The suitcase is packed and I’m ready for the off.  I’ve never been to Barcelona and everyone – but everyone – who has spoken to me about it has positively raved.  I have polished up my schoolgirl Spanish with that all important phrase – un vino tinto con soda, por favor – and read a couple of titles from my Spanish tbr.

I started reading from the top down as both titles are set in Catalonia.

Maria Babal’s Stone In A Landslide has been reviewed enthusiastically by many this week.  Savidgereads,  A Common Reader and Novel Insights to name just 3.   I liked it but didn’t love it.  I thought it was too short for its scope. Taking just 126 pages to narrate the life of a young girl from the age of 13 to her old age,  in addition to reflecting the landslides of the Civil War and the transition from rural to urban economy, means that there’s no time to get involved with the characters.  Even though there are episodes that Conxa, the narrator, tells beautifully in more detail than others, it’s time to move on all too soon.  So much to tell, so little space. I always felt like an observer looking in, never fully absorbed.  That said, Conxa is a wonderful character, her passivity and acceptance of  the hard knocks of life,  a psychology that is perhaps alien to our modern self-assertive world.  Like a stone in a landslide she is carried along with the overwhelming force of change in C20th Spanish life and there are lots of interesting insights along the way.  And she has such a fluid, matter-of-fact yet poignant voice.  Leaving the farm to go with her son and his wife to end her days in the city:

Barcelona, for me, is something very beautiful.  It is the last step before the cemetery.

Oh dear, let’s hope not!

Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2004 and had me scrambling round checking out the meaning of the word, novel.   From the Oxford advanced learners online dictionary, therefore,” a story long enough to fill a complete book, in which the characters and events are usually imaginary”.   You learn something new every day.  I always thought novels were fictional and even if populated with historical characters, the story would be an imaginary retelling of events.  But in Cercas’s novel,  in which a journalist named Cercas investigates one single event in the Spanish Civil War, the blur between fact and fiction is difficult – nay to my definitely non-postmodernist brain, impossible to spot.

In the first section the fictional (?) Cercas stumbles upon an amazing story.  In the final moments of the Spanish Civil War, fifty prominent Nationalist prisoners are executed by firing squad..  Among them, the writer and fascist Rafael Sánchez Mazas.  As the guns fire, Sánchez Mazas escapes into the forest.  He is hunted down.  However, the militiaman who finds him simply looks him in the eye and walks away.  Fascinated by this exceptional show of mercy in an embittered conflict, the journalist tracks down his sources and determines to write a book.

The second section is the resulting piece and, if you’re not acquainted with Spanish political detail, as I am not, confusingly dull. At least this is something that I and the fictional (?) Cercas agree on. 

the book wasn’t bad, but insufficient, like a mechanism that was whole, yet incapable of performing the function for which it had been devised because it was missing a part. 

Having identified that the missing part is the viewpoint of the merciful militiaman, the fictional (?) Cercas goes searching. This section is actually the most entertaining.  It becomes clear that there is nothing fictional about the Cercas  figure.  Reading becomes interesting when the Chilean writer-in-exile, Roberto Bolaño, becomes involved in the investigation.  The two even argue about whether Cercas is writing a novel ….

… Bolaño exclaimed.  “You’ve got a hell of a novel there. I knew you were writing something.”

“I’m not writing.” Contradicting myself, I added , “And it’s not a novel .  It’s a story with real events and characters.  A true tale”.

So now I know.  Still when did you last find a history book on the fiction shelves?

Stones In A Landslide  

Soldiers of Salamis   1/2

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Not the best of starts to my great Spanish read.  However, I am taking the next two titles with me on this trip.  I really enjoyed Carmen Posadas’s Child’s Play last year.  So I’m looking forward to The Last Resort and I’m sure Colm Tóibín’s Homage to Barcelona will be the perfect travel guide this trip.  Hasta luego, amigos!

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