Learning Catalan can be a pretty daunting prospect, but just imagine a native English speaker writing a novel in the local tongue. Or, in the case of Matthew Tree, who was born in London in 1958, a novel, short stories, essays, articles and television shows. As a journalist, he contributes to various publications, including Descobrir Catalunya, El Periódico de Catalunya and The Times Literary Supplement. He also writes full-length novels on a whole spectrum of subjects: diatribes against soul-destroying jobs, incompetent bosses, sexual harassment and unfair sackings in La puta feina (Fucking Work), anti-royal rants in Contra la monarquía (Against the Monarchy), to more poignant reflections on his past in Memòries! (Memoirs!) and a fictional account of a perfectly believable English-boy-meets-Catalan-girl story in Fora de lloc (Out of Place).
Tree taught himself Catalan before moving here in 1984, and he has been a staunch catalanista ever since. He has spent the past 20 years writing about Catalans and their culture in their own language. His finest hour came when he won the prestigious Premi Andromina Award for his short story collection Ella ve quan vol (She Turns Up When She Wants To). The material from one book in particular CAT: Un anglès viatja per Catalunya per veure si existeix (CAT: An Englishman Travels Around Catalunya to See if it Exists) has been adapted into a television series titled Passatgers, an ‘infotainment’ programme that he scripts and presents, which was first screened on TV3 (Catalan Public Television) in 2006.
This subjective chronicle of a journey around Catalunya is the result of looking beyond geography to recover forgotten and ignored histories of the people and places he visits. Different episodes have seen him turn his hand to working on building sites with African immigrants, training with the Mossos d’Esquadra, attempting to navigate the city wheelchair-bound with a disabled person and singing bizarre Catalan folk songs with a semi-retired rock musician in a remote part of the Pyrenees.
Matthew Tree is a curious phenomenon. It is one thing to write a novel in one’s own language but quite a different achievement to do it in another. Still, he said, it was natural enough to turn his hand to it in 1990. “It seemed a completely natural process for me; after living in the country for six years, as a writer I could now start communicating with the people I lived among and not just the people I left behind.
“Obviously, I have always written in English parallel to my work in Catalan, but I have felt that it never really went well, and it has only been in the last five years or so that I have picked it up again.”
One of the places he did write in English was in Barcelona Metropolitan, where he served as this magazine’s first food critic, and he has also contributed on occasion to the Time Out City Guide for Barcelona. In addition, he has translated two of his novels into English and they are available on a print-by-demand basis from his website.
Readers will find a unique literary voice; one that reveals to us an intelligent, ironic and often very amusing understanding of the world that surrounds him. Strangely enough, it seems that half a lifetime writing in Catalan has liberated him from the class trappings of the British publishing industry, which prevent so many talented writers from making it big, and has helped him work in English once again. “I have now suddenly come back to English and write in it as if it were a foreign language in itself, and that way you are free to do what you like.”
Books published by Matthew Tree
Fora de lloc (1996)
Ella ve quan vol (1999
CAT. Un anglès viatja per Catalunya per veure si existeix (2000)
Privilegiat; also published in Castilian as Privilegiado (2001)
Dels quinze anys fins als trenta. Londres-Barcelona (2004)
Contra la monarquia (2004)
Aniversari. Quatre reflexions sense cap mena d’importància després de passar exactament vint anys entre els catalans (2005)
La puta feina (2006)
All available at: www.llibres.cat
For more info: www.matthewtree.cat