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

We Could Have Studied Less

The following excerpts are taken from novelist Marta Rojals's nonfiction work We Could Have Studied Less, the portait of a generation—hers—that, after years of making a living in positions related to their degrees, has been forced to accept precarious jobs.

 

The Faithful

We swallowed up everything they told us. We, the children of modest families, became believers in the creed of the JASP: the jóvenes aunque sobradamente preparados, the generation of exceedingly educated Spanish youth. We established our careers just so: we completed our diplomas, our undergraduate degrees, our postgraduate studies; we boarded airplanes for afar, we got our second master’s. We were the pride of our homes. We’d answer the phone, and we’d have a job offer already awaiting, or we’d have changed jobs already, or already someone would be courting us for another. The order of all things had been predestined—so they had told us, and so we believed, et in sæcula sæculorum, amen. Through our faith we were granted autonomy: we rented properties, we renovated flats, we dined out among friends and toasted our successes, we found we could afford those lamps we’d been eyeing at Vinçon, we began to have children.

The first day the phone didn’t ring, we thought it was an auditory illusion. We’d done more crunches than usual one morning, and we went to the mirror to inspect, and there: our singular bubble had fractured right before our eyes.

The next dinner among friends takes place in an apartment-share where hardly anyone is under thirty-five. The table fills up with potluck offerings, and no one gives a shit this time who brought the salad. Out on the balconies we roll tobacco, while inquiring of one another how it’s going, if we’re still doing this or that or have since moved on, if we know of anyone who might be looking for someone to do whatever. Because a moment has arrived in which to assume the right to do what we might have studied once is now a bourgeois vice, a pedantic indulgence for which we must atone. Or at least, this is what we want to believe: that who do we think we are, that we must still be grateful, that by the sweat of our brows we shall eat bread, that the pain of our childbirth shall be multiplied, and finally, that this is our divine justice.

And so the pair of architects hanging at the back sport T-shirts and carry recycled bags. The journalist of twenty years now goes to teach PE after dropping his little one off at the nursery. The art historian is celebrating: on Monday she starts as a cashier at Lidl. Our parents no longer ask questions over leftovers at our weekly Sunday meals. Our gullible parents, and the primary educations they broke their backs to give us so that one day they might have the chance to hang a graduation photo on the dining room wall, one for every child. Because in those days, to speak of such a photo was to speak of a future.

The next day, on the radio, a talk show host will thunder: privileged, pampered sons of democracy! In the paper, an economist will preach about what a miscalculation was made opening the ball to too many dancers, and what’s come of it: these frustrated graduates gone too far now to turn back. A therapist will lecture that we mustn’t blame the system for our professional discontent, if in the moment we had wanted to study philology or philosophy or whatever the fuck it was. Once more we’ll find the mailbox stuffed with advertisements from the university, promising that all that stands between us and work is another degree.

Nice try, gentlemen, but that old inertia, that verily, verily I say unto you, has lost its sticking power, has nothing left to give us. So much of what we once believed has been disproven, which has left us ultimately with but a single choice: to have faith only in ourselves. And to arrive at this conclusion, we might admit that along the way, some had had a point: we could have studied less.

20 June 2011

 

 

False Information, in Five Episodes

To pass by la millor botiga del món—the greatest shop on earth, that honor conferred by the city upon Barcelona’s most innovative entrepreneurial establishments—is an unusual rush-hour spectacle. Shoppers rush past to the left, to the right, while inside the store clerks chatter on the telephone, inspecting their nails with their elbows propped against the counter. You might not have stopped had you not inadvertently overheard one of them declaring: Today I made a sale. And perhaps then she called another colleague: the day’s grand achievement, Today I made a sale.

The store selling organic goods is bolted up because, I’m told, someone drained the register on Thursday. The subject of this gossip was so desperate as to believe that he could make up for the meager amount he'd stolen earlier that day with proceeds from the sale of tofu and seitan burgers. A note to the statisticians: our thieves have not yet turned vegetarian.

The little clothing boutiques keep their doors locked too: Ring the bell, ring here, we’re open! The shop girls run up to the entrance, blinking, before you have a chance to reconsider. Perhaps you never even planned to enter until you found yourself inside. The jackets are half-price. The shelves bloom with colors. May I hold your bag while you try that on? If you find it’s too long, we offer free alterations. In practice they spare you your life for the act of demanding another size, abandoning you instead in body and spirit to a deluge of unbridled attentions. Queen for a day, as they’ve been trained to say.

At the back of a small wine cellar, a mirror plays the snitch: the boy with the practiced face of a white-collar worker pretends to manage orders while engrossed in a computer game. One radiant day he must have decided: You stay here, I have a dream. At the commencement of his vision, the glasses were filled till overflowing. Smiles, playful claps on the back: You're on the rise! But today there is no dinner celebration. The shelves are full of bottles, as they were yesterday, as they were the day before, their labels facing outward. He shuts off the lights and the wine rests another night.

And signs, many signs: For Rent, Space Available, Sale, 50%, 70%. And one that calls your attention more than any other: a page printed in black, in all caps: WE HAVE CLOSED FOREVER. MANY THANKS. A tiny bar that is no longer a bar, forever. They say never say never. That nothing is forever. Save one, one single man, one evening, printing one page. One single man closes a door. Forever. Space for rent.

17 March 2010

 

 

All You Can Touch

The viewer can, at his pleasure, find the images on YouTube: in the thick of the human agglomerations that congregate yearly at the festival of San Fermín, a young man is assailed by a torrent of feminine hands. They tear at his pants, strip off his undergarments, douse him with boozy crimson kalimotxo, grab him like savages by the crotch. And yet, a moment—if I posit a reversal, if I swap the pronoun, if I tell you that our subject is a young woman, grasped at by a horde of men who violently disrobe her, and so on, and so forth: well, certainly; what banality; that’s just the norm.

To refer to a young woman is, in this case, to refer to the dozens of women who travel each summer to the famed festivities of San Fermín to find themselves subject to this baptism of humiliation, whether caught on smartphone cameras and by television crews or just in parts unseen. With the dispensation of the public, because there’s so much drinking there, and you know how that goes. With the general absolution that they’re young people, and you know how young people are. That we offer the permission of youth should be perhaps the most pernicious sign, in that it demonstrates how little has changed since the days we used to justify these sorts of episodes with a simple She was asking for it.

Take, in fact, a female reporter covering the txupinazo—that ceremonial pyrotechnic spectacular that marks the festival’s inauguration—at San Fermín’s 2010 edition. Mid-broadcast on Spanish national television, suddenly she was met with the imposition of a stranger’s mouth upon her own (a sloppy excess one couldn’t quite call a kiss). From the studio, her colleagues rebuked her Ante toda España—before her whole country, as the title of their program proclaimed. Please, they told her, snickering, don’t provoke the boy. And there it was again: don’t provoke the boys, little girl, lest you find your mouth otherwise occupied while you try to do your work, to complete your segment.

If, reader, you clear your mind for a moment, and think upon four women in your life, let’s say your mother, your colleague, your sister, your daughter, sitting perhaps around the Christmas dinner table, it might interest you to know that, just by the most recent Catalan statistics—to say nothing of those, for example, of Nigeria—one of these women has, at the moment in time you’re considering, been the object of some variety of masculine aggression. And if you think upon the men in your life—your father, your grandfather, your husband, brother, son—well, we’ll leave it there.

And with that insinuation hanging in the air, we should acknowledge that these young men who journey to the bacchanals of San Fermín and decide there to commit assaults upon the bodies of their female counterparts, to force them to their knees, may well be upstanding citizens in their homes. There are rarely antecedents to the behavior that emerges in this atmosphere: no fondling in the workplace, no sexual aggression in the street. They feign surprise at Christmas; they sit around the Thanksgiving table, surrounded by the women in their lives, and pass the gravy, and carve the turkey with practiced politesse. Our son? Certainly never, never. Our boy is a saint.

And what of these manhandled girls? They, surely, will remember that July, they will recall San Fermín, and all of that will come rushing back to the forefront of their minds. If too much drink dulled the details, they’ll still have YouTube to jog the memory. And of course, for the rest of their days, they will know that that little black spot is lurking somewhere in the folds of their cerebra, that dark thing we call guilt, waiting to be revived by any little trigger from any corner: public opinion, family, friends, themselves. You provoked the boy. You asked for it. Look at what you were wearing. You laughed the whole way through. The natural reaction to such visible humiliation: we laugh so as not to cry.

As always, with our offers of impunity we justify the aggressors. No punishment, no crime: full stop. And so their behavior, like that of their predecessors, will become in turn the advertising fodder for the coming year’s festival, which will promise to a new crop of youngsters a buffet of flesh. Take some and pass it on. All you can touch.

15 July 2013

 

 

Fragile

A steep park that all the guidebooks highlight. A day that feels like the apogee of spring. The urbanites walk their dogs here, they smoke their joints here, they bring their children. At the backs of the tourists posing for their snapshots, the city slopes serenely toward the sea.

And between one thing and the other, a wonder: from behind a group of heads gathered like a fairy ring, a quivering, transparent planet emerges. It is a big, now an enormous, now a colossal bubble of soap. So it comes to be: a neo-hippie dips a length of rope by its handle into a bucket of slick green water. A little gust of wind and a theatrical flourish do the rest. The bubble is born and rises, rippling, before seven gaping mouths, each of which contains if not a filling then certainly a bridge. Which is to say that these are the mouths of seven adults whom one might imagine entirely spellbound by the spectacles of the bubble-mime Pep Bou, his work, if rudimentary, nonetheless somehow affecting—the bubbles heaving greedily in the nothingness of the air, seeking an impossible rotundity. Nothing could be further from that playful fleet of bubbles, recalling the music of a xylophone. Here, now, this, our gargantuan bubble is more akin to a trombone. Fabulous, hypnotic iridescences reel back and forth across its aqueous skin. For a moment, the breeze excites it; we each squint an eye as it catches the glint of the sun in flash of gold.

We hold our breath: caught in the path of its pregnant flight, three or four of us move away, we want it to live, we fan at its underside, C’mon, here we go, up, up, and it seems now that it’s rising once more, and from the crowd, Now, now!, but in the end it seems to flag again, and some simply mutter awwww, while the more optimistic among us try to blow at it, Phew, phew phew . . . And then, out of nowhere, amid all the madness, a little hand appears, and pop! Some male progenitors applaud the scene, Very good, very good!, and the creature that has shattered our planet right before our eyes claps his hands and stomps his feet, pleased with himself. The adults of the army of salvation wear our defeat on our furrowed faces. Someone, at a whisper, suggests a good slap. Someone else says nothing, but in a brief spell of aphoristic delirium realizes that the world is divided into two types of children: those who, before a gigantic soap bubble, hold their breath, transfixed, their mouths agape—and those who, knowing such a thing to be vulnerable, have the irrepressible impulse to fling themselves at the air. It’s needless to say which of these two groups has always been most fragile.

21 March 2011

 

© Marta Rojals. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Alicia Maria Meier. All rights reserved.

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