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A triangular shaped region in the northeast of Spain, Catalonia is about thirty-two thousand square kilometers, a roughly similar size to Maryland. An “autonomous community,” it shares a border with France and a small country called Andorra. Its capital is the vibrant, bustling city of Barcelona, while its tourism economy stretches to coastal cities like Girona and the Costa Brava beaches. But Catalonia also comes with an equally thriving linguistic and cultural heritage: After a Civil War followed by thirty-six years of dictatorship (and then a law preventing citizens from discussing the legacy of that dictatorship), some might claim this thriving heritage is a revival.
Although stretching back centuries, the question of Catalonia’s independence has been a conflict-ridden and embattled question ever since General Francisco Franco led a military coup to overthrow Spain’s Popular Front government in 1936. Writers such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway were inspired to go over and fight the Republican cause, but ultimately the Civil War resulted in the suppression of Catalonia. In an article for The Conversation, Spanish professor Jordi Larios from the University of St. Andrews called Franco’s ensuing reign of Catalonia a “cultural and linguistic genocide against” the region. Indeed, he goes on to claim, Catalonia “enjoyed some 30 years of relative contentment as one of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities, with its own parliament and statute of autonomy” after 1978. (Franco died in 1975.) But “crucially,” the language, he claims, has “always been officially subordinate to Spanish, a constant reminder for potential future conflict.”
Literature might provide one of the only ways to articulate this unique perspective and the legacy by the fact that literature is language (it’s largely been my entry into Catalonian history). One writer in particular who seems to have captured this historical moment: Montserrat Roig (1946–1991). She was born and lived most of her life in Barcelona, and spent time teaching abroad at universities in the United Kingdom and United States. A prominent feminist journalist, she was also writer of fiction, journalism, and theater. Poet and critic Marta Pessarrodona called her the “first female total writer Catalan literature has had.” Despite an English version of her play The Vindication of Senyora Clito Mestres, a retelling of Clytemnestra’s story, premiering in Toronto in 2012 (translated by Anne Szumigalski and Elisabet Rafols and directed by Dragana Varagic), English readers are unlikely to have had much exposure to her work since then. In 2020, The Song of Youth (originally published in 1989) was translated into English by Tiago Miller. This was followed by Goodbye, Ramona (Fum d’Estampa, 2022; translated by Megan Berkobien and María Cristina Hall, it was originally published in 1972), which is actually Roig’s first novel.
Most of Roig’s writing was published during and after the transition to democracy. After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain and Catalonia agreed to an amnesty, the “Pact of Forgetting,” which saw prisoners of war handed over without charge and human rights violations and crimes go without prosecution. Where South Africa would eventually establish “truth commissions” to address apartheid, and Argentina and Chile, for example, created policies to establish the “truth” about Perón’s and Pinochet’s respective regimes, a wide-scale moratorium was imposed on Franco’s legacy. Although today the left and Catalan parties in particular are trying to undo the pact, at the time, the pact was welcomed. El Pais, the first pro-democracy newspaper introduced after the death of Franco and second-most circulated newspaper in Spain today, called it an “exceptional act,” but today its pages are filled with articles about the pact’s troubled legacy. As too is Roig’s work. In particular, it’s the stories in The Song of Youth I’m focusing on because they articulate the travails and complicated consequences of the above legacy. They strive for a language of obliqueness for oblique memories.
But there’s a darker legacy of the pact, where Roig segues into the discussion. Estimates wildly differ over the number of people who died in the Civil War; the historian Paul Preston estimates 300,000, but Franco’s regime received support from other fascist governments such as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s, so some were exiled or ended up in Nazi concentration camps. Where are all of these people, these bodies? Government forces are only now being granted legal permission to start uncovering the thousands of bodies in mass graves around the country. It’s telling that two of Roig’s stories are preceded with an epigraph from retellings of Antigone, arguably the most famous story about the consequences of an improper and disputed burial—one from Catalan poet and playwright Salvador Espriu, the other from Catalan philosopher Maria Zambrano (who both lived through the Civil War).
After a civil war in Thebes between two warring brothers, Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, decides that the rebel brother, Polynices, will not be given a proper, holy burial and will instead be left for dead. Antigone, Polynices’s sister, goes against Creon’s edict. The act of burial is a divine law that transcends Creon’s law. Roig, like Antigone, wants to understand the transgressive boundaries of those “laws”—physical, political, psychological —which prevent us from exploring the past. For Roig to have resided in a country that is eclipsed only by Cambodia in its number of mass graves, it’s not hard to believe why this play might have captured her imagination.
Espriu’s epigraph is for a story called “I Don’t Understand Salmon”: The protagonist, Norma, and her daughter are approaching a cemetery. They are joined by an old man who regales them with the horrors of Mauthausen, a Nazi concentration camp to which over four thousand Spaniards and Catalonians—mostly Republican soldiers, but some women and children, too—were deported on Franco’s orders. The cemetery is filled with overgrown graves of, presumably, other Republican soldiers. We see Norma explaining salmon migration patterns to her daughter, whose name we never learn. Expectedly, there is a heavily morbid tone. Norma also remembers a former lover, or partner, Lluisa, triggering a flood of sexual and romantic desire in the story. Like in Antigone, we become interested in the desire to bury her brother as much as we do the act of burying her brother. Roig describes Norma wanting to “feel [Lluisa’s] skin rub against hers, the first contact after a long absence,” before fantasizing about returning to a hotel and calling her. As Roig shifts abruptly and jarringly between memories, Norma pleads “Why must it be me who has to forget?” Roig’s characters are often women portrayed as victims of memory politics.
The story is bookended with discussions of salmon. In the opening, Norma explains that some salmon swim upriver and “smash headfirst into the rapids”; others get “crushed against the rocks”; others make it before “dying in the exact same place they were born.” Puzzled, the daughter asks how they can possibly know the route home. “Because they have a very good memory,” Norma replies. When the story ends by returning to a discussion of the salmon, I was reminded of Freud when he said of Oedipus Rex:
[the play] consists simply in the disclosure, approached step by step and artistically delayed (and comparable to the work of a psychoanalysis) that Oedipus himself is the murderer of Laius, and that he is the son of the murdered man and Jocasta.
The salmon’s desire to return to the place they were born could be read in several ways. Most obviously, the salmon could be a metaphor for the exiled Republicans who want to return to their families, and, to extend that idea, specifically the mother figure. These are the kind of desires which led to Oedipus breaking divine laws, resulting in the city of Thebes, and consequently Antigone, being afflicted with a curse. (Thebes could be read as Catalonia.)
And the way the salmon “bash their heads against the rocks” could be read as an idea of frustration, a pain at being locked in this particular way of life, similar to the way we talk about “hitting our heads against brick walls.” What the salmon really represent are different ways of getting or not getting disclosure.
Not that we necessarily always know what Roig’s characters want disclosure for. In “The Chosen Apple,” a woman named Nadiejda remembers her relationship with a soldier and his mother, “Madam.” Nadiejda remembers her honeymoon with the soldier while intercepting letters from “Madam” to her son. We see the soldier recite a Latin hymn: “Procul recedant somnia” [From all ill dreams defend our eyes]. The hymn is effectively a request that the Lord protect the sleeper from “nightly fears and fantasies.” We don’t see the whole hymn, but two more lines are recited:
Hostem que nostrum comprime,
Ne polluantur corpora censorious
[Tread under foot our ghostly foe]
“Pollution” is a word commonly referenced in Sophocles’s plays. In Oedipus Rex, Creon refers to the pollution “[h]ere in our midst, long-standing. This must we expel, nor let it grow past remedy.” And Oedipus then says to Teiresias, “[S]ave us; save me, the city, and yourself, from the pollution that his bloodshed causes. No finer task, than to give all one has in helping others; we are in your hands.” If we’re to follow Freud from the passage above, pollution, following “ill thoughts,” ultimately might be a way out of the pollution. Roig invokes pollution in her stories as a way of expressing that which is rotten and needs to come to light in the state she was living. After the hymn, Nadiejda responds to the soldier with the same question she asked of him: “Why should we ward off our dreams?” It’s an invocation to not defend the eyes from ill dreams, as these might be a representation of a kind of truth.
Is Roig, therefore, revealing a truth about living during the transition and after the Pact? It’s difficult to say. She is showing how truths might make themselves apparent through her characters. For example, in the story “Love and Ashes,” a woman called Marta speaks about her travels to a woman called Maria. Marta’s trips make her appear “even more beautiful” to Maria who, after reading an article about women when they pass the age of forty, is stuck in a routine of washing ten times a day because she believes she smells bad:
She thought her body had become mouldy on the inside, like a stale room where the sun never entered. Perhaps the foul smells started when the doctor said she couldn’t have children. The blood that flowed out each month felt more like refuse to her, serving no purpose, as useless as the rotten smell. And it was for that reason, she thought, there was no love or money in their life.
Look at those condemning adjectives: “mouldy,” “foul,” “refuse,” and “rotten.” Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva wrote about the aspects of our bodies and existence that we find difficult to reconcile with as the “abject.” She called the abject a confrontation with an element of our psyche that was repressed in early years, when the “body becomes separated from another body in order to be.” The “loathing” we feel for waste and filth, our waste and filth at that, is a symptom of that repression, which is “necessary” when we grow up in a world of social order. The pollution which threatens to “grow past remedy” in Oedipus Rex, for example, was invoked by Oedipus’s incestuous desires and disturbed the social order.
Here, Maria’s identification with the abject is potentially a symbol for her identification of the repressed. Kristeva said of Freud:
Oedipus the King handed over to Freud and his posterity the strength of (incestuous desire) and the desire for (the father’s) death. However abject these desires may be, which threaten the integrity of the individual and society, they are nonetheless sovereign. Such is the blinding light cast by [him], following Oedipus, on abjection, he invites us to recognize ourselves in it without gouging out our eyes.
Roig also seems to be inviting us to recognize ourselves in the abject without gouging out our eyes. Even if there is repression, these desires to confront what is repressed do not disappear. Knowing what we do now about the abject, what’s strange about “Love and Ashes” is that the story seems to go in the opposite direction we would expect. Shortly after the description above, Roig bluntly tells us “everything changes”; Maria’s husband wants to go and see reticulated giraffes in Kenya. We can only assume that Maria lives in Catalonia, so she pawns jewelry to pay for the trip. Maria then notices she doesn’t smell. A different woman appears to be emerging. When Maria’s husband told her about the giraffes by kissing her on the back of the neck, it caused a “surge” along her spine. At this stage, the story appears to be turning itself inside out: Maria now appears more like Marta, but traces of earlier aspects of Maria, the “mouldy body on the inside,” remain. When they arrive in Kenya, her husband insists on having a photograph taken on the back of the giraffe. He falls from the giraffe, snapping his neck. Maria is unable to pay for the repatriation of her husband’s body and he is cremated. She places the ashes in a crystal urn, and, at night, she sleeps with the urn behind her back, mirroring how Maria and her husband used to sleep. Now Maria notices that her body has “hints of oleander,” a flower known for being incredibly sweet smelling but also incredibly toxic to humans. It’s a reminder of that “pollution” and that capacity to invoke the “surge,” the “spasms” Kristeva spoke of, and a reminder that what’s in the body and aspects of her existence are being repressed.
Catherine Bellver, a professor of world languages and culture at the University of Nevada, once said that Roig’s women, long before Roig had been translated into English, are like “modern-day Penelopes” in reference to Odysseus’s wife, from The Odyssey. Like Penelope, Roig’s women are “subjected to a “destiny of waiting . . . prohibited from their own odyssey in search of integration of self-definition with the outside world.” In Roig’s stories, it’s hard to not see Roig’s women as modern day Antigones, desiring to confront what is prohibited and that their integration is prohibited because of that desire to confront the abject and the prohibited. Maria Zambrano, who provides the second epigraph from a retelling of Antigone in Roig’s collection, was a philosopher who spent thirty years in exile, only returning to Spain after Franco’s death in 1984. La Tumba Antigona (The Tomb of Antigone) was published when she was still abroad in 1967. Zambrano wrote a long prologue to her own version of the play:
And the punishment to which Antigone was condemned seems purposeful, giving her time, an indefinite time to live her death, to live her death to the full and, at the same time, her life, her unlived life and with it, along with it, the tragic process of her family and her city. And this last dimension of her condemnation, which characterizes Greek tragedy, resplendent in the extreme in Antigone—the abandonment, the total abandonment, by her gods.
Here, Zambrano goes some way in summarizing the appeal of Antigone’s fate to a writer like Roig. While there is a feeling of injustice ridden through Roig’s stories, they’re inspired with undeniable force to not portray her characters as victims. Zambrano appears to be referring to the willful desire for Antigone to bury her brother and the results of living by that desire (abandonment or exile). Roig doesn’t necessarily articulate the same sense of belief in justice of death as Antigone. For Roig, it is in the willful act, the desire to confront that which has been repressed that is suggested as a greater desire in her characters than succumbing to the forces of repression, even if the result is potential abandonment as a result of confronting what is repressed. A price worth paying that she even risked and enacted in her own life as an outspoken journalist.
This is arguably why we also see a concerted focus on the body in Roig’s stories: bodies as the site where repressed aspects of our existence are buried, and bodies as entities which are buried. In “The Song of Youth,” a woman is lying in hospital with her eyes closed; she then wakes up and sees “everything still in its place.” It’s apparent that the woman is old. She is surrounded by other dying women and she can hear “death rattles” in other beds. Roig writes how the woman “opened [her eyes] because she wanted to, just like she could move her hands or turn her head a little if she wished” (my emphasis). This desire to accomplish even the smallest movements is an affirmation of being alive. But considering she’s dying in a hospital, it’s also an affirmation of meeting death in its fullest, seeing the life of the body beyond consciousness.
Communication is not always conscious in Roig. “For every breath the other made, she made two,” writes Roig when the woman hears the breathing and death rattle of the person in the next bed. While the bodies might not have a lot to say to each other, clearly there is some level of communication between them, not only with the woman in the next bed, but the doctor’s too. She looks at the “doctor’s white back . . . a broad back with slightly square shoulders. Like the back waiting with such composure at the bar”: This seems to inspire a memory, another romantic memory of the past where the woman met a lover in a bar. As the memory surfaces, she undertakes tests in the hospital. The memory and the present day merge when the doctor arrives at her bed and the woman “rested her ear upon the white shirt, boom-boom went her heart, and she watched the white tiles gyrate with them.” Because Roig abruptly switches between narratives, sometimes in alternating sentences in the same paragraph, it becomes analogous to the way memories are trying to emerge in her stories. There is so much physicality and sensuality to the memories, it’s like we’re watching different bodies emerging.
While we’ve discussed repression and disclosure of truths, we must be careful in attributing this to a particular truth. So when Roig writes about the woman observing her hand in the sunlight, it’s, again, a rich image, one full of vibrancy and metaphoric potential:
It was a transparent hand with protruding bones, riddled with swollen blue rivers cut through by clods of earth coloured stains. Then she held it by the wall. The hand was no longer as transparent. When we get old, she thought, our bones seem to have a life of their own. My skeleton is trying to burst through my skin.
The blue rivers, we assume, are veins, and the earth-colored stains could be sun or liver spots. Whatever they are, it’s an image of aging and suggests a proximity to death. And yet, it’s also an image of life. The rivers remind us of the gushing torrents the salmon swim against, while the earth colored stains remind us of the ground, the soil, which gives life and also provides the graves where our decaying bodies will give life to the insects and the earth. Although she thinks she is getting old, although she is getting closer to death, her bones seem to still have life, seem to be setting off on their own journey. It’s then that Roig switches to the present tense with the corporal and almost monstrous, zombie-like image of the bones bursting through her skin. Both the past and the present tense combine to mirror the effect Roig is creating in her imagery: What’s past is influencing the present, and that which hasn’t been given its proper burial in the past is going to resurface in the future.
In Memory, trauma scholar Anne Whitehead writes that “[Forgetting] shapes and defines the very contours of what is recalled and preserved; what is transmitted as remembrance from one generation to the next; and what is thereby handed down to us.” How forgetting shapes us, according to Roig, is by the idea of what is buried, whether it’s buried within ourselves, or within society, both psychologically and physically. We shouldn’t be surprised by the observation that psychoanalytic writing, or writing informed by psychoanalysis, is proximate when you read Roig. To paraphrase what Kristeva said of Freud, such is the blinding light cast by her, following Oedipus, on abjection, she invites us to recognize ourselves in it without gouging out our eyes.
Because we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the problems Roig articulates are exclusive to Catalonian literature, and it’s no coincidence Catalonian literature appears to be resonating with so many English readers. Spain, Catalonia: beautiful places where many of us, including myself, benefit from cheap flights to the coastlines for summer holidays. I wasn’t aware of its dark history for many of those holidays, but, really, how many of us in Europe are aware of our own country’s dark histories?
Liam Bishop is a writer from Leeds, United Kingdom. His writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Irish Times, Brixton Review of Books, and many others. He also interviews writers on the Rippling Pages podcast.
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