The Spanish Riveter: Contemporary Catalan literature: Where We’ve Come From and Where We’re Going by Marina Porras

Contemporary Catalan literature carries a weight on its back – a tradition so heavy, we can’t understand our literary system without looking back at it. Like most European literatures, Catalan literature has its origins in the medieval period, which was its first golden era. Troubadour poetry produced great ambassadors for the Catalan language – Ausiàs March, for example, is one of the founders of European poetry – and these poets created a strong base from which Catalan literature could develop over the ensuing centuries. However, it was not long before Catalan saw the emergence of the political, and therefore linguistic, conflicts that have been at the centre of its literature throughout history. After a few centuries of repeated onslaughts, which led to its marginalisation and burial, Catalan literature resurfaced in the middle of the Romanticism of the nineteenth century, with great poets – Jacint Verdaguer being the greatest among them – and a sophisticated literary system that would lay the foundations for the twentieth-century boom.

The most brilliant moment for Catalan literature, in my view, is the beginning of the twentieth century, coinciding with a period of significant political stability in the country, and with the rise of Barcelona as one of the most cosmopolitan and modern European cities. It was a golden age for poetry, and also for Catalan publishing, which produced its best authors, who often combined the professions of journalist and prose writer – Eugeni d’Ors, Joan Maragall, Josep Carner or Josep Pla are some key names from this era. These journalists prepared the ground for the writers who would come during the second half of the twentieth century and who had to survive two dictatorships and long decades of language bans and censorship. Mercè Rodoreda and Pere Calders are at the top of this list. However, the influence of the early-twentieth-century journalists can still be seen in the best Catalan prose writers of the twenty-first century.

Catalan writers have had few periods in which they could develop normally, without taking into account their political circumstances, but the power of Catalan literature is so great that whenever it is given a little air, it refloats and great figures rise to the surface. One of the particularities of the Catalan literary system is that we are always rereading and reinterpreting our tradition, and many of the literary debates and literary discussions are about our classics, which hold an important place and have huge prestige in our cultural system. Each new edition of a Catalan classic creates a rich literary discussion, with a new generation of readers discovering their literary heritage and exploring it in different ways.

With the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975, Catalan literature was able to develop its own autonomous literary system, and Catalan literature has experienced the same changes all Western literatures have undergone in recent decades. Several generations of writers having now worked within this new publishing world, and it has produced some well-known international names, such as Quim Monzó, whose short stories have been translated around the world, Jaume Cabré, with more conventional and historical novels, and Albert Sánchez Piñol, an author closer to science fiction, whose titles are also sold globally.

Globalisation has made literary themes universal, and Catalan literature is no exception. Themes that have seen most success include the rural environment and the return to nature. Irene Solà, author of When I Sing Mountains Dance (2019), has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Set in the Catalan Pirineus (Pyrenees), it gives voice to natural elements and tries to explain how the place where we are born shapes and explains our inner nature. One of the most interesting novels of 2022, Distòcia by Pilar Codony, also has a rural setting, and sees a young veterinarian protagonist explaining the effects of living in nature in the twenty-first century.

Feminism is another topic that occupies a lot of space in Catalan bookstores. The writer Eva Baltasar (Permafrost, 2018) has published a trilogy of books, translated around the world, with motherhood as a central theme. We can also include Marta Orriols, who with the sales phenomenon Learning To Talk to Plants (2018), has been translated into more than fifteen languages. And the writer and journalist Gemma Ruiz has sold more than 25,000 copies of her novel Argelagues (2016), about the effects of recent historic events on women.

These narratives written by contemporary women can be traced back to Marta Rojals and her unusual bestseller Primavera, Estiu,Etcètera (2008), a novel about a young woman’s return to her hometown and the intergenerational problems that ensue. In fact, like literatures all over the world, Catalan is seeing the growing importance of young authors and first novels. A recent notable case is that of Pol Guasch with Napalm to the Heart (2020), a novel of ideas that reflects on the boundaries of gender and queer relations.

Nonfiction is booming in Catalan literature too. The last decade has seen a significant increase in essay collections by philosophers, in investigative journalism and in books about contemporary historical phenomena. In addition the market for translations of classics is among the best in European literature, which have a growing prestige among readers.

I couldn’t finish this overview without mentioning contemporary Catalan poetry. Because of its importance in our tradition, Catalan poetry still holds great importance in Catalan literature. The Catalan poetic system remains alive and influential in our literature, and a large number of Catalan prose writers are also poets.

What is most important to me about Catalan literature of the last decades, however, is what happens outside these official circuits. Beyond the authors who are promoted because they are in line with global trends are the writers who distance themselves from passing fads. They have been a constant, offering the most interesting work in Catalan. And if these last decades have not produced a Josep Pla or a Mercè Rodoreda, who are unquestionably at the top of the twentieth-century canon, it is because the twenty-first-century canon is yet to be built. I think it will be constructed by writers who are able to think about their literature both with a view to its age-old tradition but also to its future. Whoever is able to write without thinking about current trends, and with an idea of a greater Catalan literature, which is stronger and more transcendent than that presented to us by current authors, will be the one who will take everything ahead.

Marina Porras

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