Labyrinths: On the Centennial of Salvador Espriu


Arts & Culture


Illustration by Josep Pla-Narbona.

The great Catalan writer Salvador Espriu—and he was a very, very great writer—was born one hundred years ago today, in Santa Coloma de Farners, a town some one hundred kilometers northeast of Barcelona. He moved as a child further south to seaside Arenys de Mar and later even further south to Barcelona. His imagination was inherently Catalan in its most expansive sense, mar i muntanya, the sea and the mountains, weaving in and out of his settings and his sense of character and fate: the sea bringing the atmospherics of maritime communities to his work, as well as the classical and Egyptian via the Mediterranean, and the mountains cradling all of the intimacy, hermetic folklore, and internecine conflict by which towns hemmed in by ecology are often marked. He wrote fiction, plays, and was perhaps best known for his poetry. His skill set was gigantic. He had a project: his imagined, mythical homeland Sinera appears in much of his work (Sinera being a phonetic rendering of his childhood home of Arenys written backwards); characters from his poems and plays would appear in his fiction, without set-up, warning, or explication; if you read all of his work together, you realize that he has created within it, for it, a thriving community with its own inner logic, inner laws, and even physical laws (his work at times paws at the fantastical and the absurd like a cat determined to grab a candle’s flame); he invented other names for Spain, Catalunya, Barcelona as though those names would not do; and, despite what it would mean for his career as a writer, he wrote almost exclusively in Catalan.

When I was asked to translate Espriu’s collection of short stories, Ariadna al laberint grotesc, I was happy to do so. For the record, I’m not someone who can kind of read Catalan or who approximates from Spanish: I speak Catalan at home and when we’re back home in Barcelona that’s all I speak and write and read. I write this not to brag but to admit that I didn’t think that Espriu’s prose could get the best of me. But the beautiful and bizarre Adriadna al laberint grotesc (published last year as Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth by Dalkey Archive) provided challenges that provoked in me at the same time great melancholy and great joy. After I was done, fortunately, joy was what remained. Think Beckett, Borges, Calvino, but out of another pocket of Europe, a pocket out of time with Europe. The book’s elemental combination of anachronistic slang, rustic dialects, scientific parlance, mythical allusion, and use of the Caló language (the language of the Iberian Romaní) make this a truly challenging book to transform into the living language of another culture, let alone one as distanced from it as English is. But aside from the complexity of the sources there was something in the text that I felt it was essential to hold on to: there’s no way around the fact that Espriu simply sounds bizarre in the original. The work, in other words, is meant to sound weird, off-key, rather discordant. This is not about Joycean play or modernist difficulty: “modernism” as we know it didn’t exist in Catalan literature.

Similarly, the original date of publication of the book is misleading. First written in 1935 when he was a young and unknown author, the book went through revision after revision, decade after decade­­, spanning the rise and fall of Franco. In 1980, a by-then-famous Espriu published the work in what would be its final form. He was free of all censors and censures but for the only inescapable one, the self. The last story he wrote would become the first story in the collection, “The Young Man and the Old Man”: two selves speaking of themselves, each confused and yet impressed by the other. Ariadne, of course, is the figure who unspools a string so that you can find your way through the labyrinth. Myth captured, allusion set. And yet Ariadne is referenced for a fleeting moment immediately after “The Young Man and the Old Man” … after that you’re on your own.

My goal was to think through the work in Catalan and sound like Espriu in English. After all, Espriu could have translated his work into Spanish. Instead he tinkered with it in Catalan for decades. And the final product reaches dizzying heights: the moments of way-outdated slang, the soliloquies of the stumbling drunks, the arguments of the questioned faculty, gypsyisms, the supplications of the men who know death knocks at their door, the narrative interruptions of the town’s gossiper—they don’t all lead to immediate meaning but they all sound good, and they all accrete toward the understanding of an under-siege culture that is the sum of its parts with an imperial language hovering nearby.

The writer having lived from 1913 to 1985, Espriu’s mature output was practically swallowed whole by the barbarous age of Franco and the dictator’s ridiculous ban of the Catalan language. But Espriu wrote in Catalan regardless, and renown eventually caught up to his talent. His was stubborn adherence to a language and to a culture that no matter how minimalized and denied by edict were still very obviously a reality. What gets lost at times in estimations of Espriu outside of his own language is that he was entirely a writer of his own language. His Catalan is hyper-expressive and inclusive of so many registers, idioms, and argots that it shakes free of a standardized expressive center. He is a writer of oi moi and not alas. It’s almost as if the point was that the oppression of language is best met by the overflow of that language against its oppression. That all of it must rise at once and live: it is a palimpsest with sharp edges.

I’ve written elsewhere on Catalan and its relationship to Spanish and Spain so I won’t go into that here. Suffice it to say that when you read Espriu in Spanish instead of Catalan with the idea that you are reading a close approximation of his work, you lose the entire context in which he was writing. His writing, as well as his sense of tradition, was against the cultural grain of Spanish, which rather ironically led to a style of Catalan writing that was often hermetic; not more clear but less. Like painting it is something you often have to stand back from in order to best appreciate. Also like painting, Espriu’s work can make a fool out of the dutifully literal thinker.

When I think about Espriu’s style, his process, his self-exile under dictatorship to a simple desk job, I find myself thinking as well of some of my favorite lines of Stevens.

His firm stanzas hang like hives in hell
Or what hell was, since now both heaven and hell
Are one, and here, O terra infidel.

And what of terra firma? That day may be coming soon.

But as for today, July 10, 2013, it’s a great day to turn one hundred. So I say, per molts anys, Salvador Espriu. As it turns out, today is also my brother’s birthday and the day my wife’s beloved grandmother, beloved to us all, Montserrat Seubas, passed away but a few years ago. Espriu would have been attuned to the coincidence of this. How birth and death and the book, his three obsessions, braid themselves together in strange arabesques. No doubt he would have had something beautiful to say.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s debut collection of poetry, The Ground, was published last year by FSG. He lives in New York.