The World's Best Unknown Books
04 04 2013

Parent book: Victor Català (Caterina Albert) - Solitude

Seduction in Catalonia

David Leavitt

When Francisco Franco took over Spain in 1939, at the end of the Spanish Civil War, one of the first things he did was to criminalize the use of the Catalan language. Suddenly, all over the province of Catalonia, placards began to appear: “Don’t bark!” they read. “Speak the language of the Spanish empire!” Franco was an ardent nationalist, but mostly he operated from fear. Much of his Republican opposition had originated in Catalonia and been plotted in that region’s sometimes guttural, sometimes musical tongue.

But while you can ban the teaching of a language, you cannot practically ban the speaking of it. Catalan, as a result, persisted, and since Franco’s death it has undergone a resurrection of sorts, thanks in great part to the government of the region, which has instituted a vigorous program to reintroduce into its population a language almost every young person knows how to speak but few know how to write. These days in Barcelona, Catalan book publishers abound, while American novels regularly appear in both Spanish and Catalan translations. Still, Catalan writers face a daunting choice. The temptation to write in Spanish — a language spoken the world over — can be hard to resist when one’s mother tongue is understood only in an extremely circumscribed area. Indeed, when the popular Catalan novelist Terenci Moix elected to write his autobiography in Spanish, rumor had it that the President of Catalonia called him and begged him to change his mind. Mr. Moix stuck to his guns; the resulting book was a huge best seller all over Spain.

Unfortunately, very little Catalan literature is available in English. This is a shame, since it’s a rich brew, as various as the region itself, where mountains tower over half-moon-shaped beaches and snow falls 20 minutes’ drive from the seaside. What we do have we owe chiefly to the efforts of the esteemed translator David H. Rosenthal, who died last November, at the age of 46, of pancreatic cancer. He made available, among other works, renditions of the medieval epic “Tirant lo Blanc,” Merce Rodorera’s extraordinary war novel, “The Time of the Doves,” and the poetry of J. V. Foix.

A new addition to that impressive selection is “Solitude,” a first novel published in 1905 by Caterina Albert i Paradis under the name Victor Catala (literally, “Catalan Victory”). Pseudonym aside, this isn’t even remotely a hymn to Catalan nationalism. Rather, in its evocation of landscape and myth, as well as its incipient feminism, “Solitude” prefigures the work of several later and better-known British women writers. Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Edna O’Brien and Jeanette Winterson all come immediately to mind.

“Solitude” tells the story of Mila, a peasant girl who makes the mistake of marrying an ineffectual if guileless fellow called Matias and going to live with him in a hermitage high in the mountains. “A child of the lowland plains, barren for want of hands, water and fertilizer,” Mila at first finds the dramatic vistas overwhelming. Gradually, however, she adjusts to the “huge, silent mountains that sloped into the quiet dusk, which enveloped them in shadow like a darkening cloud,” as well as to the harsh, wintry life of the ancient complex where she and Matias serve as caretakers.

In part, this is thanks to the friendship of Gaieta, a light-footed shepherd who woos Mila with folklore and fantastic legends. Matias, in the meantime, falls under the spell of Anima, a feral hunter and thief who plays the role of Caliban to Gaieta’s Ariel. The twin seductions of husband and wife lead to inevitable and murderous consequences.

The author is at her best in evoking landscape and architecture: the railings of the hermitage that “oozed rusty liquid,” the floor tiles that remind Mila “of a neighbor in her parts whose teeth were so uneven that each went its separate way.” The severe, sometimes brutal life of the mountains, moreover, is brought vividly home, as in a feast of roasted snails “soldered together with dark, sticky paste,” a meal that features a dog “picking up empty shells, licking them, and noisily grinding them between his teeth.” Even more powerfully rendered is the Saturnalian frenzy into which a saint’s-day festival gradually degenerates. Through Gaieta, we hear some engrossing and equally brutal folk tales, most of which explain the names the peasants have given to local peaks, lakes and rivers — Badblood Creek, Olivebreath and Goblin Crest, to name but a few.

What is perhaps most surprising about “Solitude,” however, especially given the date of its publication, is its overt and unapologetic feminism. Early on, for instance, the author suggests some of Mila’s suppressed rebelliousness when she describes the fervor with which the young woman takes on the traditionally feminine task of cleaning house: “And amid the tumult and thick clouds of dust,” she writes, “you could see Mila ardently wheeling, attacking here and there, sparing no hole or corner. She abandoned herself to that onslaught, feeling a voluptuous thrill in her revolutionary ardor.”

Later, watching some peasant women working on the plain below her, Mila notes that “despite everything, those women’s lives were not sufficiently calm, boring or dead. Better to be a plant, free of all servitude, need, toil and anxiety … or better still, a hard, stony mountain like the Roquis.” This is strong stuff, prefiguring Mila’s decision to abandon, first psychologically and then literally, her spineless husband.

As a feminist polemic, “Solitude” has a crude, unformed quality that may make readers yearn for the much better novels it preceded. What impresses more is the narrative’s detailed descriptions: the knife, for example, that “with one pull left the rabbit, bereft of its pelt, dangling from a hook, bright red, without tail or ears, its teeth like tiny staves and its front paws hanging limply.” By contrast, the plot — especially its denouement — has an awkward, tricked-up predictability that makes the transcendent ending, at least in English, ring hollow; worse, the author seems unable to resist the most dire cliches of romance writing — “penetrating eyes that burned with desire” and the like. She is much better at cataloguing the contents of an ancient reliquary or describing the immensity of a mountain view than at imbuing a kiss with any sort of erotic power.

One wonders what kind of reaction a novel like this must have generated upon its publication, when no one had read “Mrs. Dalloway” or “The Golden Notebook”; sadly, discovery is something that cannot be experienced secondhand. For contemporary readers, “Solitude” holds interest primarily as a historical artifact.

Nevertheless, the novel’s folk tales, with their scent of cruelty, linger in the mind, as do the icy, unforgiving vistas below which peasant women “come down the mountain like a column of ants, each one bent beneath a bundle of firewood three times her size.” Finally, it’s this sense of place that gives “Solitude” its power. “Going up is worse than climbing stairs,” Matias says of the steep mountain paths, “but coming down is easy… . Your feet can’t stop, and before you know, it’s over.”