Hola! We were lucky enough to visit Sitges and Barcelona as a family in July, so I’ve been hunting down Spanish literature. I discovered some wonderful books and even managed to read some, in between the usual kids’ shenanigans.
I must say that it wasn’t easy to find books by local authors set in Barcelona – the exception being The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Luis Zafron, which is excellent and on every list, but I had read already. However, I had some good tips and found more while I was there (= luggage problems). So here they are!
The following list covers fiction and non-fiction – you’ll experience the Civil War, get to know Picasso, Miro and Gaudi and see changes in Barcelona pre- the 1992 Olympics.
- Barcelona by Robert Hughes: a wonderful ride through Catalan history and tour of Barcelona, especially its architecture. Robert Hughes is a knowledgeable guide with a fluid, muscular writing style. I found this dense at times – so much (art) history – but I like Hughes’ honesty and unflinching directness. For example, the kitsch additions to the Sagrada Familia “could have been done by Mormons, not Catholics.” Liable to offend – but Hughes liked to rail against modern ‘sensitivity’.
- Spain by Jan Morris: interesting and full of the colours and contradictions of Spain, in Jan Morris’ usual lucid prose. I love her idiosyncratic style: she gives you a sense of the history guided by her own curiosities. She wears her knowledge lightly and elevates travel writing to a lyrical narrative, filled with personal anecdotes.
- Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell: Orwell’s highly engaging account of his experience in the Spanish Civil War. He was involved in fighting and later had to go into hiding in (and escape from) Barcelona as his group were suspected of being fascist spies. His wonderfully dry, understated style makes it a pleasure to read: for example, “The point about firewood was that there was practically no firewood to be had.” On the long periods of quiet: “I began to wonder whether anything would ever happen to bring a bit of life, or rather a bit of death, into this cock-eyed war.”
- Homage to Barcelona by Colm Toibin: wonderful guide to Barcelona. Toibin devotes chapters to each of Picasso, Gaudi, Dali and Miro, and the civil war among other things. It’s not as heavyweight as the Hughes nor as lucid as Morris (Toibin is a fiction writer first and foremost) but interesting because he has lived there on and off since the 1970s, so he gives us insights into its people and some memorable anecdotes.
- Off Side by Manuel Vazquez Montalban: I loved this literary crime novel. Pepe Carvalho is a PI with colourful friends and contacts, authenticity and a love of good food. Great sense of place as he sees Barcelona changing but still has a grudging affection for the city. Poet-murderers and cynical business interests are at play and Carvalho questions his relevance in the new Barcelona. Not pacy, but a great read.
- The Tenant and The Motive by Javier Cercas: two novellas by Cercas (whose novel Soldiers of Salamis I want to read). In one, a university professor (the tenant of the title) fears he is being replaced by a new academic who shows up his failings. It made me want to read The Double by Dostoevsky, which I think has a similar theme. In The Motive a writer obsessively watches his neighbours to gain material for a novel, but takes things too far. Witty and spare, I liked these and the somewhat abstract plots reminded me a little of Murakami.
- Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marias: An immersive, layered story set in Madrid in 1980, tracing the ripple effects of the Civil War on a movie director & his circle of friends. I’ve been wanting to read Marias for a while, and enjoyed his beautiful, melodious writing. Male-centred, the men are interesting & powerful whereas Beatriz is seen more as a sex object, which bothered me. However, it is thought-provoking. The prose flows like classical music once you get used to the long sentences: “And those who had lost preferred to forget the atrocities committed, either by them or the still worse ones committed by the other side – more enduring, more brutal, more gratuitous – and they certainly didn’t tell their children … for whom their one wish was that nothing similar would ever happen to them and that they would be blessed with a boring, uneventful life, albeit a life lived with head bowed and no real freedom, because one can live without freedom. Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up.“
- No Word from Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza: This was wonderful! Laugh-out-loud funny, quirky characters (aliens) in Barcelona setting and poignant observations of human behaviour. Strong writing, witty and playful. A touch of the absurd highlights the everyday strangeness of human lives.
- In Diamond Square by Merce Rodoreda: A beautiful book. Set in Barcelona, this is the story of Pidgey, her marriage to Joe and her daily struggles to survive in the civil war. Told in a dreamlike prose, which is not normally my style, but its raw beauty, the urgency of the story and the characters won me over. A wonderful evocation of 1930s Barcelona but Pidgey’s quiet strength & the trauma of war have a timeless quality. Very moving. I loved this & will read more of Rodoreda’s work.
- Cry, Mother Spain by Lydie Salvayre: Still to read! It centres on Montse, a 15 year old girl living in a small village. She is supposed to become a maid but her life changes when the civil war arrives. It sounds original with a wry sense of humour.
Special mention also to Roads to Santiago by Cees Nooteboom – I loved his The Following Story so am keen to read this one. And Nona’s Room by Cristina Fernandez Cubas was recommended by a bookseller in Barcelona as her favourite Spanish author.
Hope this inspires you for your next Spanish trip, or read (or both)!