On May 25, 1970, Joan Brossa (Barcelona, 1919–1998) spoke out at the first Festival of Catalan Poetry at the Price Theatre, Barcelona, in solidarity with the political prisoners under Franco’s dictatorship. Just a few months ago, in November 2017, the Catalan president controversially announced that in the context of the referendum for independence held in Catalonia, Spain once again had political prisoners. Captured on film by Pere Portabella in a clandestine documentary, fragments of the poems recited by Joan Brossa and other renowned names in Catalan literature are now being shown at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). For an artist, political activist and Catalan nationalist, this intriguing exhibition that offers a new reading of Brossa’s complete works could not be more timely.
Through the end of February, a retrospective exhibit on the life and work of the influential Catalan poet.
Perhaps part of the uniqueness of Catalan comes from this awareness of its influence on and disconnection from Castilian and European traditions.
Part I: The Nineteenth Century
At first, I was hesitant to write an article on the uses of the Catalan language in literature throughout recent history. After the referendum for Catalan independence held this past October 1, which was deemed illegal by the Spanish government, and the subsequent episodes of violence that occurred in the region, the topic has come to be a sensitive matter for any national. However, where there is a language, there is a literature, and the history of Catalan is one of stubborn resistance. It is my contention that the history of a language is somehow lived out in those who speak it, insofar as a sentiment of ambiguity still informs contemporary critical debates on the usefulness and adaptability of Catalan literature. “Is Catalan literature diverse enough? Can it cultivate all genres? Is it economically viable?” are questions that have resonated among critics and the public alike. Catalan literature inherits a sense of shame from its own fruition, and it is this feeling that I want to explore with this genealogy of usages.
This is not a history of Catalan literature and the texts featured here have not been selected according to an aesthetic canon. This is an archive of perceptions of Catalan language and literature as experienced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from the literary resurgence known as La Renaixença in Catalan literary history (parallel to which political Catalan nationalism as we know it unfolds) to the relatively normalized literary field in existence today. While certainly not the only appropriate approach, in what follows I present a succession of events from the nineteenth century that Catalan historiography has employed to explain the evolution of the uses of the language.
I grew aware of the immense distances spread out in front of me, breathing for me.
“When I read Miquel de Palol,” says Mireira Vidal-Conte, “I see reflections of such authors as Claudio Magris, Robert Walser, Cortázar, Ray Bradbury, Clarice Lispector, Stendhal, Szymborska, Casares, Karel Čapek, Pessoa, Proust, Flaubert, or Novalis; but also of painters like Brueghel the Elder (the first of many predecessors of the surrealism of the detail) or the cinema of David Lynch, Fellini, or Wong Kar-wai. This is true irrespective of the genre, for the poet under discussion works not in a specific genre (save for that of language), but in the broader category of art. As a literary artist, he employs genre in the manner of a simple tool, employing the one that works or those occasions when it works. He is a poet when poetry is what is called for.” For this Translation Tuesday, we present an excerpt from The Garden of Seven Twilights, in which the great Miquel de Palol touches the real in all its vertiginous vastness in childhood moments spent face to face with the cosmos. This piece was first published last Thursday along with new work from thirty-one countries in our Fall 2017 issue.
—Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-Chief
The Story of the Swing and the Stars
My American childhood, super-protected, closed in on itself, took place between Long Island and New England: Providence, Boston, Salem . . . Now they seem to me like places from a dream. My godfather Kaspar had a house on the outskirts of Boston, and I stayed there for long stretches in the summer, until my mother died.
There was a swing between two apple trees in the garden behind the house, but from a very young age, I preferred to kill time staring at the cockroaches and butterflies.