catalan writers, and a pioneer in modernism.
Who are the main characters?
The main character is Father Llàtzer, a man who refuses to give up. His background is rather shady, he arrives in this godforsaken village having been banished for heresy, accused of egoism for not following the Catholic Church line. In one sense he is the archetypal Catholic who adopts the traditional authoritarian ways to convince the villagers. In another, he believes in love and that humanity is full of goodness. He searches desperately for an ounce of feeling among these godless, poverty-stricken people. This makes him a complex human character and very modern. It's interesting that there is an ambiguous relationship between author and character, also pioneering for this literary period.
How well does the book reflect provincial, turn-of-the-century Catalunya?
Some of the other characters are archetypal Catalan villagers, really rooted in the period. Mariagna, for example—all she does is work, work, work and she's terribly kind but emotionless, as if she learned to be kind not chose to be. She met her husband, Josep, and married him because she was told to. Casellas presents her in an unsentimental way but with so much compassion. The way she wants to protect her linen from the rains... I was reminded of my own grandmother.
An intriguing character is a prostitute we called Footloose (the untranslatable, 'La Roda-soques' in Catalan). We are led to ask: why does the priest hate her so much? Why do the villagers desire her, give her their best cheeses and other produce and yet, at times they are so flabbergasted that they don't even have sex with her? I think it reveals their repression, that she's a dream rather than a reality.
What relevance has the book to us now?
While it is rooted in a particular time and place it is very contemporary, not only in the places mentioned, that still exist—though many of them are ruins—but in the whole feel of the book. The whole area is spectacular and well worth a visit.
There's something about Figueró-Montmany that still attracts, let's say, 'eccentric' residents, even today, as if the landscape is in control, as if history repeats itself. But it's also a stunning place full of secretive spots: El Llac de les Fades (Lake of the Fairies), the Cingles de Bertí (Bertí cliffs), or the foothills of Montseny. These places are mentioned in the book, as are specific buildings: the Casa de les Puces (House of the Fleas), a reference to the women that once lived in it, and the Castell de les Moros (Castle of the Moors) beyond it.
In addition to that, Dark Vales deals with conformity, the 'dumb masses', and an idealistic individual and his struggle to break through the deadness of society. These themes are timeless and universal. That extreme poverty, however, no longer exists, but the village does allow for isolation as it is a “sleeping village”, there is no industry, people have to travel to the city for work. In my village, temperatures can sink as low as minus 17 degrees. And if it's that cold in the village, imagine how cold it is at the bottom of a sot...
Els Sots Ferestecs / Dark Vales was translated thanks to a grant from Institut Ramon Llull. It is published by Dedalus Books (www.dedalusbooks.com) and is available in Llibreria Calders (Barcelona) or on Amazon.
The village of Figueró-Montany is 40km from Barcelona and can be reached via train (C3 Cercanias Hospitalet - Vic), bus (Sagales), or by road - the C17.
For more information about the zone see: www.elfigaro.net.