A biography of a city

Barcelona. Una biografia [Barcelona: A Biography]
Author: Enric Calpena
Edicions 62 / Destino
Barcelona, 2015

Thanks to his work promoting the history of Catalonia, the journalist Enric Calpena has become one of the most prominent names in contemporary historical literature. With works such as this, he adds to notable 20th-century initiatives such as the series by Agustí Duran i Sanpere, which was turned into a book following its success on the radio, becoming a benchmark work for educated readership.

In Barcelona. Una biografia, he succeeds in giving a voice to a city that for over 2,000 years has made ambition the main feature of its urban personality. The history of Barcelona can be explained through its documents, such as the municipal archives that resulted in the book Autobiografia de Barcelona (2013), or it can be explained through its people, institutions and stones. That is what has been done and presented to us through a story with over 800 pages, in which the journalist interviews Barcelona.

The result is an ambitious literary text that is well-documented, enjoyable to read, rich in anecdotes and always marked by Calpena’s unabashed style, a style prone to impromptu comparisons in order to decipher historical facts that are sometimes too distant and even incomprehensible for modern readers, but one that is also loving, given the author’s esteem for his home city. The Barcelona profiled by Calpena is a city with a privileged geographical position on the Catalan coast, especially since it stands between the two milestones of the ancient western Mediterranean, Empúries and Tarraco. The evolution of this urban enclave is depicted through the different names it has had throughout history, from the primitive Barkeno to Roman Barcino, which became Barsiluna in Moorish times, Barchinona in Christian times, and finally Barcelona in the late medieval and modern age. It enters modernity marked by the fire and destruction of the War of the Spanish Succession and the Peninsular War, while the final chapters focus on the adventure of contemporary Barcelona, bringing readers practically up to the present day. 

The undoubted aim is not to provide an exhaustive overview, but an invitation to enjoy the amazing complexity of Barcelona through the centuries. In many cases, the author – whose work had hitherto focused on more contemporary themes – pays more attention to distant episodes of the ancient Roman or medieval city than to the 19th or particularly the 20th century. An example: the same attention is dedicated to the parliament of 1413 as to the 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship.

The result is an innovative approach that Calpena uses to broaden the horizons of Catalan history, as well as Spanish history during the more recent centuries, going beyond focusing on the history of the city as other journalisthistorians have done with great success, such as Lluís Permanyer, Jaume Fabre or the sorely missed Josep Maria Huertas Claveria. This is not a book on urban history in the strict sense, but it is a good work of historical literature on the role Barcelona has played within Catalan and Spanish history. 

Barcelona is, effectively, a city that endears itself, as Calpena affirms in the prologue. The book is an act of love for the city and its past. Available in Catalan (Edicions 62) and Spanish (Destino) editions, the publishers should also consider English and French editions at the very least. The dissemination of Barcelona and its history deserves it, and its potential readers would surely appreciate it.  

In the infinite city

La filla estrangera [The Foreign Daughter]

Author: Najat El Hachmi

Edicions 62

Barcelona, 2015

El Hachmi had already recounted her experience in two earlier works. While El Hachmi dealt mainly with a relationship with a father in The last patriarch, in La filla estrangera she focuses on a mother-daughter relation ship.

Najat El Hachmi has the merit of having introduced a new point of view to Catalan literature, and even, I would say, to Iberian literature as a whole. El Hachmi has emerged as a unique voice, capable of explaining the experience of the new Moroccan community in our city. Unlike other literary traditions, the Catalan tradition has not segregated a postcolonial literature – for obvious reasons – although globalisation and new migration have made it possible to integrate multiple identities and new perspectives in a literary society that would have otherwise ended up spiralling into a very ethnocentric viewpoint. Authors from around the world who are based in Barcelona – such as the Englishman Matthew Tree, the Czech Monika Zgustova, the Afghan Nadia Ghulam and the Frenchmen Gregoire Poulet and Mathias Enard are, together with Najat El Hachmi, some examples of authors whose work has offered the world a window onto Barcelona.

El Hachmi had already recounted her experience in two earlier works. In her novel The last patriarch (Ramon Llull Award winner), shook literary society with a story that was unsettling – both due to the world that emerged for the first time in our literature, as well as for the story’s literary effectiveness. While El Hachmi dealt mainly with a relationship with a father in The last patriarch, in La filla estrangera she focuses on a mother-daughter relation ship. The author tells the story of a girl born in Morocco, who was transplanted and brought up in a city in inland Catalonia, as she enters adulthood and struggles to become independent of her mother. She maintains a loyal but unhealthy relationship with her mother, with whom she speaks a variant of the Tamazight language. Educated in Catalan, the novel’s protagonist lives straddling two languages, which eventually turn into the field of negotiation between two worlds, a field of forces that not only affect the girl’s social environment.

The great strength of La filla estrangera is the equidistance the author maintains between two worlds and two cultures that overlap without ever becoming identical. El Hachmi unsparingly depicts the prejudices and atavism of the Moroccan community, but also the narrow-mindedness and paternalism with which the Catalans have addressed African immigration. There is no good or bad here. Everyone struggles to be who they are and gets it wrong when judging others. La filla estrangera is, in this sense, proof of the importance of the novelistic genre for understanding the complexity of identity and transforming readers’ views. 

The question raised by La filla estrangera is: “What should I be, in relation to my origin?” In Vic, the protagonist finds a society that is welcoming enough that it enables her to become integrated. Her experience, however, will end up turning Vic into another extension of her maternal prison, and she will be forced to break free and move to Barcelona. 

For the protagonist of La filla estrangera, the big city becomes a space of liberation, after the years of imprisonment living in Vic or suffocation living in Morocco. “I remember walking without stopping along huge streets and being happy to know the infinite city,” she confesses. El Hachmi explained in an interview that “there is a big difference between living in the provinces or in a big city. The big city is often seen as a release, but that’s not always the case. Immigrants arrive and settle here grouped into communities that already come from their home countries […] That’s why there is still this oppressive social control experienced by the protagonist.” 

The golden age of the world’s biggest show

La història del circ a Barcelona

[The History of the Circus in Barcelona]

Author: Ramon Bech i Batlle

Viena Edicions / Barcelona City Council

Barcelona, 2015

Barcelona City Council and Viena Edicions publish the history about the golden age of the circus in Barcelona in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is a work of Ramon Bech, investigator on circus and cofounder of the Circus Arts Foundation.

I see the word “circus” as being associated with childhood. I remember the arrival, around Christmastime, of the circuses that every year were advertised as “the world’s biggest show” and still visit the city today. If I had been asked when the circus came to Barcelona for the first time, before reading this book I would not have been able to answer. The author, Ramon Bech (Figueres, 1967), finds the oldest evidence in the companies of “volatins”, or acrobats, who performed at Santa Creu Theatre on 12 February 1722.

Barcelona was a great circus capital in the 19th and 20th centuries, and was the centre of the show’s golden age thanks to the numerous travelling acts that visited the city as well as the permanent spaces built there so that audiences could enjoy this performing art. Bech takes stock of both these travelling acts and permanent spaces in his book, dedicating the main part to the three emblematic buildings located in the city centre: the Barcelona Equestrian Circus (1879-1895), the Tivoli Equestrian Circus on Carrer de Casp (1897-1907) and the Olympia Circus Theatre (1924-1947). Other emblematic spaces mentioned include the bullrings Les Arenes, El Torín (in Barceloneta) and Monumental. There were also circuses on Paral·lel and in an open area behind Sagrada Família cathedral.

Over 200 unpublished photos and plans of circuses, programmes and portraits of the impresarios and artists take us back to a time and to spaces that have since disappeared. The materials largely come from the archives of the Circus Arts Foundation, an organisation based in Figueres that was cofounded by Bech and Genís Matabosch. Its collection holds the 8,000 negatives and notebooks with notes by the photographer and historian Josep Vinyes, a legacy Bech found indispensable for producing this book. It was also essential to rediscover the few circus chroniclers of Barcelona: Jordi Elias, Sebastià Gasch, Joan Tomàs and the above-mentioned Josep Vinyes.

Until now, the only history of the circus in Barcelona has been El circo en la vida barcelonesa [The Circus in Barcelona Life] (1947), a short book by Antoni Rué Dalmau which was also a starting point for the study by Bech, who spent seven years researching to reconstruct the history of the circus and achieve this so far unique local chronicle.

The result is an exhaustive work that alternates visual material with texts by the author or from contemporary accounts in an entertaining way. Moreover, in addition to the history of circus construction we also find some curious details, such as the fact that in its early days the Liceu Theatre hosted tightrope walker shows, and in 1889 the legendary Buffalo Bill show was set up between Carrer Aribau and Carrer Muntaner. There is also curiosity and rejection in equal parts found in some articles about a trapeze artist called Bella Geraldine, who unleashed passions among male audiences and was the envy of many women.

The overall aim of this book is to pay tribute to and document everything as accurately as possible; from the first acrobatic shows in Barceloneta and at Santa Creu Theatre to the circus numbers in other performance genres such as theatre and music hall, which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The chronicle goes right up to the 1970s, when Barcelona was the first city to host the World Circus Festival at the Palau d’Esports, seen as a competition between circuses.