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The Hungry Years in Catalonia: An Interview with Peter Bush about “Black Bread”

By Stephen Henighan

Black Bread, one of the major novels of Catalan literature, makes its appearance in English in the Biblioasis International Translation Series this month, in a translation by Peter Bush. Series editor Stephen Henighan asked Bush about the narrative world of the novel’s author, Emili Teixidor, who grew up in rural Catalonia under fascist occupation.

Stephen Henighan (SH): As soon as you begin reading Black Bread, you’re aware that you’re in the presence of a major work of fiction. What is the novel’s place in Catalan literature?

Peter Bush (PB): I think Emili Teixidor has written one of the finest novels I know about the impact of the aftermath of civil war on adolescents and their rural community. It happens to be the 1940s, the so-called “hungry years,” in Catalonia, but the experiences can’t be far from those of most young people who find their parents have been defeated and that the victors simply intend to continue the war by other means. Andreu’s retrospective narrative is remarkable in the way it portrays the historic moment—the repression, fear, subterfuge, and deception of adults; the children’s sense of that; and the nervous, edgy excitement that is nevertheless still generated by their games in the forest where bodies and imaginations remain free to explore and interact.

SH: Emili Teixidor opens Black Bread with an epigraph from W.G. Sebald to the effect that the Second World War is not over and we still live in a period dominated by this event. The novel’s early pages portray a Catalonia that feels very much under military occupation by fascism. Is the outcome of the Second World War perceived differently in Catalonia than it is in, say, France or Germany?

PB: Black Bread is, I reckon, the final part in a triptych of major fiction in Catalan about the experience of war that can be compared to, say, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, all written by novelists who experienced war and then came to write about it much later. First came Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales, about Barcelona and the Aragonese front, started in 1948  when he returned from exile in Mexico and published in 1956, then rewritten, with the definitive version coming out in 1971. Second, in 1962, was Mercè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square, the novel of a working-class woman’s struggle on the home front to survive with her children in Barcelona during and after the civil war. Rodoreda went into exile in France in 1939 and didn’t fully return to Barcelona until 1972. Finally came Black Bread in 2003, when Emili Teixidor was seventy. Another long gestation that brings to the reader a passion and freshness, as though the 1940s was here and now. It also shares the other two writers’ ironic, unromanticized view of the civil war.   

You only to have to watch the rise of the far right across Europe and the activities of Putin to see that the kind of nationalism that leads to war on a continental scale is reviving apace. We saw what happened in Bosnia. In Spain politicians on all sides agreed to silence any debate over the civil war as a prerequisite for the democratic transition. Catalonia was under fascist occupation after the civil war, as was the whole of Spain. The Catalan language was banned from public use; three generations received no schooling in their mother tongue. Books that were published in Catalan circulated through clandestine channels. This situation steadily improved after Franco’s death in 1975, but a recent conservative Minister of Education announced that it was to time to “españolizar” Catalan children and the Catalan education system . . .

Catalan and Spanish democrats hoped that the Allies would intervene in Spain after the Second World War against Franco. Many Catalans in exile fought with the French resistance and many ended up in the Mathausen concentration camp. W.G. Sebald wanted to insist that the “lessons” of the war hadn’t been learned. You feel that Teixidor’s passionate intensity is driven by his desire to tell it as it was, as he lived it as a young man, against so much revisionist fiction and history that tries to make out that both sides were equally bad, or encourages us blithely to forget all that old-fashioned stuff from years ago and live for the present. 

SH: In some ways, Black Bread forms part of a long European tradition of the pastoral novel. Yet there are also surprising divergences. I’m used to reading pastoral novels where the church is an integral part of the rhythms of life on the land, yet in Black Bread the country folk with whom Andreu is sent to live have a hostile relationship with the Catholic Church, which has facilitated and supports the rule of General Franco. Was this hostility of peasants to the established church a common phenomenon in postwar rural Catalonia?

PB: I think that the “all is bliss in the organic rural community provided for by God and His Church” is only a small strand in the pastoral novel from the nineteenth century onwards. Balzac’s peasants and priests are generally a tightfisted bunch on the make, and the English countryside in fiction from Jane Austen to D. H. Lawrence is rife with class conflict, however much the latter tried to idealize primitive bloodlines. In any case, although Spain was a poor, agricultural economy until the 1960s, in the 1940s, in the south of the country, one of the poorest in the world, there weren’t many peasants left. In Andalusia, Murcia, and Almeria there were masses of landless laborers with work only during the olive season on the vast estates. In Catalonia there were and still are lots of tenant farmers who cultivate the land and live in the mas or attached accommodation that belongs to absentee landlords like the Manubens in the novel who drop by occasionally to pick up their cut of the profits. These farmhouses are often striking buildings that date back to the Middle Ages and have been extended over the centuries. They can have military towers and be quite fortified because they may have had to cope with incursions from North African pirates or, later in the nineteenth century, with the fallout from three civil wars and the struggles over the First Republic.  

A country’s pastoral tradition is conditioned by its history. My grandfather was a shepherd in a small Lincolnshire village and he saw three of his sons go off to France in 1914 and never return, but he never saw war in his own backyard. It is true that Andreu’s family lives by pastoral rhythms, that he and his cousins revel in their favorite tree and their games in the forest about which his grandmother tells wonderful stories, and they enjoy their experience of nature, trying to catch the moment when leaves change color and joining in harvest-time activities, natural cycles their own adolescent hormones reflect. Part of Teixidor’s genius lies in the way Andreu’s narrative mixes a powerful sense of a paradise lost with the hard graft of farm life and the tensions from the civil war. There is the dead horse that suddenly appears on the path to school, the raids on the farmhouse by the Civil Guard, rumors of the Maquis (the guerrillas), Mad Antònia running naked, distraught ever since her boyfriend was executed in front of her, grandfather’s traditional transhumance with his flock of sheep to the Pyrenees that also enables him to smuggle material into France, just as there is more than meets the eye in grandmother’s tales of goblins in the attic.

One of the aims of Francoist propaganda was to depict the war as a Catholic crusade against the “atheist-masonic-judaeo-bolshevik” Second Republic. The Catholic hierarchy supported Franco to the hilt. However, many republicans were Catholics who wanted social justice. In Catalonia, many priests were Catalans and proud defenders of their Catalan language and culture, and the same went for the Basque country. The novel maps these nuances. We feel the daily oppression of people that the Bishopric helps to enforce by, for example, making attendance at mass compulsory for the whole population and First Communion obligatory for all children. Andreu’s Uncle Quirze is one who refuses to go to church, but, on the other hand, he welcomes into his house the Father Superior of the Camillus monastery who goes out of his way to help the family, and seems to be aware of the clandestine activity passing through the farmhouse. Father Tafalla isn’t Catalan, but from Basque Navarre.

SH: Andreu’s father is imprisoned for political activity, and in precarious health. The town where Andreu’s mother lives gives us a glimpse of a different kind of provincial life: the factory town, where the workers are politically aware and openly disparaging of the dictatorship. To what extent were the factory bosses and the big landowners a single class, and to what extent were they different groups with different interests?

PB: Catalonia’s industrial revolution started in the late eighteenth century with the manufacturing of textiles, and this meant that where there were rivers in the countryside there might be power to drive the looms, so you find factories in rural areas. In other areas, the cork industry was important. All this increased the shift from the land to industry and brought the economy into the ambit of Europe, and politics and trades unions into towns and villages. You get the sense that the factory town in the novel is starting up afresh after the war and that there is a tension between those in the farmhouse and the women going off to the factories. In the bus that Andreu’s father drives that takes the women workers to the factories, the women sing, flirt, and engage in political banter that Andreu picks up on. They’ve moved out of the kitchen and have an independence of mind. Manubens, the landowners, have also moved from agriculture to industry to find bigger profits. I think that was a relatively common progression for Catalan landowners. The other side of Catalan industrial development was the necessity of migration. The factories drew workers from the land locally and then from the south and Galicia.

SH: One of the novel’s most intriguing characters is the grandmother, a simple woman who merely by virtue of being literate trains herself to remain well-informed on political matters and is capable of analyzing current events. How great is her importance to Andreu’s decision to pursue his studies rather than remaining on the farm?

PB: The grandmother is a real matriarch. She is a fount of folklore and archaic language, yet at the same time the one who insists on getting the daily newspaper brought from Barcelona and having sacred time in the afternoon to read it when nobody is allowed to disturb her. She brings the Allies and a different journalistic register into the conversation. Her presence and risqué stories fascinate the children. She asks probing questions about the politics of the schoolteacher who is abusing her granddaughter, and encourages Andreu to agree to being adopted by the Manubens. She also seems to control the political activity going on in the house. Acutely aware of the importance of education in offering opportunities to escape the drudgery of work on the farm or in the factory, she is pragmatic in the advice she gives her grandson.

SH: Homoerotic themes are present throughout the novel. Even as Andreu is engaging in sexual experimentation with his female cousin, he admires the bodies of sunbathing young men. By the end of the novel, it is clear that he has defined himself as being of a same-sex orientation. My friend Josep-Anton Fernández has written extensively on Catalonia’s robust tradition of gay fiction. Is Black Bread seen as participating in this? Do Catalan readers regard Emili Teixidor as part of the same tradition as Terenci Moix, Lluis Fernandez, or Biel Mesquida? Or is his position a different one?

PB: I don’t really see Emili Teixidor as a “gay” novelist like the three you mention. Terenci Moix and Lluis Fernández were very camp and exuberant in their plots and language; Bel Mesquida is quieter in tone and deliberately creates a style that is dense, poetic, and challenging. Teixidor tends to tackle themes of sexual repression within fictions that are more openly realist and identifies sexual desire as one among many aspects of life that were demonized by the Church and fascist state. He speaks of the church instilling a fear of the body alongside a state constructed through the injection of fear into every pore of society. Andreu’s rationalization of the images of naked male flesh from the monastery flashing through his mind as he engages in sex-play with his cousin Cry-Baby is a sign that he is growing into an adult, as adults indulge in those kinds of double standards all the time. At the same time, Teixidor’s treatment of his characters’ sexual coming of age is delicate and lyrical, a beautiful loss of innocence in a countryside full of rutting dogs, mounting bulls, randy priests, and lusty civil guards. He writes the Catalan language wonderfully, to comic and tragic effect. I think the specific voice of Andreu’s moral qualms of conscience draws more on writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.

SH: What, for you, are the differences between translating a living author, who may be able to provide the translator with explanations concerning obscure passages, and one who has recently died (in 2012), as in the case of Emili Teixidor? Were you acquainted with Teixidor?

PB: It depends on the author and the work. I’ve always found living authors ready to answer queries. When you translate dead classics, you can turn to a body of scholarship or other translations. Unfortunately, I never met Emili Teixidor and there is not a huge amount of good critical writing about his work. In any case, I was able to have a kind of posthumous conversation with him over my translation. When I’d finished an almost final draft and had a number of questions that I’d have liked to have sent to my author, I got hold of his own translation into Spanish and found that he had answered most of my questions in the course of doing that translation. For example, in the Catalan original, the word poble for town was sometimes used and it wasn’t always clear in my readings which town was being referred to; that was clarified in the Spanish. I’d thought about translating some of the nicknames; he does that in the Spanish. However, I also discovered that Teixidor extended some parts of the narrative, in particular enriching the characterization of the grandmother, and I was able to incorporate those new elements—more juicy stories—into my translation.

SH: You had a long and active career as a translator of Peninsular Castilian fiction, and some Spanish-American fiction, before you began putting much of your energy into translating Catalan literature about a decade ago. How is the Catalan scene different? Do you have a different relationship with Catalan writers than you did with the Castilians?

PB: Yes, I’ve translated seventeen works from Catalan since 2007. I was quite shocked when I added it up! Peninsular and Latin-American writers use a world language; it requires no explanation. Catalan is an unknown quantity for most readers, for whom there are no immediate literary points of reference. It is a language and culture mainly without a state (Andorra being the exception) within a state that is constantly threatening it. That’s the negative side it confronts. On the other hand, I have discovered writers like Emili Teixidor, Josep Pla, Catarina Albert, Joan Sales, and Mercè Rodoreda, who are major writers, and it is great to be able to translate them and give them visibility in the English-speaking world.

Further Reading:

Peter Bush’s translation of “The Not-So-Perfect Crime” by Teresa Solana in WWB’s October 2007 issue: “Rambles through Catalunya.”

Peter Bush’s translation of “Field of Battle, Field of Fruit” by Francesc Serès in WWB’s May 2008 issue: “Public Lives, Private Lives.”

Stephen Henighan’s translation of “Comrade António and the Cuban Teachers” by Ondjaki in WWB’s September 2007 issue: “Our Sonnets from the Portugese.”

Published Jul 12, 2016   Copyright 2016 Stephen Henighan

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