Sprawling bildungsroman—itself the first installment of a much larger tetralogy—of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath in Catalonia by Barcelona-born novelist Goytisolo.
The somewhat less-well-known brother of the revered modernist Juan Goytisolo, the present author seems to have undertaken the project of creating a Catalan version of Ulysses, save that his story plays out over years rather than a single Dublin day. His is the Barcelona of delicious fish dishes and the Sagrada Familia basilica, of street vendors and intellectual cafes. His Catalonia is also a place of great violence. The novel opens as “little Moors” bustle to the front lines and fascists shave the heads of Communist girls in ugly retribution. In this milieu, a boy named Raúl Ferrer Gaminde does his best to retain the naïve innocence of childhood even as “the kids in town found a dead soldier, floating in a quiet bend of the river, all tangled up in the brambles under the water,” and so badly decomposed that no one could tell what side he was on. Raúl grows up shy and a bit reflexive in a countryside household, among casks of wine and voluble, colorful relatives, but then comes the time for him to leave for the city, long since an outpost of Francoist Spain, a place of drag queens and flamenco dancers, of smoky bars and parading soldiers, and there he becomes not just a quietly bookish intellectual, but also a Communist and, worse still, a writer. Goytisolo serves up pagelong paragraphs filled with enthusiasm and rich detail; the translation ably captures the fluidity of his prose, though it seems at times to wander in the no-man’s land between British and American English (as when a pompous lieutenant is described with a certain naughty c-word).
The story is long but engaging as the novel morphs into a memorial to a humanist civilization under siege, its icons not just Joyce, but also other modernists such as Proust and Hermann Broch. It holds up just fine in such company.