It all started in Barcelona earlier this year where I discovered that crema catalana is to die for!  It’s crème brûlée but with a very, very, very creamy custard and a brûlée is much darker and harder than any brûlée I’ve tasted before.   A juxtaposition of flavours and textures that is simply divine.  While I have so far resisted cooking up the dessert for myself, I have decided to explore Catalan literature. Will it tickle my literary tastebuds?

Let’s start with Nadjit El-Hachmi’s The Last Patriarch, winner of the 2008 Ramon Llull prize and the 2009 Prix Ulysse for first novel. 

This is the only truth we want to tell you, the truth about a father who has to grapple with the frustration of seeing his destiny unfulfilled and a daughter who, entirely unintentionally, changed the history of the Driouchs forever.

Mimoun Driouch is born in Morocco, the long-awaited son after 3 daughters, and a despot from the moment of his painless birth.

If they don’t hurt you when they are born, they will hurt you forever.

It’s a prophetic statement which holds true regardless of who comes into contact with Mimoun, prime contenter for the most unpleasant figure in literature award.  Despot is too kind, he is a psychopath.  His behaviour goes unpunished.  In fact,  there is more than a hint that the females in his life are complicit in this.  Throughout his childhood he is pampered, his rages uncontrolled and his acts of violence (of which there are many, some sickening) ignored.   He marries the woman of his choice, a woman who is so subservient that she does not leave the house, even when Mimoun leaves her in Morocco and goes to live in Barcelona. She knows what is coming to her if she does.  It comes to her anyway.

Eventually, however, Mimoun’s family joins him in Spain.  Not that this for one instant changes Mimoun, who shows no sign of mellowing.  While she is young, his daughter enjoys a measure of freedom, a special place in his existence, though that does not free her from feeling the physical assaults of his displeasure.  Even she becomes complicit, not reporting him to the authorities, because she does not want to break up the family.   Puberty arrives and with it the crisis that leads to her inevitable rebellion and the end of Mimoun’s age of patriarchy.

The brutality in this novel is staggering and its depiction of Arab culture uncompromising.  What’s really shocking is the picture is portrayed as normal.  In Edinburgh this summer the author hinted that there are many autobiographical elements in it – I dread to think what they are. In her words, The Last Patriarch  is  “a novel of hard truths”.  It is taboo to speak of it in her family and she fully expects it to divide her readership.

I surprised myself by reading on in many places.  The 77 short chapters helped as did the comic tone of the narration.  The disconnect between the light-heartedness of the tone and the brutality of the action more than disconcerting.  Did I really read that?  How am I supposed to process this?  Was this style meant to lessen the horror?  I found the opposite – it magnified it.

And in the smallest of detail, the ultimate descriptor of Mimoun’s repulsiveness:

It was on one of those days when I went very quiet and he fell asleep that I realised he’d hit rock bottom.  …. All of a sudden he put his hand on the nape of his neck and there they were in the hair in his armpits.  Mother,  I said.  And she said,  yes, they’re ants, that’s right, my love.

It should really have been odds-on that I would be cheering on his rebellious daughter.  And I was until her ultimate, unnecessary and alienating betrayal in the final chapter.  It’s an image I really could live without.