Photo by Lee Woolcock
Woman of letters
Sitting on the leather sofa in the living room of Montserrat Abelló’s apartment I am surrounded by books in a number of languages. Outside the window, her balcony thrives with flowers, and a Catalan independence flag with its white star and red stripes is draped over the rail among the blossoms. Catalunya is now and has ever been at the core of Montserrat’s work and life.
A poet, she has won the Creu de Sant Jordi, the Lletra d’Or, the Memorial Lluís Companys, and the Premi Fira Gran among other prizes. Born in 1918, making her now 95, she has a smile that bathes you in the warmth of its spotlight. Her remarkable life story stretches across continents and encompasses an incredible range of experiences.
“My father was a naval engineer, Coronel de Ingenieros de la Armada, and in 1924 he was sent to London as the Naval Attaché to the Spanish Embassy. I was six. That is where I learned English. But my sister’s English is better than mine. Hers is much more the Queen’s English, more sophisticated than mine. But when we quarrel, we still quarrel in English as we did when we were children.”
One of her happy memories of England is the children’s books she read and learned to read from. She brings out a beautiful Mother Goose illustrated by Arthur Rackham that she has kept. I am amazed by how pristine and undog-eared it is. This book was owned by a careful child.
“English children’s books are lovely,” she says, caressing the cover lightly with her fingertips.
However, the English climate did not agree with either her or her sister. They became ill and were sent back to Spain to spend time in Sitges for the sun. But it wasn’t until they went to university that scars from tuberculosis were discovered on their lungs.
Montserrat started writing early but didn’t like her work, which was in metre and rhyme. When she gave that up and wrote without boundaries, she felt her work was much better. Her Fifty Love Poems will appear in a self-translated English edition for the first time this autumn (Francis Boutle Publishers, London). She is also known for her translation of others’ work. Cares a la Finestra (second edition, Galàxia Gutenberg, 2010), an anthology of 20 English-speaking women poets of the 20th century, was important because few of these women were known in Spain.
She was 18 when the Civil War broke out in 1936. “We were all sure that we were going to win,” she says. “I went to Valencia to take the exam to qualify as a teacher. The capital was in Valencia because Franco was attacking Madrid.
“I taught English in a secondary school. One day in 1938, I came home to find my father talking with a man who told him; ‘They will cut your throat if they win and you are here.’
“We were no longer hopeful about winning the war. In a half an hour my family split up. My mother, my younger brother, my older sister, who had a boyfriend who was a bit of a fascist, and my younger sister decided to stay in Spain since my mother had property and family here. I decided to go with my father.”
She lays the book of nursery rhymes that she has been cradling in her hand on the table. “My father drove. The roads were full of people in cars, in wooden wheeled wagons, fleeing north to the French border. We were bombed a couple of times along the way.”
Although their passports were old, they were able to renew them at the border, perhaps because the Republicans were still in charge there. They drove on to Marseille, where refugees were pouring in and where they knew people. However, they turned out not to be welcoming. Fortunately, Montserrat and her father also knew some nuns who were more willing to help them. The two were later summoned, with others, by the French police and sent immediately to Clermont-Ferrand where they were taken to a refugee centre, an old warehouse. “I remember they served us coffee in condensed milk cans,” she tells me. They thought they were headed to a refugee camp, but suddenly everything changed and inexplicably they were taken on the same day to a fancy restaurant for lunch where a waiter from Mallorca offered her father a place to stay in a small hotel at the edge of town. But her father decided he should immediately go to Paris to contact people in London and get them visas for England. He went ahead. Following him, Montserrat went alone to Paris without papers and from there they both travelled to England.
Her father stayed in a pension but she lived in the home of Michael and Audrey Hunt. Michael had been in the International Brigade. Her mother sent money from time to time. Meanwhile they made the most of their contacts with politicians and businessmen trying to enlarge the number of people they knew.
While in England, her father met the Chilean ambassador. He knew that Senyor Abelló had saved a dry dock in Cartagena, which Lloyd’s of London had declared unsalvageable and had paid for. The Ambassador knew of a dry dock in Chile that had been declared unusable and on which an insurance company had paid. Montserrat’s father was offered a contract to salvage it. In 1939, just as World War II started, they left London to go into exile in Chile where they would stay for two decades. “It was an enforced holiday of 20 years, a too long holiday,” she says smiling at me. They sailed on a ship, the Oropesa, that was sunk shortly afterwards. During those years in Chile, Montserrat taught, worked in an office and met a fellow refugee to whom she was married for 61 years. He arrived with other refugees on the Winnipeg, organised by Pablo Neruda.
In 1960, she and her eldest daughter returned to Barcelona for a visit. When they returned to Chile, the family decided it was time to go back to Spain. From 1960 to 1975, Montserrat taught English at CIC, a progressive Catholic school. But her 18-year-old son, a student, was arrested and had to flee to Belgium. He did not return until after Franco’s death.
“In those years we were not allowed to speak our own language. We were not imprisoned but we were reprimanded. I don’t feel that much has changed. It seems to me that the Spanish government is always working against the language and our culture, which is older. I read only Catalan and English—I can’t bear to read Spanish,” and she rests back on the sofa, looking out at the balcony, at the flowers and the flag.