chapter  4
29 Pages

Barcelona: the cracked mirror of self-translation

When the Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda returned to Barcelona in the early 1970s after thirty years of exile in France and Switzerland, she found her city transformed. “Nothing is the same as before”, she complained. Her own neighbourhood, Sant Gervasi de Cassoles, with its picturesque towers, gardens, and grand old houses, had been a proud village, “breathing Catalan”. But Rodoreda had left this idealized world behind her when she, like her character Aloma, moved downtown to become part of the politically active Catalan intelligentsia in the 1930s. Like many others, she was then driven into exile by the defeat of the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War and the long dictatorship of Franco. The city she returned to in 1971 had been altered both physically and

culturally. The few stately houses remaining in her neighbourhood were now dwarfed by apartment buildings. And the city had become home to a large population of Spanish-speaking workers from the south of Spain who were lured to Barcelona between 1950 and 1975 as part of Franco’s deliberate effort to suppress Catalan culture. In an interview with Montserrat Roig in 1973 Rodoreda was dismayed to find that Barcelona had become “a bilingual city. People speak Castilian1 everywhere, in the shops, in bars, in taxis” (Roig 1975: 53). The prewar Barcelona, tranquil and proud of being European and Catalan, had given way to “a noisy, depersonalized and hybrid city”. It is not surprising then that Rodoreda chose to leave the city and settle in the Catalan countryside – where she lived until her death in 1983. The Barcelona she evoked in her modernist novels, and in particular the emblematic Plaça del Diamant, had become part of a new cultural constellation – one from which Rodoreda felt alien. The statue of her character, Colometa, which now stands in the Plaça, and the gardens reconstituted in her honour on the roof of the Casa de la Convalèscencia on the Ramblas, are markers of a long-ago city. Rodoreda’s discomfort with Barcelona stands in sharp contrast to the

views of other Barcelona writers at the time. In the early 1970s, the young writer Montserrat Roig carried out a series of interviews with Barcelona writers about their relationship to writing, language and the city, taking the pulse of the final years of Franco’s regime. Writers like Juan Marsé and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán had attitudes toward the city that were quite

different from those of the older Rodoreda. They had grown up in Barcelona during the dark postwar years when Rodoreda was in exile, in neighbourhoods which were far from genteel – Marsé in the district known as Carmel, in the north of the city beyond Parc Güell, and Vázquez Montalbán in the Raval, the traditional working-class neighbourhood in the Old City. Both were proudly attached to their city – and both wrote about Barcelona not in Catalan, but in Spanish. The rifts between neighbourhoods, classes and languages produced two

species of Barcelona writers – those who write in Catalan and those who write in Spanish. The conflict has hardly diminished since Roig’s investigations in the early 1970s. Her playful tone in the exchange with Marsé is revealing. They are still friends, she jokes, even though they don’t agree on language issues. Roig is no longer alive and so we don’t know if that friendship would have lasted. Marsé has taken some controversial positions in recent years, especially as a signatory of the infamous 1997 Foro Babel Manifesto which was signed by ninety Barcelona writers and intellectuals in protest against renewed measures to protect and promote the Catalan language. These writers claimed that the Catalan language had already achieved “normality” in a bilingual environment. A more recent controversy

arose when Catalonia was invited as a special guest of the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2007, and Spanish-language Barcelona writers were excluded. When Marsé was awarded the prestigious Cervantes prize in 2008 (the first Catalan to receive this Spanish-language Nobel) he declared in his reception speech: “I am Catalan and I write in Spanish and I see nothing abnormal in that … We are enriched by our cultural duality”.2