Oxford. A half century of literature and politics

Nothing beats the instant research of experience when translating ironic prose writers with a less than heroic vision of their city. The many Catalan fictions now available in English highlight the life and history of the city in prose that is as artful, incisive and original as any Gaudí or Picasso.

© Elisenda Llonch

“Would you like to meet one of my poets? I have one for every taste – romantic, tragic, surreal… all very reasonably priced,” I was asked by an elegant, grey-haired lady in a bar on Carrer de Balmes who was waving a small book under my nose of what appeared to be poems written by different hands in different inks. It was 1970 and I had just emerged from a clandestine meeting with students and trades-unionists I’d been lecturing on the virtues of revolutionary Marxism. One worker was on my mind – a shop steward from the SEAT car-plant – as he’d not seemed very keen; and also safety, given my bag full of subversive pamphlets in that dour Barcelona ruled by Franco’s police. I blinked at the lady with the sparkling earrings and muttered that I wasn’t in the mood for her kind of lyrics; she left the bar in a huff.

Over the past fifty years literature and politics have always been linked to my experience of Barcelona. At Cambridge in 1965 I read medieval Spanish literature and history, and was struck by the power of a city that imposed its maritime law across the Mediterranean, from Sicily to Rhodes, and that in 1936 was the focus for an incipient social revolution and that was now capital of a country that didn’t exist with a language that was banned. Even Cervantes devoted the last chapters of Don Quixote to the delights of this city at the beginning of the 17th century with a thriving publishing industry, an attractive port and melancholy Spanish Muslims like Ricote on the point of being expelled from the only land they knew.

I finally made it to the city in 1968, by which time my thinking was veering away from literature and into politics to research the 1868 revolution and its impact on writers and the workers’ movement. I moved between various libraries where dusty tomes and old newspapers were dropped on your table by grumpy men in blue overalls, as if they were delivering tins of baked beans. Then I’d walk from the university or from the newspaper library to the main post office to collect my post, along the narrow streets of the Barri Xino, where men huddled on street-corners, looking hungry, desperate and threatening to a young lad from the Lincolnshire fens, and where obese beckoning women, squeezed into tight, skimpy dresses, their lips a garish red, were parked in bar doorways, and hardly penning poems.

Within a few years I’d abandoned the dialectic and relinquished my by-line as Juan Gómez on the Workers’ Press, that ubiquitous Iberian journalist covering stories from Arequipa to L’Hospitalet. Meanwhile Barcelona was gradually shedding its dictatorial grey. I remember walking down the Rambles and being able to buy the Communist Party’s Mundo Obrero, taking a golondrina for a ride around the port with striking transport workers, and listening to La Trinca sing their ode to a toilet roll to the bars of Beethoven’s Fifth. All of a sudden everything was possible!

I learned Catalan in London with Catalans whose parents had gone into exile – in cafes, pubs and parks I’d trade an hour of English for an hour of Catalan backed by Alan Yates’s grammar and exercises. I was teaching in a London comprehensive and hoped to exchange my post with a Catalan teacher in 1978, but none was forthcoming and I ended up heading for Archena in Murcia and the orange and apricot groves of Segura Valley rather than Passeig de Gràcia and Park Güell.

While deputy-head of Fortismere School in North London, I started off as a literary translator with Juan Goytisolo’s Forbidden Territory, where he recounts, amongst other things, his escapades with Jaime Gil de Biedma around Barcelona’s backstreets and brothels. That translation led to commissions to work on five Channel 4 television programmes on international culture. For Islam in Spain I interviewed a Pakistani worker, in a bar off the Plaça Reial, who told me of his long journey to Catalonia via five hard years as a coalminer in León, and a Lebanese bartender who was scathing about Catalan ignorance of the medieval co-existence of Christians, Jews and Arabs – “I was taught about that in Beirut, here it’s not mentioned – five hundred years of their history!” The Barri Xino was changing, on its way to becoming the Raval of today that Goytisolo likes to compare to Marrakesh. I also wrote up a trial by the Inquisition of a Spanish Muslim that we filmed in a Renaissance basement on Carrer de la Canuda with Catalan actors. By now my interest in the history, literatures and politics of Catalonia and Spain had led to a new life dedicated to literary translation, practising, teaching and promoting it, and finally to Barcelona in 2003 as a full-time freelancer with a Catalan wife, translator and novelist, Teresa Solana.

What have the last eleven years taught me about the city? Like most large cities with a history, it is a series of villages, and in the typical freelancer’s pursuit of solvency I have lived in five of them, translating some of the best contemporary Catalan writing. My physical exploration of the different neighbourhoods of Sarrià, Sant Gervasi, Gràcia, Vallcarca and El Putxet was accompanied by immersion in the literary worlds of Quim Monzó, Empar Moliner, Najat el Hachmi, Joan Sales, Mercè Rodoreda, Josep Pla and, of course, Teresa Solana.

© Pérez de Rozas / AFB
Franco’s death in the newspapers in kiosks on the Rambla, on 20 November 1975.

I breathed in the fresh mountain breezes as I walked along the paths above Carrer de Cardedeu that lead to a quiet, local park beautifully fashioned from an old quarry by Bohigas and Mackay with the help of a Chillida sculpture. In Pérez Galdós in Gràcia we couldn’t open the window over the street because of petrol fumes from the line of cars – so much for the estate agent’s claim that it was to be traffic free. I stood by the door while our drunken neighbour hammered at 2 am one morning. I cursed every ceiling that collapsed and every tottering parapet – another unexpected extra to fork out on top of the mortgage. I saw old ladies in Carrer d’Hercegovina sporting bracelets with the Francoist flag, the same flag with the eagle that hooting motorists draped around their torsos on the night of the clásico. I watched anarchists in squatters’ gothic garb walking their mastiffs in Plaça del Diamant. I sat on white leather sofas in white-painted rooms where Moët was served and one heard about the virtues of “black” money.

Nothing to beats the instant research of experience when translating ironic prose writers with a less than heroic vision of their city and class divides that continue for those not simply on a “stag-party” weekend down in Barceloneta. The many Catalan fictions now available in English highlight the life and history of the city in prose that is as artful, incisive and original as any Gaudí or Picasso. And when the opportunity came to translate Joan Sales’s Uncertain Glory, in the course of my many drafts, memories of the hours spent studying the conflicts between anarchists and Marxists in the 1870s, or in fierce argument with supporters of the different strands of Trotskyism in Barcelona in the early 1970s, came flooding back to bring life to my language. Here was a great novel with an insider’s vision of the civil war and writing that goes beyond Orwell and Hemingway. What greater challenge could a literary translator wish for?

Peter Roland Bush

Translator. University of Oxford

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