BETWEEN THE NOVEL AND THE ESSAY: THE FALL OF BARCELONA, 1714

I was showing my city, Barcelona, to a friend from Madrid almost 20 years ago and when I explained that the Ciutadella (the Citadel) had been built to humiliate the city inhabitants after the Castilian takeover of 1714, he asked in surprise, “What do you mean ‘Castilian takeover’?”. Gosh, did I get that wrong at school? Don’t they teach the same history in Madrid? Surely, I thought, that was 300 years ago and there’s no need to conceal the way things were, not even in Madrid. I must laugh today at how naive we, Catalans, are. And I in particular.

I realised of course that I had been given a very sketchy view of what did happen back in 1714 so eventually, perhaps 5 years ago, I read Josep Maria Torras i Ribé’s La guerra de Successió i els setges de Barcelona (1697-1714) (1999), an academic essay that fell into my hands absolutely by chance (destiny!!). I found the book excellent despite its density (or because of it), and I did wonder why, for all our militant nationalism we had no Catalan War and Peace to tell the same sad events to the world. No such luck, whatever this says about us (or about the fact that only the Russians have managed to produce grand Literature of that kind).

On the very same day when the Minister of Education, José Ignacio Wert, proclaimed the need to ‘españolizar’ Catalan children (10 October 2012), Catalan writer Albert Sánchez Piñol published his first novel written in Spanish, Victus, precisely the story of that terrible siege of 1714. Or so I thought. Lured by the memory of Torras i Ribe’s captivating essay I read Victus‘s five-hundred odd pages in a few feverish evenings –an easy task as the book is a picaresque novel seemingly mostly interested in making adventure out of misadventure.

Until today I didn’t know that one of the two current Esquerra Republicana MPs at the Spanish Parliament, Alfred Bosch, had published in 2008 a trilogy based on the same events, known simply as 1714. For whatever reason, Sánchez Piñol and Bosch have decided on a similar narrative tone and subgenre instead of going for Tolstoi’s throat. Yet, I’ve read blog posts and newspaper reviews calling Victus a great novel. Myself, I lost interest in Victus and respect for Piñol when I read the protagonist Martí Zuviria exclaim ‘guau’ (really), which I doubt was part of a young person’s vocabulary around 1700. I loved his atmospheric La pell freda, which is why I got increasingly annoyed to see my hopes dashed by Piñol’s pseudo-Eduardo Mendoza product (and I love Mendoza!).

Obviously, there’s no rule stating that you can only write great historical novels about your own nation –there’s much dispute to begin with about whether Walter Scott accomplished that. What worries me is that this is a novel in Spanish, the first one about these events, and, as such, it does have an immense didactic value to teach readers like my friend from Madrid what did happen here in Barcelona. The light tone does not conceal the horrors of the siege but the sadness and indignation that Sánchez Piñol elicits are skin-deep in comparison to what Torras i Ribé’s essay got from me. Reading a historical novel in the city where the events happened is an intensely emotional exercise, as it’s easy to imagine yourself in the place of those other fellow citizens. This is why I can’t accept Sánchez Piñol’s decision to turn this tragedy into mere picaresque adventure.

This semester some of my students have been working on a comparison between Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the English Working Classes in 1844. Their conclusion has been, inevitably, that although Engels produces a much more detailed portrait of the horrors faced by the English poor only those interested in History will read his essay. For the majority of readers (and even non-readers) poverty will be for ever best represented by little Oliver. What a joke this is (and remember how I love Dickens). Well, I thank Piñol for teaching me about General Villarroel –the Castilian hero who tried to defend Barcelona– but I’d rather not have Martí stand for all those who saw Barcelona fall.

Nothing I can do about it, of course, except write my own novel. Being talentless for that, this blog post will have to do. Do read Torras i Ribé. And guys at TV3: what are you waiting for, for God’s sake? Or are you afraid of antagonizing those who will swear there was never a Castilian takeover?

1 thought on “BETWEEN THE NOVEL AND THE ESSAY: THE FALL OF BARCELONA, 1714

  1. Don’t sweat, there’s no danger at all that TV3 will not be willing to give a Catalan nationalist version of the events; rather the contrary. As I see it, what Catalonia needs instead of national tales and patriotic epics is to get the story in clearer focus and free it from nationalist myths. What is presented as a Catalan war of independence was not that in the least, and is part of a much larger and complicated story which is now being manipulated by the catalan authorities in their rush for independence. Beware the official version, and all the more the more patriotic it sounds… https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_the_Spanish_Succession

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