Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Stories Of Mallorca: Catalan books

You might not have realised that there is a book fair currently taking place in Palma. It is the 25th Week of the Book in Catalan, which is probably why you wouldn't have realised. But it is an important occasion for celebrating Catalan literature and for showcasing Mallorcan authors, and as with anything to do with the Catalan language, it hasn't entirely been spared some controversy. At the opening event, there was a bit of a rumpus (a quiet one admittedly) when some people left when the vice-president for culture at the Council of Mallorca, Joan Rotger, got up to speak. It was a tad ungracious; the Council is, after all, sponsoring the Week. But, and one presumes this to have been the case, anything which is even remotely linked to the Partido Popular will cause some to be upset and so to walk out on someone's speech.

It was especially ungracious, given that Rotger said that the Week was an indication of the vitality and strength of Catalan and that the language was "vigorous, dynamic and creative" and had "a great future". He did admit there were one or two "difficulties" surrounding the language, but he deserved better than to be snubbed, albeit by a minority.

A Catalan book week might not seem that significant, but it is, and in more ways than just being a celebration of contemporary and past writers. Catalan literature holds a very special place in European literary history, and that very special place came about because of a Mallorcan. Yep, it's that ancient polymath again, Ramon Llull. The old boy wrote what is commonly thought to have been the first European novel, and he wrote it in Catalan. This novel, "Blanquerna", was a ripping yarn in the style of ripping yarns of the thirteenth century. Llull, who walked out on his missus and left her to raise their two kids when he had a sudden religious awakening, became a staunch Catholic, so much so that he was instrumental in confirming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but this religiosity, in a mediaeval manner, did not prevent him from creating a novel that was typical of storytelling of the period. Putting it bluntly, there was a fair amount of sex.

There was also a good deal of the stuff of legends. The hero, Blanquerna, appears destined for an unremarkable life until he informs his parents that he intends to devote himself to God. This he does and eventually becomes pope, at which point he decides to take himself off and become a hermit so that he can really communicate with God. The character of Blanquerna was partly autobiographical, but rather than walking out on the family, Blanquerna convinces his girlfriend, Natana, to devote herself to God as well, and so she gets herself to a nunnery. 

Llull wrote the novel some twenty years after he had seen the light and left the marital home. It did entail a certain reinterpretation of his own history, but there were probably few readers who would have been aware of this. The book, which was a sort of bestseller of the times, was written in Montpellier, a city that added to its Catalan credibility because of its association with Jaume I, the conquerer of Mallorca and bringer of Catalan to the island. And there was, arguably, a further confirmation of Catalanism in the very story of Blanquerna becoming a hermit. Sant Antoni, he of the January fiesta, was revered in Catalonia before he became a feature of Mallorcan life, and Antoni was himself a hermit whose cult was promulgated by Jaume's Mallorcan king descendants.

So, a Catalan book week in Mallorca is in a way a celebration of what was written 731 years ago in 1283. And if "Blanquerna" was a bestseller back in the day, what are the hot titles of today? At the book fair the two which have been shifting the most copies are a collection of "gloses" by Llorenç Moya that were written under the pseudonym "Xafarder" and which were originally published in "Ultima Hora" in the late 1970s and a novel by Neus Canyelles in which the heroine, an author/journalist, rewrites classic stories in a way that fits with her own personal story. 

It is probably safe to say, though, that neither of these titles or any others at the book fair are about to break out, be translated widely and become international bestsellers. Mallorcan literature remains something of a closed book, its authors unknown. Canyelles once wrote "La Novella de Dickens", which involved the heroine in conversation with Dickens. It's not fair to compare, but Dickens knew a thing or two about storytelling and about describing time and place. One day, someone will write a book about Mallorca that really tells the story, be it in Catalan or any other language. 

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