Fiction » World Literature

The Best Catalan Fiction

recommended by Gala Sicart

For a long time, Catalan fiction was eclipsed by books in Spanish but these days it's flourishing, says translator and editor Gala Sicart. Here, she recommends four of the best contemporary Catalan novels and one book of short stories, from the classic Mercè Rodoreda to her 21st-century equivalent.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Before we get to the specific novels and the short stories you’re recommending, tell me about Catalan fiction in general, because I’m not very familiar with it. What do I need to know about it?

Traditionally, the publishing industry in the UK hasn’t been paying much attention to foreign books—except a few publishers, like Pushkin or MacLehose Press but, recently, they have made a great effort to translate Catalan fiction into English. The Catalan Spotlight at the London Book Fair and around the UK has been the biggest event of Catalan literature ever in the UK. Most of the Catalan authors coming to the book fair and to this series of events over the next two to three months are writing fiction.

Also, I think, in the past, even in Catalonia books in Catalan haven’t been read so much. I’ve been here in London for 10 years now, and from what I read, and all the books that come to me for review, it’s my impression that there has been a thriving of young Catalan writers and also readers in Catalan. There’s enthusiasm, I would say, about Catalan fiction. It has the energy of the youth—even though there has been Catalan fiction for centuries.

It may even be more energetic now than in the rest of Spain. Spanish literature has been read and translated, it’s a much more bulky genre, but Catalan literature is better than ever. Now, when I walk around bookshops in Catalonia, there are bookshops only for books in Catalan. Or they have a prominent section for Catalan literature, showing they are publishing books intensely. They have readers buying books in Catalan all the time. That allows new writers to dare to do new work. That’s what I see. I see it in my friends, I see it in bookshops there.

Do you think anything in particular is causing this flourishing of Catalan fiction?

Maybe it has to do with the political situation in Catalonia, writers feel more daring to express themselves in the language—because for the democracy generation in Spain, it’s been a language that has always been in debate: Do we have to learn it in school? Why should Catalan people read in Catalan, when they can read in Spanish and so many more books from other countries have been translated into Spanish? Now they’ve been translated into Catalan as well. It’s thriving because people are naturally encouraged to write and read in Catalan.

As you say, Catalan literature has been around for centuries, but in your recommendations you’ve chosen to focus on contemporary fiction. Is that your preference?

Yes, it is my preference but, also, I am ignorant of the older literature. Obviously, we studied it at school: the Catalan authors, the big names, Ramon Llull—but they didn’t speak to me that much. Also, I am more interested in literature written by women, and for obvious and very unfair reasons, it hasn’t come my way throughout my life. I am really pleased to see they’re here now so I want to speak about them.

Let’s go through the Catalan novels you’re recommending. First on your list is Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. She had an incredible life and spent a lot of time in exile. Tell me a bit about her and why you love this book.

Mercè Rodoreda is probably the best contemporary Catalan writer, not only in my opinion, but it seems agreed. Her reputation is well deserved, in my view. Her writing style is strong, unique, it created a school: Mercè Rodoreda will influence the literature for years to come—centuries to come if I’m being passionate.

This particular book, Death in Spring, is not her most famous book. She sent it to her publisher unfinished and it was published posthumously. She wasn’t convinced the public would be interested because it’s dark, it’s almost terrifying in places. It has this spirit of magical realism, at a time before the thriving of magical realism in publishing in Spain, with Vargas Llosa and especially García Márquez. It was a very bold piece of writing and I would have loved to see what she would have written to finish the book. But, personally, I don’t find it unfinished because it’s not really about the story. It’s more about the feelings she provokes.

“There’s enthusiasm…about Catalan fiction. It has the energy of the youth”

It’s a very strange, very dark manifesto against rituals and rules and the repression of desire and the will to live. That’s probably why it’s been read as a criticism of Francoism. She finished it after she could come back to Spain, in the early 70s, but her life—like for many Spaniards at the time—was shattered by Francoism. So it might very well be inspired by that, but I think the book goes beyond the political situation. It’s against the centuries-long repression of freedom and the beauty of life.

At the end, this book has a bad taste. I recommended it to the publisher Christopher MacLehose. I said, ‘that’s the best book you can read from Catalan literature.’ He read it and he was horrified about its dark intensity. And he’s read a lot of terrifying literature—serial killers, cutting bits off bodies. This book is not about that, but it goes to the depths. It’s like the work of Louise Bourgeois, the contemporary artist, who worked a lot with the unconscious and dreams and the vital essence of human beings. I think Mercè Rodoreda in her literature and in this book in particular also likes stirring the depths of humanity. One could argue it’s not a pleasant read, but it can be a life-changing one.

Tell me a bit more about where the book is set, who the main character is etc.

The book is set in the countryside, in the mountains. She is very detailed in her use of words, she plays with repetitions, and she was probably thinking of Catalonia when she wrote it, but the reader can picture the same elements in their own landscape. It’s about a boy who is 14 years old, a part of his journey into adulthood.

Mercè Rodoreda is picturing this as if it’s a fable, in a way, or scenes from folk tales. It’s like a novella, it’s snippets of actions that then all come together with these rituals. There are elements of nature that are almost like narrators—they’re not but they do have very symbolic power over people. People are very strange; you could almost say that they are creatures more than people. It’s very disturbing.

The next book on your list of Catalan fiction is more contemporary. It’s called Learning to Talk to Plants and it’s by Marta Orriols. Tell me what’s so good about this novel.

Marta Orriols has a talent in drawing characters. This is a novel about someone who loses her partner, but only a few days before he dies he leaves her, telling her he had been having an affair.

So it’s about the loss of him as a partner, but also the loss of him from the relationship before he died: it’s like a double loss. She then tries to hide his death from everyone and tries to keep the plants that he was caring for when they were living together. The plants are symbolic of the passing of time and lack of care, they slowly die. That’s what the title is about.

But she has a very bold way of describing feelings without being sentimental, which I like very much. She writes beautifully about feelings but in a very cool way. For the reader, at least for me, it makes it even more touching—because you can see that she tries to put distance all the time. This distance makes you, the reader, want to get closer. She plays with the reader in that way: I want you to detach and what you want is me to tell you more and more.

It feels very real. I felt as if I was reading about something that had happened to someone.

Yes. For me, when I read it, I hadn’t lost a significant person but I could relate to it. You don’t have to be in grief or grieving to connect with the book. It’s so human and so strong. I absolutely recommend it. She is also a writer who works very well in translation, perhaps because one can tell she likes Anglo-Saxon literature. I think there is a bit of an affinity and I think English readers would enjoy the novel. I hope her new novel, A Sweet Introduction to Chaos, will be translated soon.

The next book you’re recommending is not a novel but contemporary short stories: The Art of Wearing a Trench Coat by Sergi Pàmies. Tell me about the author and this book.

The Art of Wearing a Trench Coat is a collection of 13 short stories. Sergi Pàmies is a master of short story writing in Catalonia, the reference in contemporary short story writing. He’s a journalist. He’s very well known in media like TV, radio, newspapers. He writes about all kinds of things and he’s amusing writing about football or not very deep subjects, but when it comes to his short stories, he has something similar to Marta Orriols in the sense of being apparently quite detached from what he’s talking about, which in this book is very much him. He’s writing about events of his life. He’s put it as a fiction book, and you will find it on fiction shelves, but everyone in Catalonia knows it’s him. The English reader will also understand that it’s about him, taking elements here and there to make a fictional story.

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He puts the focus on the unpleasant events, but it’s anecdotal as well. There’s one story where the protagonist is supposed to be in a film. His son is making a film at film school and the protagonist is going to be the dead body in the film. They carry him away. But while he is pretending to be dead he has a heart attack and he dies in the story. Then he narrates the rest of the story dead, saying ‘I was telling them I was dying. My son, the only thing he could say was to carry on filming.’ It’s humorous, quite absurd, quite dark but he’s also very tender, very sweet. You feel for the characters, you feel empathy.

Is there something typically Catalonian about the setting?

Sergi Pàmies is very much an author of what could be considered the Catalan generation of democracy. In the 1940s and 50s, many Catalan authors were writing in Spanish as Catalan language was suppressed. Pàmies was born in the 60s, in exile in France, and his mother was Catalan, a quite renowned writer in Spain, so he does make something of his Catalan identity. As far as I know, he has always been writing in Catalan, one of the first well-known authors writing in Catalan of his generation. Also, in his books, he writes a lot about Barcelona, the streets, the corners, the food, the daily life. He’s almost hyperrealistic in his books and they are set in Barcelona most of the time, so I would say yes.

Next on your list is Permafrost by Eva Baltasar. Tell me about this novel.

Eva Baltasar is a very interesting voice in Catalan literature. In her case, again, she’s very bold in how she writes. I’ve tried to choose voices that are quite unique and you don’t see many female same-sex relationships in Catalan fiction. She’s very straightforward. But it’s not lesbian fiction. It’s not about the sexuality, although this has brought a number of people to reading her books. This is interesting but it’s not what her literature is all about.

She’s a poet and you can see it in her writing: very short sentences. Again, trying to be detached but very touching. A bit dark. She’s a reader of Sylvia Plath and her poetry has been compared to Sylvia Plath’s poetry. It’s this very deep but cool way of saying things and she brings this intimacy to the reader. That’s probably what brought me to mention her.

I should mention that in the book there is a lot about suicidal impulses. She is very interested in vital impulses like death and life and the body and sex. It all orbits around very essential things.

Permafrost is the first of a trilogy. I have read and loved all three of them. They’re quite disconnected and I don’t quite understand why she considers them a trilogy. Indeed, there is always an important female character as the protagonist and one can see her style across all of her books, but apart from that, the characters are different and the stories are different.

I read a review of Permafrost which said that one of its primary delights was its “uninhibited churlishness”, which I thought was funny.

She puts her characters in places where they seem to be comfortable but any other person, the reader, wouldn’t be comfortable. I think that’s what I like about her writing as well, it is daring. The third book in the trilogy is quite unapologetic.

If they’ve been translated into English does that mean these books have already been bestsellers in Catalan?

Mercè Rodoreda is obviously a classic, though not the title I chose. Her most read title is probably Diamond Square, that’s what my generation read at school. Sergi Pàmies is always a bestseller, every book he brings out, also because he is a man who is very often on radio and TV, so that’s extra promotion I guess. Eva Baltasar, yes because I think there was a need for this kind of literature, very much about identity. Marta Orriols won the Òmnium Prize for the best novel of 2018, when her book came out in Catalan. So yes, they’re important, bestselling writers in Catalonia.

Do you think the rest of Eva Baltasar’s trilogy will be translated as well?

Yes, the second one is due to come out in August. It’s called Boulder and it’s again translated by Julia Sanches. The third one, Mamut, is as good as the others and I am sure it will be translated into English as well.

We’re now at the final Catalan novel you’re recommending, When I Sing, Mountains Dance by Irene Solà. This book has won a number of prizes as well, hasn’t it?

Yes, among other prizes she won the European Union Prize for Literature in 2020 for this book. I am in love with Irene Solà’s writing. It is beyond belief, her talent. When you listen to her in interviews, she seems like an interesting author, and she talks about her literature, but it’s trivial compared to her written words. I haven’t read anyone comparing her to Mercè Rodoreda, but I think she’s the 21st-century Mercè Rodoreda. She’s so young and so talented. She’s been translated into I don’t know how many languages already with this book. The Granta edition is beautiful. For the co-curation I’ve been doing of the Catalan Spotlight Programme, I’ve been speaking with Max Porter who adores her work, as does Daisy Johnson. Who wouldn’t? She is a talent. If you haven’t read her you must. You absolutely must read this book. They say it’s a novel. I guess you have to put her somewhere in a genre, but it doesn’t feel like a novel.

The book does have a Catalan flair. She collects traditional Catalan folk stories and transforms them into contemporary stories set in the mountains, in the Pyrenees. In the book, she gives voice to the clouds, or a ghost, or a young deer and they have the same intensity, the same built identity, as a human narrator. They have equal priority of narrative.

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I’m finding it hard to explain, perhaps because this is one of my favourite books. There’s a force to Irene Solà’s words, you understand you are going to a strange place with her very soon. And then, slowly, you understand where you are going and who is speaking. Personally, I just couldn’t believe my eyes, also knowing she’s so young.

She reminded me also of the literature of Sarah Moss, for example, in this both playful and darkish connection with nature, or with Max Porter and the crow talking to the other characters in Grief Is The Thing With Feathers. This kind of balancing, not just animals but every single element has the same value. The literary voice of Irene Solà can, indeed, make the mountains dance.

Spotlight on Catalan Culture is a celebration of Catalan literature, arts and culture starting at The London Book Fair (5-7 April 2022) and with events taking place across the UK until June 2022.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Gala Sicart

Gala Sicart

Gala Sicart is an editor and translator from English into Spanish and Catalan. She is co-curator of Spotlight on Catalan Culture, the UK’s largest festival of Catalan arts and culture taking place at The London Book Fair and across the UK between March and June 2022.

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Gala Sicart

Gala Sicart

Gala Sicart is an editor and translator from English into Spanish and Catalan. She is co-curator of Spotlight on Catalan Culture, the UK’s largest festival of Catalan arts and culture taking place at The London Book Fair and across the UK between March and June 2022.