Anthology in English
Professor Rosenfeld's relationship with the old man has to be something like an archaeologist's with the ruins of a city he has just discovered. It must be his way to confirm or refute a set of hypotheses about why Catalan disappeared. Th difference is that the old man, unlike the ruins of an ancient city, can reply verbally to his questions. What will be the first thing the Professor will ask in his Catalan straight out of an electronic device? He will politely enquire whether he can talk to him, if it's not any bother, simply that. The old man will laugh, taken aback, unsure whether to believe his eyes and his ears. Where's this forceful young lad come from with his peculiar Catalan, who's asking him in such a roundabout way whether he can talk to him? Of course he can. Of course it's no bother. Aren't they talking already? He says yes, no trouble at all, at his age he has all the time in the world to talk to people, please bring a chair over and sit down. But he says it in Spanish, a rather affected Spanish, very formally, as if it is a reflex action or through force or habit, not least because he can see the foreigner must make a real effort to articulate each of his sentences in Catalan. Professor Rosenfeld's smile freezes. 'But-you-do-speak-Ca-ta-lan-do-n't-you?' he rat-a-tats his words out, afraid he has failed yet again, that it's all been a misunderstanding, another joke. 'Yes, young man, sit down,' the old man replies in Spanish, trying to calm him down, with all the good will he can muster. 'well-if-it-is-all-the-same-to-you-I'd-pre-fer-it-if-we-sopke-in-Catalan', Professor Rosenfeld clutches at straws, mentally imploring all the deities he knows to let the old man be a real Catalan speaker. 'That-is-fine-by-you?' 'Yes, of course,' the old man smiles incredulously, switching to Catalan. 'Why shouldn't it be? Tell me, where do you come from?' 'From the U-ni-ted-Sta-tes', says Rosenfeld, relieved. 'And you've come all the way from the United States just to talk to me?' the old man asks, grinning amusedly. 'Yes,' responds Rosenfeld, beaming all over his face, delighted to be able to express in a single word how crucial this conversation is that is only just beginning. 'Crikey!' exclaims the old man. 'And what is it that's so important to talk about?' 'It-is-your-self,' says the professor. 'I-would-like-you-to-tell-me-lots-of-things-if-you-have-the-time.' 'Of course, of course. Anything you like. I've got all the time in the world', the old man replies, ingenuously thrilled to find he is the focus of so much attention. 'How-old-are-you-if-you-don't-mind-me-asking?' asks Rosenfeld. 'How old am I?' responds the old man mischievously. 'Well, what do you think?' Th old man's daughter, or daughter-in-law- whoever, the woman who gives him a shave when she has a mind to, and a moment to spare, comes over, looking surprised. What are they talking about? Can this foreigner who's hard put to string a few words of incomprehensible Spanish together speak the homespun lingo the old man used to speak to her mother, may she rest in peace? A little boy follows on her heels, equally fascinated by the scenario. 'Grandma,' he asks the woman in Spanish, 'What are they talking about?' 'I don't know, love,' she responds in that same language.
The woman, Rovira thinks –as he stops typing for a moment– must be the old man's daughter-in-law, not his daughter, because she would understand he father's Catalan if she were his daughter. Elementary, my dear Miquel. Or perhaps not, depending on how you look at it. She could be his daughter and the old man might have had a Spanish-speaking wife and might never have spoken to her in Catalan. But it's more reasonable to assume she is his daughter-in-law. The old man is the last living speaker of Catalan. It must be down to circumstances beyond his control, not because he finds it onerous to speak to his daughter in Catalan. He must be a hero, a survivor: it's not because he couldn't care less. Although it's much more likely, Rovira ruminates, as he lights a cigarette, that the language will be lost one day because parents can't be bothered to speak it to their children than because of circumstances beyond anyone's control. THat's the reality, however wretched it is to face up to. You only have to take a look at local newsstand: isn't true that Catalonia is a bilingual nation that considers Catalan to be its rightful language, and that for years Catalans have been able to speak and write it without any obstacles whatsoever? So why do the newsstands sell so few newspapers and magazines in Catalan? Why is such a small space set aside for books in Catalan in the bookshops? Why on earth does Catalan have such an inferior status on home territory? Isn't it down to the couldn't-care-less attitude of the Catalans, their laziness when it comes to writing and reading in their own language?
(From L'últim home que parlava català [The Last Man Who Spoke Catalan], translated by Peter Bush)
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During the months preceding his decision to put an end to the shameful lie he was living, Sergi Vilalta asked himself one question, obsessively, over and over again: how had he succumbed to the absurd idea of trying to write a novel in which all immoral acts were possible? He knew this to be the cause of his suffocating anxiety and was unable to understand how such a foolish notion had found its way into his head.
Was it only because he suspected –correctly, but at what price?– That it was the type of novel that could make him famous if it turned out well? Or could it also be traced to a childish desire to stir up controversy, to call attention to his earlier work? Or perhaps to stop an excessively demanding superego in its tracks, an opinion Dr. Cardona had ventured in the course of one of those interminable sessions before the final collapse? Or was it an act of vengeance for the wrongs of life itself, as that professor at the University of Uppsala had later suggested?
But what wrongs were there to avenge? He was married to a woman who loved him, though she didn't understand a word he wrote. They had a little angel of seven months who made the delight of fatherhood more appealing to him day by day. The two books he had published had won the admiration of friends and the respect of intellectuals, and not a little envy in the literary circles where his name began to be known. He had a comfortable job, a reasonable salary, and a future free of worries. Why did he have to go and get himself mixed up in writing a novel such as that?
He remembered how some time back, he had begun to fix upon phrases and allusions in which the thinkers he most admired posited the superiority of individual instinct over ethical dogma. One fine day, it struck him that it might be possible to put those thoughts to the test in a story in which the most noble and lofty sentiments were muddled together with the most impardonable crimes.
He had decided to write a novel, his first novel. He wanted it to be a polemical book, forceful and provocative, a narration that would inflame the spirit and set off an avalanche of contradictory reactions. Better not to write that to feed the funk of conformity and saccharine emanating from the bookstore shelves. He believed that the idea of trying to erase moral criteria –by turning crimes into virtues and virtues into crimes– could serve as a foundation for the novel he dreamed of: a book with blood oozing from its cover, a book that would awaken the entire range of human passions, revolting the reader, completely stripping him of the veils of hypocrisy.
The idea took hold of him painlessly, insidiously. He knew it was a difficult project, but he believed all the difficulty boiled down to a problem of time. He had to create a character capable of violating with impunity (or better still: triumphantly) all laws both written and unwritten. This would demand a long process of purification to liberate him from all sense of scruples. He would have to nurture from within a monster who could lie, steal, cheat and murder in innocence, through pure biological necessity, never losing his ingenuous smile. It was not a battle to be won overnight. But he was convinced that if he had a few uninterrupted months to devote to it, it could be done.
He sensed that the monster he sought lived within him. Or better still: that lurked within everyone. One need only awaken it, wait for it to stir and follow its trail. He knew that this required, sadly, more time than he had. However, drawn by the very difficulty of the project, incapable of resigning himself to abandoning the idea, Vilalta gave up on a rather elusive story he'd been working on and allowed his imagination to creep into the most perverse domains. At random he underlined sentences he read, fantasized about situations of atrocious and absolute amorality, made notes of images which struck him as irresistable and little by little, began to organize the ideas and scenes that came to him on index cards which he zealously stored away, uncertain if he would ever have occasion to use them.
He was not unfamiliar with the process. He knew he was playing with forces which, once in motion, would be difficult to stop. He was being thrust against his will into a maze from which there would be no easy escape. But he did not know how to resist the fascination the idea held for him, an idea which –he was more certain of it every day– would very quickly take shape if he ever were able to fully devote himself to it.
(From The Purity of a Pig. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Translated by Jennifer L. Denhard)