Contemporary Catalan Writing

Waiting for the Breakthrough
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'Catalan writing, past and present, has never been in a better position to break out of the 'regional' cocoon imposed on it by politics and prejudice, so finally giving foreign readers a chance to discover a major national literature which has been one of Europe's best kept secrets for far too long.'

An article on Catalan literature, past and present by Matthew Tree.

In 1979, a British publisher scrawled 'There is simply no readership here for regional literature', over the unread MS of a translated Catalan novel (Manuel de Pedrolo's 'All the Beasts of Burden'). One more example, if one were needed, that to be classified as 'regional' is to be relegated to the ranks of the thoroughly undesirable, in publishing terms. Catalan literature, incredibly, has suffered for decades - if not centuries - from this dreaded 'regional' label.

Incredibly, because Catalan has more speakers (six and half million) than several official European languages, covers a wide area (Valencia, Spanish Catalonia, French Catalonia, southern Aragon, the Balearic Islands) and its literary output is comparable to that of several larger languages. Unfortunately, many factors have contributed over the years to distort the true nature of Catalan language and literature: incorporated into the Spanish State by force of arms in the early 18th century, the Catalan-speaking areas were subjected for over two hundred and fifty years to a series of laws designed to suppress the public use of Catalan - books included - culminating in a vicious attempt to completely eliminate the language in the early phases of the Franco dictatorship (a very small literary leeway was allowed it after 1962). Under democracy, Catalan writing still has to contend with considerable antipathy from the Spanish reading public to Catalan language authors (testified to by many Barcelona publishers) - a considerable disadvantage given that foreign publishers tend to judge Catalan books exclusively on their sales in Spanish translation. And the aggressive indifference shown to matters Catalan by many of the Cervantes Institutes (or Spanish cultural embassies) around the world, certainly doesn't help. No wonder the British publisher didn't bother to read the book.

Had he done so, however, he would have found that 'All the Beasts of the Burden' was a brilliant, highly disturbing political fantasy, whose author, Manuel de Pedrolo, had over 140 titles to his credit, ranging from best-selling science and detective fiction to poetry and existential drama. His appetite duly whetted, the publisher might then have gone on to check out other major works of Catalan literature, from Joanot Martorell's 'Tirant lo Blanc', arguably the first great European novel, or Ausiàs March's 15th century love poetry, which foreshadows Romantic individualism by four centuries; he could have chanced on the surrealist poetry of Salvat-Papasseit and J.V. Foix, both major influences on the work of Dalí and Miró, respectively; or stumbled across the extraordinary novels of Mercè Rodoreda that appeared in the 1960s or Josep Pla's unbeatable descriptions of Catalan and European life spanning fifty years (and collected in sixty volumes) or Pere Calders's beautifully crafted short-stories of the 1970s. Etc. etc. etc. But he didn't: 'No readership here!'

Neither has the situation changed since the exposure provided by the 1992 Olympic Games turned Barcelona into the fourth most visited city in Europe. Take an important contemporary writer like Quim Monzó, whose fourteen works of fiction and non-fiction, all of which are still in print, have had total sales of over 600,000 books in Catalan alone, with many titles running into as many as twenty-five editions. Already translated into eleven languages, and described by an American critic as 'the best European short story writer in the last decade', Mr Monzó - together with many other excellent contemporary authors such as Carme Riera and Miquel Bauçà - remains inexplicably unavailable to the British reading public.

Help, however, is on its way. Since Catalan was allowed to be taught properly in the schools (1984), more and more people living in the areas where the language is spoken are now able to read and write it with ease, and as a result Catalan book production has inched up over the years until it now accounts for no less than 12% of all book publishing in Spain (6,000 new titles a year). On top of this, the success of Catalan public television (market leader for the last five years) has helped create a literary mass-market for the first time ever, with books like TV presenter Andreu Buenafuente's three collections of monologues, published at the turn of the century, selling over 100,000 copies each. This commercially healthy panorama is being enhanced on a more serious level by a new generation of European-class authors, such as poet Enric Cassases and gifted fiction writers like Albert Sánchez, Imma Monsó and Jordi Puntí. In a nutshell, Catalan writing, past and present, has never been in a better position to break out of the 'regional' cocoon imposed on it by politics and prejudice, so finally giving foreign readers a chance to discover a major national literature which has been one of Europe's best kept secrets for far too long.






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