Imagine Moby Dick, but instead of Captain Ahab picture a failed university professor, and instead of a white whale, a great and magnificent idea that will save and redeem the professor’s career. This novel, like all great novels, is about trying to find meaning in life. After nineteen years in academia, Morella can no longer convince himself that he is a genius who will change the course of literature. When his obstetrician wife, Sesé, delivers a deformed yet biologically viable baby, its birth calls into question their conceptual and aesthetic certainties. Els angles morts is structured as an academic paper, and its form mocks the absurd and rigid academic structures that have tortured Dr Morella during his career. As Maya Faye Lethem writes, ‘Bagunyà’s multi-faceted, supersaturated narration – with its monstrous barrage of footnotes, serial parenthetical clauses, digressions, knowing winks, sentences that end abruptly or trail off – challenges the reader’s perspective through a constant upending of their expectations, setting the novel of ideas on its ear’.
It was one of those things you wished you hadn’t had to see, not so much because you didn’t want to see it, but because, once you had, it could never be unseen. The matador’s goring, the corneal operation, the recipes for making your own placenta into stew. Up until then, everything had been fine with the dean, right as rain, but after a painfully detailed report on the state of the repairs to the cloister, he announced that he would give the floor to (pause) Laura, to see if they could finally give Olivier’s new post the red light. He accompanied his announcement with one of those nods you use to greet someone in passing, but that wasn’t what irritated Morella; it was the shabby detail of saying ‘Laura’ instead of ‘Doctor Camps’, which is what he should have said had his university been a normal one. It should be a scandal. And yet it wasn’t. In any other European college, he would have been given a warning and told to address the committee in the proper fashion. What was that belly-showing, cigar-smoking godfatherly familiarity?, Morella wondered, satisfied, at least, to confirm the ridiculous need the dean had to prove the special chumminess he had with his happy few, the same chumminess that allowed him to eschew the forms of address dictated by protocol (that is, ‘doctor’ or ‘professor’, etc.) and to impudently introduce the lucky ones, that is (pause) (nod) ‘Laura’, an offence that seemed even more monstrous to him considering they were in the middle of an official ceremony of the college’s highest executive authority, and that, just like in any other liturgy, it was the protocol that dictated the event, and not the other way around. He liked that idea of the liturgy. It wasn’t his, but that didn’t matter; Antoni Morella was the kind of man who would spend his whole day writing down stuff if the image didn’t strike him as so ridiculous. Besides, if he had learned something in his nineteen-year career, it was the grotesquely ritualised nature of the academic institution. Classes, exams, department meetings, contract renewals, the inaugurations of each academic year, speakers’ presentations, and many other academic or para-academic activities (but also the conversations in the cafeteria and the greetings in the corridors) (the way you asked about someone’s sick wife or the cost of fixing the carpet), everything was perfectly standardised, pre-structured and detailed in a way that pretty much everybody knew as the way things work. The way things work was the vade mecum of university practices. Saying that something was ‘the way things work’ was the best way to end a conversation. You think the sabbaticals were handed out unfairly? It’s just the way things work. The senior professor was abusing his power and using his intern to cover half of his classes and grade his exams? The way things work, of course, to the point that, in their university, for a long time now you didn’t just ‘know’ something, but you ‘already knew’ it. And, besides, the immense majority of things had no other explanation (it’s the way things work, you know), and this ended up turning ‘the way things work’ into a perverse way of excluding anyone who asked any questions, because everybody was supposed to know how ‘the way things work’ worked, which meant that everybody had known everything since forever, since the remote origins of professional time (even though nobody had ever been explained what that way was, or where it came from, or whether it made any sense at this point, since the logic of the way things work established right away that not only did you not ask about certain things, but also that asking about them was dangerous). That’s why you never talked about the way things worked, in case you ended up letting the cat out of the bag and revealing that nobody had ever actually known what they meant with ‘the way things worked’, regardless of how much that phrase was repeated and consolidated, and, useful as the phrase was, Morella was convinced, after nineteen years on the job, that nobody had the slightest idea of what ‘the way things work’ meant, or why things worked the way they worked, and therefore, whoever made the mistake of asking was not really a university person, because in order to be a university person you needed to be in the loop of how things worked, and in order to work you needed to know certain things. For example, you needed to know who to go to in order to solve an administrative problem and who to go to for an academic problem. You needed to know that, if you wanted to reach the one efficient secretary in the department, first you needed to consult the two useless ones without them noticing that your consultation was a mere formality. You needed to know that Monday was khaki pants and Tuesday was beige pants. And that, in order to ‘innovate in teaching’ you needed to speak Pedagoguese, and that pedagogues were the only ones concerned with the concept of teaching innovation. You needed to know that interns were useful and students were irritating. And don’t forget the greetings. The greetings were very important.
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem
From ELS ANGLES MORTS(‘Dead Angles’)
by Borja Bagunyá
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Published by Edicions del Periscopi (2021)
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Borja Bagunyá is a Catalan writer and university professor. He wrote his first book of short stories, Apunts per al retrat d’una Ciutat in 2004, and in 2007 he won the Premi Mercè Rodoreda de
contes i narracions for Defensa pròpia. In 2011 he published Plantes d’Interior and in 2021 Els angles morts, which won the 2022 Critics’ Award in the category of Catalan narrative.
Mara Fay Lethem is a writer and researcher. Winner of the inaugural 2022 Spain-USA Foundation Translation Award for Max Besora’s The Adventures and Misadventures of Joan Orpí, she was also recently awarded the 2022 Joan Baptiste Cendrós International Prize for her contributions to Catalan literature.