Since the times of Cervantes, when Don Quijote arrived in Barcelona and saw the sea for the first time, the city has held a fascination for writers and novelists. It has provided inspiration for countless novels and has been the setting for well-known tales of love, mystery, betrayal and intrigue. The city's ambition to occupy an important place on the world stage and its rich cultural heritage contrast with its difficult, and often violent, history. These apparent contradictions create a dramatic backdrop that is ripe for fiction. Johari Gautier Carmona takes a look at six Spanish novels and the different ways they portray the city and all its ambiguities.
La claque by Juan Miñana
In his novel La claque, Juan Miñana portrays an eminently bourgeois city that is about to celebrate its first Universal Exhibition in 1888. The protagonist, a wealthy Frenchman who is determined to win back a lost love, has created a company of professional ‘applauders’ who bring the city’s theatre scene to life and whose presence can guarantee the success of any play. Barcelona is depicted as a cosmopolitan and refined city, highly preoccupied with appearances and good taste. Every day, ships arrive at the port, their passengers spilling out into the neighbourhoods near the sea. The author describes a city with two distinct faces. In the quieter hours, it is the meeting place of workers, messengers, supply carts and servants. Later in the day, the Ramblas become an elegant place of leisure for a very different class of citizen.
La ciudad de los prodigios by Eduardo Mendoza
Eduardo Mendoza describes the same coexistence of two different worlds in his novel La ciudad de los prodigios but in a more conflictive tone. A young man from the provinces, Onofre Bouvila, comes to Barcelona intent on improving his economic status. He is also coming to terms with the absence of his father, who has emigrated to Cuba. Unable to find a job, Bouvila joins a group of anarchists who use the first Universal Exhibition as a platform for their revolutionary ideas. Besides the enormous changes that the city undergoes in the late nineteenth century (technological advances, social divisions, urban growth, etc.), the author describes the complex relationship that Barcelona has with the rest of the country and, in particular, with Madrid. The city is involved in an ongoing, entangled competition with Madrid. Many decisions depend on the capital yet that same dependency also disguises Barcelona's own inconsistencies and problems. The ambiguity of the relationship is both a problem and a solution depending on the context.
Nada by Carmen Laforet
In her novel Nada (Nadal Prize, 1945) Carmen Laforet tells of Barcelona’s precarious situation after the Civil War. The protagonist is Andrea, a young student who has recently arrived in the city. She quickly discovers Barcelona's harshest side. Everything oozes emptiness, loneliness, anxiety and sadness in the life of this young woman, and the optimism of her early days in the city soon disappears. Nothing is what it seems, but appearances must be maintained, and there are few reasons for celebrating in the city the author describes. The Catalan capital manifests the isolation that Spain as a whole is suffering. Amidst stagnation and starvation, the prevailing image is that of the city’s dark streets and sad apartments. For just a while, as she studies at the university, the protagonist manages to forget the surrounding filth, violence and hatred. The Barcelona that Carmen Laforet depicts in Nada is a vivid portrayal of disappointment and emptiness, and marks the beginning of existentialist style in Spanish literature.
Ultimas tardes con Teresa by Juan Marsé
In Juan Marsé’s celebrated novel, the Mediterranean city once more adopts a dualistic character. This time it is from the perspective of southern immigration and the bourgeois neighbourhood of Sant Gervasi in the 1950s. Pijoaparte, a working-class immigrant from Murcia, falls in love with Teresa, a young idealistic woman from a wealthy family. Besides the obvious differences of daily life between the city’s most marginalised barrios and its well-heeled neighbourhoods, the novel explores the ideological differences that characterise an era of real change. Teresa is a progressive young woman who, thanks to her family background and comfortable lifestyle, can afford to dwell on revolutionary issues. Pijoaparte, on the other hand, is interested only in improving his economic standing within the confines dictated by his social background.
And so, the pragmatism of the lower classes comes face-to-face with the idealism of the upper classes. The resulting confrontation exposes the contradictions and hypocrisies of both.
Círculos concéntricos by Carmen Matutes
In Círculos concéntricos, Carmen Matutes describes Barcelona during the last years of Franco, when tradition and entrenched beliefs coexist with a new generation of idealists. Evaristo, a young student, is under pressure from his girlfriend to get married and doesn’t know what to do. During a period of separation he meets another woman who is more modern and progressive. The competition between the two women to seduce the undecided student demonstrates the conflict between modernity and tradition, but also emphasises the resurgence of a new femininity. Matutes's novel includes all the Mediterranean city’s most typical haunts, among which is a bar: the perfect place for creating and spreading rumours, meeting old friends and intriguing strangers, arguing and fighting or just playing dominoes and cards.
Los mares del Sur by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Finally, the city’s recurring theme of inequality and confrontation between social classes also sets the scene in the novel Los mares del Sur by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán. This time it is in the context of the country’s transition to democracy in the late 1970s. In his characteristic style, the detective Pepe Carvalho is investigating the death of Stuart Pedrell, whose body was discovered in Barcelona when he should have been travelling on the other side of the world. The victim’s obsession with escaping civilisation is an eloquent depiction of the frustrations of some of the city's upper class who crave something beyond the confines of material wealth. In this novel Barcelona is portrayed as a cradle of rampant capitalism in which the working class collides with the wealthier classes. Nothing is perfect in a society corroded by corruption, lack of solidarity and moral bankruptcy.
In each of these works, Barcelona is a prestigious and complex city, home to fierce social conflicts. Like other major European capitals, it has a refined, elegant and romantic side. It strives for excellence, seeking to constantly reinvent and sell itself, always careful to present its good side to the world. The two Universal Exhibitions and, more recently, the Olympics and the Forum of Cultures took place within this context. The city’s ambition and pursuit of prestige are often labelled as regionalism that clashes with other autonomous communities and, in particular, with Madrid. In fact, these are the hallmarks of one of the largest cities on the Mediterranean coast that aspires to be a significant player on the international stage. From this city of contrasts arise the social conflicts that play such an important part in the works of Laforet, Marsé, Montalbán, Mendoza, Matutes and Miñana. The different faces of Barcelona also provide an open door to existentialism like Carmen Laforet’s, rooted in disappointment and disillusionment. Barcelona is an ideal setting for literary expression, the perfect reflection of constant renewal and the image of a modern city that embraces the best and the worst of humanity.
A CATALAN LITERARY GREAT: MERCÉ RODOREDA
Mercé Rodoreda is considered by many to be the most important Catalan novelist of the postwar period. Born on Carrer Balmes in Barcelona in 1908, Rodoreda was an only child who, after leaving school at the age of 10 filled her time reading. At the age of 20 she married her maternal uncle, Joan Gurguí, who was 14 years her senior and a year later their only child, Jordi, was born. Rodoreda never accepted the marriage and her writing provided her with a way to escape her daily reality. Her writing career began at the start of the 1930s with the publication of her short stories in magazines. In 1938, the year before leaving for exile in France, she published her novel Aloma, which won the Crexells award. She was exiled in France during the Civil War and later in Switzerland.
It was during exile that Rodoreda wrote what is probably the most famous novel ever written in Catalan, La Plaça del Diamant (In Diamond Square). It was published in 1962 and achieved huge popular and critical success and has been translated into 28 languages. La Plaça del Diamant was published at a time when the Franco dictatorship had slightly liberalised its economic and linguistic repression as Spain became less isolated in the world, and Rodoreda's novel was, to many, a symbol of Catalan literature emerging from the dark.
Narrated in the first person by shop-girl Natalia (La Colometa), the book spans 25 years of Catalan history and is a compelling tale of life before, during and after the Spanish Civil War. Intense and evocative, Gabriel García Marquez called La Plaça del Diamant ‘the most beautiful novel published in Spain since the Civil War’.
Rodoreda died in 1983 in Girona.