In our regular series, international writers share some snapshots from their part of the world. This issue, Kevin Booth shares some perspectives on Barcelona and Catalonia.
What’s so great about Barcelona?
The Mediterranean climate, reasonable cost of living, one’s awareness of history on every corner, the constant clash and parry of Catalan, Castilian, Arabic, Pakistani and other cultures, the politics, the corruption … a sense that however bad it gets, it’ll all keep going on.
And if it gets too much, or things are looking like they might boil over into a revolution, you can always go to the beach and contemplate that particular shade of indigo that the horizon takes on at sunset.
Tell us a bit about the cultural life of the place.
The biggest mistake people make when they come here is to assume they are coming to Spain. Catalonia has a unique cultural and linguistic identity:
“Once upon a time there were two kingdoms who fell in love and got married. After several centuries, one found that her identity and sense of self was being swamped (if not stamped on) by her partner, so she started thinking about divorce …”
Independence is the buzzword of the moment. The upcoming elections on 27 September are being touted as a plebiscite for independence. After that we shall see. Politics is ingrained here, into every nook and cranny of people’s DNA. When I went back to New Zealand, it was the politics I missed about this place – though the UK is also wonderfully and fervently vociferous in its politics.
What’s hot? What are people reading?
The bookshops stock the same bestsellers in translation you’ll find worldwide.
However, Lluís Llach, one of the country’s staunchest singer-songwriter-poets, a man you might describe as Catalonia’s Bob Dylan – though with a touch more Marxist conviction, humanist ideals and minus the religious confusion – has recently turned his hand to novel-writing, with wonderful results. His first book Memòria d’uns ulls pintats (Memory of Eyes Made-Up) is a touching story of four adolescents growing up in the Second Spanish Republic and ensuing Civil War, their education in the non-religious, humanist “modern schools” of the time, and the consequent tragic outcome of the Fascist victory in Spain. His latest novel Les dones del Principal (Women of the Principal), describes three generations of women surviving and thriving in the patriarchal culture of twentieth-century rural Catalonia.
Can you recommend any books set in the city or the region of Catalonia?
Mercé Rodoreda’s La Plaça del Diamant (The Time of Doves) takes place in the neighbourhood of Gràcia, Barcelona, before, during and after the Spanish Civil War. The novel follows the story of Colometa (“little dove”), an initially simple neighbourhood girl and young mother who develops through her hardship from a scared, passive soul into a survivor. Rodoreda’s Mirall Trencat is also brilliant, depicting the Barcelona bourgeoisie from the age of Modernisme till the post-Civil War period.
Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind) is a noir novel set in a post-war Barcelona where it is always raining. You can follow the novel’s twists and turns through the city streets.
And of course my own Celia’s Room, a novel of interlaced narratives where two young men in Barcelona in 1990 struggle to find themselves, their identities and their art in a city that is also changing its skin, shedding a dull, Francoist past to embrace its Olympic future as a designer city set beside the sea.
Who are the best known local writers?
Vázquez Montalbán, whose Pepe Carvalho detective series set in and around Barcelona have been made into a series of films and TV programmes; Terrenci Moix, a gay writer with a passion for Egypt; Pere Calders, a fabulous poet; Joan Brossa, an amazing visual poet; Mercé Rodoreda (mentioned above), Manuel de Pedrolo (his Typescript of a Second Beginning is a cult YA novel); Miquel Martí i Pol, another magnificent poet.
Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?
Very much an inspiration, but also a terrible distraction. I live in the neighbourhood of Poble Sec (hence the name of my press, Poble Sec Books). While none of my characters in Celia’s Room have lived here, they do pass through the “barrio” (neighbourhood). It’s a formerly working-class district that has recently come into fashion for its mix of ethnicities, restaurants, bars and, of course, for the Poble Sec Festival, when we spend two weeks dancing and drinking every July. So, yes, that is rather distracting!
Barcelona is, for me, a fluently trilingual environment, which I love. I speak Catalan, Spanish and English daily. I’ve been told that my work explores a strong subtext of collective identity expressed through linguistic signs, and “us” versus “the other”, with a tendency to celebrate the outsider or loner. I find it curious that while a few years in London was enough to qualify me as a “Londoner” (though I’m sure some would scoff), I arrived in Barcelona over twenty-five years ago, but the facet of “foreigner” still infuses a major part of my Barcelona identity.
What are you writing?
Having just published the third instalment in my contemporary eco-fantasy series, Lake of Stone, I’m now focussing on my second more literary work, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, about a group of high school students who stage a production of the musical Cabaret. The protagonist is a Moroccan-born Spanish student, and it’s very much a coming-of-age tale set in Barcelona in the year 2002, when the right-wing government of the time used a negligible diplomatic spate with Morocco as a mini-Falklands campaign to further its own populist agenda. The novel explores ideas of race, religion, hatred and sexuality within the context of modern-day Spain as a melting pot of cultures.
I also write the blog www.barcelonafreeart.net which focuses on art you can see for free in Barcelona.
Sum up life in Barcelona in three words.
Chaotic, fluid, sublime.
Kevin Booth is a bit of a nomad mainly based in Barcelona who writes contemporary fiction under his own name and speculative fiction as K. Eastkott. All of his works are available at www.poblesecbooks.com along with a list of retailers. Go to www.barcelonafreeart.net for suggestions on art you can see for free in Barcelona, follow Kevin Booth on Twitter or “like” him on Facebook for updates and free stuff.