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from the April 2017 issue: You Will Not Be Born Again:
Catalan Literature Now

A Literature on the Rise

Catalan literature enjoys a long, vibrant tradition. Beginning with Ramon Llull—who was celebrated throughout 2016 to commemorate the seventh centenary of his death—and, after a long period of medieval splendor, with important contributions by Ausiàs March, Joanot Martorell, and Bernat Metge, literary production in Catalan once again flourished in the final decades of the nineteenth century and, above all, in the twentieth. Jacint Verdaguer, Narcís Oller, and Àngel Guimerà, among others, led the Renaixença—or the Renaissance, a movement akin to other European Romanticisms—of a culture that, over the last century, has come to include noteworthy figures in prose, poetry, theater, and philosophy. Of the generation born before the Spanish Civil War, the following writers stand out: Josep Carner, Joaquim Ruyra, Víctor Català, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Mercè Rodoreda, J.V. Foix, Joan Sales, Salvador Espriu, Pere Calders, Santiago Rusiñol, Joan Brossa, Josep Palau i Fabre, Gabriel Ferrater, Agustí Bartra, and Anna Murià. The Franco dictatorship forced Catalan literature into a state of hibernation from which it would only emerge following a slight thaw in the regime, an opportunity that marked the critical resurgence of the Catalan publishing industry during the 1960s. Many of the authors born in the ’20s and ‘30s published their most important works during this period, and, a few years later, new authors came on the scene, expanding and diversifying the Catalan-language canon, which has, for years now, blended formal risk and commercial literature, classical narrative and postmodernism, the construction of a Catalan identity and autofiction. Quim Monzó, Jesús Moncada, Montserrat Roig, Jordi Coca, Maria Mercè Marçal, Miquel de Palol, Jaume Cabré, Sergi Pàmies, Carme Riera, and Enric Casasses are just an essential few of the many faces of contemporary Catalan-language prose and poetry.  

Despite this long tradition, as well as efforts at language normalization during the democratic opening and generational renewal, Catalan literature’s survival has been hard-won in a context that remains unfavorable economically, socially, and politically.

The financial crisis of 2008 continues to have devastating effects on the book market. According to data from the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds, the publishing industry has lost around forty percent of its governmental funding, despite a small upturn in the past two fiscal years; caught in the wake of recession across Spain at large, literary production in Catalan now represents 14.3% of the market, while Spanish-language production makes up 74.4% (the most recent numbers are from 2015). The 11,480 Catalan-language titles published annually must go up against the almost 60,000 titles in Spanish. In short, when a reader enters a bookstore in one of the three Catalan-speaking autonomous regions—Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia—for every title they find in Catalan, they face at least seven others in Spanish.

Given the available options, choosing a book in Catalan is, inevitably, the choice of a social minority. The latest survey on reading habits commissioned by Catalonia’s Department of Culture (2015) revealed that only 26.4% of Catalans read in Catalan regularly—a percentage that has increased only slightly (around 3%) during the last decade. This past January, the Catalan Government approved a budget allotting €249.7 million for the development and promotion of culture, and while this figure is €21.5 million more than in 2016, it represents little more than 1% of the government’s overall spending. Financially supporting the book world, which includes literary and translation grants as well as acquisition funds for public libraries, bookstore renovations, and organizing book fairs, amounts to around €9.2 million, or four percent of book sales in Catalan, which came to €230.31 million in 2015.

 

Writing in Catalan: Both Feat and Sacrifice

The publishing sector’s overall figures are hardly promising. The economic revenue that drives Catalan-language literature—which, in 2015, accounting for all adult, young adult, and children’s literature, was around €89 million—represents only a third of the national total. And the consequences for writers are obvious. Two years ago, only one in ten Catalan-language authors could make a living off their earnings while around eighty percent of other writers made less than €5,000 a year for their artistic labor (royalties, conferences, articles and interviews in the press); these figures may be somewhat surprising considering that the Catalan literary world has several high-paying prizes, such as the Ramon Llull or Sant Jordi—both published with imprints of Planeta—that annually award €60,000 for an unpublished work. This data comes from a study undertaken by the Association of Writers in Catalan, which, with more than 1,200 affiliates, is the organization that represents the greatest number of Catalan-language writers, despite including only a token percentage of young writers—one of the age groups most affected by the crisis.

Pursuing a writing career in Catalan remains, for the time being, both a feat and a sacrifice; and yet, it’s also a literature that’s on the rise. It’s surprising that, year after year—and during a time of economic crisis—new voices continue to populate the literary landscape: in narrative, the appearance of writers such as Marta Rojals, Max Besora, Alicia Kopf, Albert Forns, Alba Dedeu, Damià Bardera, Gemma Ruiz, Marc Cerdó, Sebastià Portell, Albert Pijuan, Joan Benesiu, and Adrià Pujol has been remarkable; in poetry, several debut collections stand out, including those of Francesc Gelonch, Jaume Coll Mariné, Misael Alerm, Marc Rovira, Carles Dachs, Laia Carbonell i Maria Sevilla—as well as work by the ever-prolific Blanca Llum Vidal and Lucia Pietrelli.

Another good sign has been the arrival of several independent publishers committed to bringing out literature that does not promise immediate financial turnover; what’s more, they make an effort to establish lasting editorial relationships with the majority of their authors. This is true for L’Altra, LaBreu, Males Herbes, Periscopi, and Raig Verd, as well as the second generation of publishing house Club Editor, to cite only a half dozen of those that have developed their catalogues over the past decade in particular.

 

Growing Internationalization

Undoubtedly, one of the key factors of Catalan literature’s growing prestige over the past decade was Catalonia’s attendance, as Guest of Honor, at several International Book Fairs. The first was Guadalajara (2004), then Frankfurt (2007)—which was arguably the most important—and, later on, Göteborg (2013) and Warsaw (2016). This spring, Catalonia’s participation in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair could prove another critical achievement. If fifty-five translations from Catalan were published in 2003, that number has practically doubled in the last year (99), with a few particularly good years in between, such as 2007 (145) and 2011 (135). Of the 1,030 translations published between 2002 and 2013, 833 have received funding from the Institut Ramon Llull, which has already awarded €2.5 million. The Institute’s principal goal is to promote Catalan culture and literature abroad, and, in the short fifteen years since its founding, it has unquestionably played a remarkable role in disseminating the works of both classic and contemporary authors internationally. In first part, for the growing impact of several authors stand out: Marcè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square, Joan Sales’ s Uncertain Glory, Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, and Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life; in second part, for the thirty-seven translations of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin, the more than twenty versions of Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, or the sixteen languages into which Jordo Puntí’s Lost Luggage has been translated thus far.

Apart from those exceptional cases, only a small group of writers are regularly translated, as is true for Quim Monzó, Carme Riera, Francesc Serés, Sergi Pàmies, Maria Barbal, and Sebastià Alzamora. Others have had a single work enjoy phenomenal success abroad, including the following titles: Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows, Toni Sala’s The Boys, Marta Rojal’s The Other, and Najat El Hachmi’s The Last Patriarch. The latter two are included in this issue to demonstrate that their work is still full of unexplored nuances; short work by Mercè Ibarz has appeared in two anthologies released by Dalkey Archive Press; the remaining contributors—Pep Puig, Borja Bagunyà, Maria Cabrera, and Francesc Garriga—are appearing in English for the first time.

                                                                                                

El Hachmi and Rojals: Writing on the Opportunity Gap

In this issue we present an excerpt from Najat El Hachmi’s (Nador, 1979) latest novel, The Foreign Daughter (Edicions 62, 2015), in which the problems of a girl who lives with her mother, and who has been offered the hand of a Moroccan cousin, become the stuff of literature. She agrees to marry him while explaining where she works—describing in depth the possibilities that are afforded to her by a Catalan society to which she has belonged for many years—while offering a frank comparison between herself and her mother, who has had to persevere on her own since moving inland to live with her daughter.

As for Marta Rojals, we’ve selected four articles from the collection We Could Have Studied Less (Sembra, 2015), in which the author reflects, in brief segments, on her generation’s experience of growing professional instability, a generation that, after years of making a living in positions related to their degrees, has been forced to accept precarious jobs. Rojals devotes several texts to the growing devaluation of humanities degrees in various countries, but also to evictions, failing confidence in the political class, environmental issues, the Catalan independence movement, and the tenuous status of the Catalan language.

 

Ibarz, Puig, Bagunyà: Three Generations of Storytellers

Spanning three generations, the short stories selected for this issue comprise an array of diverse narratives. Since debuting with her autobiographical “nouvelle” Solitary Land (Quaderns Crema, 1993), Mercè Ibarz (Saidí, 1954) has penned essays on Mercè Rodoreda, Luis Buñuel, and Maria-Mercè Marçal while continuing to write fiction that is at once deeply personal and original. In doing so, Ibarz departs from her contemporaries, including Ferran Torrent, Ramon Solsona, and Carme Riera, while also drawing closer to one of the great writers of the preceding generation, Jesús Moncada, author of The Towpath (La Magrana, 1988). This is clearest in Palm of Wheat (1995), but likewise in two earlier short story collections about city life: In the City Under Construction (2002) and Street Fever (2005). “The Street,” the story we’ve selected for this issue, comes from the latter. Here, we see Ibarz suture the narrator’s past and present through a visit to an outlying alley, situated at the foot of Montjuïc Mountain, where she had lived years many years beforehand. It’s a story worked through with lyricism, and spotted with numerous—and pertinent—cultural referents, from Anna Magnani, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Luchino Visconti to Omar Khayyam and Antoni Gaudí’s architecture.

Pep Puig (Terrassa, 1969) belongs to a generation of writers uniquely characterized by their wide range of styles, including Lluís-Anton Baulenas, Joan-Daniel Bezsonoff, Flavia Company, Jordi Lara, Vicenç Pagès Jordà, Màrius Serra, Joan-Lluís Lluís, Jordi Puntí, Gabriel Galmés and Maria Jaén. He came onto the scene in 2005 with the novel The Man Who Returns (Empúries). After publishing his second novel, Miss Marta’s Tears (Empúries, 2007), Puig took an extended publishing hiatus that would only end with the release of his splendid first short story collection, The Love of My Life, for the Time Being (L'Altra, 2015), to which “My Uncle” belongs. Here, Puig describes a young boy’s fascination with a girl at the pool in polished, highly enjoyable prose; the tale, however, grows darker as the story progresses and the characters grow up.

Borja Bagunyà (Barcelona, 1982) launched his writing career much earlier than other writers of his generation, which includes Max Besora, Víctor Garcia Tur, Joan Jordi Miralles, Llucia Ramis, Joan Todó, Pere Antoni Pons, Miquel Adam, Bel Olid, Albert Forns, Yannick Garcia, Marina Espasa, Anna Carreras, and Montse Banegas. His first book, Notes for a City Portrait, was published in 2004, and three years later—when he was only twenty-five—he won the Mercè Rodoreda Award for Short Fiction with Self Defense. The story “You’ve Likely Never Been to a Party This Bigbelongs to his third collection, Houseplants (Empúries, 2011), which represents his most eclectic, intense, and ambitious writing up to this point. Drawing on postmodern conventions—among his referents are David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover, and Gonçalo M. Tavares—Bagunyà describes a party whose excesses echo those of mythological debauchery.

Cabrera and Garriga: Two Voices of Contemporary Poetry

“There are things more dangerous than poets . . . although some would disagree,” noted Enric Casasses following the publication of You I Know, his final book of poems, in late 2013. To that thought Casasses would add, “Professors establish canons. Each writer has his or her own way of observing the past and present. All of them joined together will continue to create the future canon, perhaps. You must keep your eyes and ears open. There are pearls everywhere!” It’s no secret that poetry abounds in Catalan literature. Since the end of the ’90s, the number of reading series dedicated to poetry has grown in Catalonia, as well as in Valencia and the Balearic Islands; these performances continue—though there are fewer than before the crisis—and have even occasioned the creation of several micro-presses. As publishers specifically devoted to works from this genre, Café Central and LaBreu were pioneers, but others have played a significant role, including AdiA, Terrícola, Edicions del Buc and Poncianes, as well as robust poetry series from Proa, Pagès, Edicions 62, Lleonard Muntaner, Edicions de 1984, El Gall, Quaderns Crema, 3i4, and Viena.

Maria Cabrera i Callís (Girona, 1983) recently won the Carles Riba prize in poetry for her third book, Tired City (Proa, 2017), but it was Bright Morning (Accent, 2010) that established her as one of several essential young voices in the genre, growing in parallel with the diverse aesthetics of writers such as Josep Pedrals, Eduard Escoffet, Jaume C. Pons Alorda, Mireia Vidal-Conte, Francesc Gelonch, Adrià Targa, Carles Rebassa, Anna Gual, Esteve Plantada, Blanca Llum Vidal, and Martí Sales. In Bright Morning, Cabrera combines prose and verse in masterful ways, with results—incendiary, unexpected, clairvoyant—that are clear in "ways of knowing," the poem from that collection that appears here. In addition, we feature two poems from her Riba prize-winning collection.

Finally, Francesc Garriga i Barata (Sabadell, 1932–Sant Cugat, 2015), while first appearing in print in the ’50s, didn’t begin to publish regularly until 2000, after retiring from his position as a secondary school teacher. His success can be credited to his collection Shadows, and, some time later, to Lost Time (2003), where he found his creative path—at once expressive and jagged, inclement and desolate. His masterful voice was later reaffirmed in the excellent work The Night of the Fish (2005) and grew stronger still—taking on new nuances—in Serpent Paths (2009) and Ragtime (2011). This is no less true for Returning is Far off (2013), the last book he published in his lifetime, in which he once again charged against hypocrisy, (“They’d serve lies / on the plate of prayers / and it was impossible to distinguish / one from the other”), reclaimed the value of friendship (“only those who love will purify time / in the fire of conversation”) and took himself to task with his usual brutality (“all that’s left for you is the embarrassment / of having fled / to survive”).

 

The many modes, styles, and genres of writing to be found here provide a window into the vast possibilities—for language and for subject matter—explored in contemporary Catalan literature. If the growing prestige of Catalan writers depends, in part, on several factors that are not strictly literary, the selection here suggests Catalan writers stand ready to rise to the occasion. 

 

© Jordi Nopca. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Megan Berkobien. All rights reserved.

April 2017
You Will Not Be Born Again:
Catalan Literature Now
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