First published in 1932 and newly translated into English, this is a satirical, multigenerational saga about the intricate relationship between Barcelona’s fading aristocracy and the city’s sordid demimonde.
“Aristocratic cynicism” and “decadence” are the subject matter. Digging deep into the crevices of the highborn Lloberola family while following its moral and financial disintegration, Catalan Sagarra displays none of his American contemporary Hemingway’s romanticism in his depiction of Spanish life. Frederic de Lloberola must be one of the least likable protagonists in fiction. As the novel opens, he's already regretting having had sex again with his former mistress Rosa, whom he dumped years ago to marry his rich wife. A hypocritical prig with little wit, imagination, or capacity to care about anyone, Frederic has already pawned his wife’s jewels and is less concerned with Rosa than with a note he can’t pay back to his wealthy acquaintance Antoni Mates. Fortunately for Frederic, Mates has a very dark sexual secret shared only by Frederic’s charming but amoral younger brother, Guillem, who blackmails the debt away with unexpected repercussions. Jump ahead five years, after the great crash, to the start of Republican rule. While Barcelona aristocracy is politically divided, society has become more heterogeneous. Frederic’s daughter Maria Lluisa works as a secretary. Unfortunately, her experiment in living as an independent woman doesn’t work out the way she—or the sympathetic reader—hopes. Expect murder, revenge, and fallings in and out of love as Sagarra tightens the initially loose connections among his characters. The novel comes most alive when the author digresses from his plot: in his characters' back stories, his ruminations on Spain’s socioeconomics, his cleverly vicious bons mots and descriptions (including men as black truffles among pink party dresses), and in some surprisingly graphic sex. Whether Sagarra is anti-Semitic and homophobic or commenting on those tendencies in his characters is troubling but unclear.
In this casual, colloquial translation, Barcelona between the wars is full of tawdry vitality, much like the novel itself.