Jaume Cabré: Barcelona’s literary superstar

Jaume Cabr�: 'One of the censors even got a Nobel prize'. Picture: Xabier Mikel Laburu van Woudenbe
Jaume Cabr�: 'One of the censors even got a Nobel prize'. Picture: Xabier Mikel Laburu van Woudenbe
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HE started writing in a banned language, but Jaume Cabré’s masterpiece has sold over a million. David Robinson interviews him in Barcelona

It wasn’t the worst of times, because they’d already been and gone ten years earlier. Anarchists killing priests, Mussolini’s bombers killing children, Orwell returning from leave in May 1937 to find republicans killing each other at the start of the long slide towards defeat, revenge killings, and hundreds of thousands trekking into exile – all of that had happened in Barcelona a full decade before Jaume Cabré was born there.

But even though he grew up in a loving family, it wasn’t the best of times either. After Franco’s victory in the Spanish civil war, practically everything Catalan was banned: the language itself, some forenames, some traditional dances. Books were burnt, graves defaced, folk songs censored. Even after the civil war ended in 1939, another 20,000 were murdered by Francoists at the end of what historian Peter Preston has called “the Spanish Holocaust”.

Born in 1947, Cabré grew up in a second-floor flat on the corner of in Barcelona’s Eixample district, the 520-block (in other words, immense) grid-patterned, tree-lined heart of the modern city built at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The interview is in another second-floor Eixample flat – the office of his agent, who has shepherded his masterpiece Confessions, which has just been translated into English, to sales of more than a million. As I don’t have a word of Catalan, we are joined by his translator, Mara Lethem.

Confessions is the baggiest of baggy monsters, a 770-page novel of ideas in the European tradition, like Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Its central character, Adria Arvedol – yet another inhabitant of a second-floor Eixample flat – is the only child of an antiquarian who is murdered because he acquired some of his stock through nefarious means. The story centres on one of his most treasured pieces, the first violin made by the celebrated 18th-century instrument maker Storioni. Its provenance – it was confiscated by Nazis from its Belgian Jewish owner in the Holocaust, is just one way in which Cabré examines the question of evil. As the novel’s other stories range from the 14th century to the 21st, and as Cabré’s narration slides them into each other with remarkable ease, we’re not going to be short of things to talk about.

Yet we don’t, at least not at first, and it’s entirely my fault. Why? Because get back to that factoid in the second paragraph about Franco banning the Catalan language. It slipped by a bit too easily, didn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met a writer whose language – the language in which he thinks, dreams, the only one in which he has ever written – has been banned. I’m fascinated by what that means. And in his agent’s light, airy, second-floor flat, the traffic sounds floating up from the street through the open balcony window, I start to find out.

“After the civil war,” says Cabré, “it was illegal to speak your own language. Nothing could be published in Catalan, everything was in Spanish: all education, all public events, all the radio, all the TV. In the civil war, a number of Catalan writers went into exile, some were killed, and others stayed here living a semi-clandestine existence. And of course, there was censorship too.”

Imagine that. Imagine if a whole generation of us grew up, say from 1940 to 1975, without being able to read about themselves in English, and only allowed to read the less subversive Victorians. You mean, there was nothing at all modern? I ask. “Well, in the 1940s and 1950s, Catalan writers might make clandestine editions and pretend that the book had been printed in Bogata or Paris – and especially Mexico, which was filled with Catalan exiles. Then they might have secret play readings in people’s apartments. But if the police did catch them, they’d all go to prison.”

Despite all that – and maybe, because writers can be perverse buggers, because of it – Cabré decided that he would only write in Catalan. He’s not pompous about making that choice, doesn’t resent those Catalans who opted to write in Spanish or accuse them of selling out in order to get the kind of publishing deals that anyone who stuck to writing in Catalan could only dream of. “In a dictatorship,” he says, “everyone does the best they can. You wouldn’t want to judge anyone.” Some Catalan writers might have had a Spanish parent. Other Barcelonans who wrote in Spanish were just so good – Juan Marsé, for example – that no-one could possibly mind.

In any case, by the time Cabré had his first book of short stories published in Catalan in 1974, the dictatorship was becoming less repressive. True, it was censored, but he only had to lose a paragraph. “With the older generation,” he sighs, “their work was destroyed.

“Censorship was quite arbitrary. It all depended on the censor. There was one of them, José Cela, he’d even got a Nobel prize. The Nobel censor, eh? But most of them were ignorant people, easily fooled.” And he tells stories of the various dodges the Catalan writers would try in order to smuggle their works past the censor’s blue pencil: poets submitting new work but pretending it was by venerable 19th-century writers, or submitting manuscripts to a succession of different censors, each time restoring the cuts their predecessors had made.

In 1975, Franco died, and Jaime Cabré’s world changed. Of course, he’s a Catalan nationalist, so he won’t put it like that. He’ll say that the People’s Party now running Spain had its roots in the dictatorship, that bringing back King Juan Carlos as his heir was Franco’s idea, that the constitution was drawn up with the army keeping a close eye on things. And he’ll mention too that mass graves of republicans still haven’t been dug up, that the war crimes committed by Franco’s troops still haven’t been investigated, and that the one judge who tried to do this was effectively booted out of office. All of which may well be true. But Franco’s death did change some things. Here’s one: Catalan writers could be published a lot more easily.

So what’s that like, for banned writers to suddenly find that they are again free to write whatever they want? My own theory is that it gives an extra kick to their stylistic inventiveness.

Take Cabré’s own work. In 1996 he wrote a novel – L’ombre de l’eunuc – about those days of censorship, and a man who didn’t really want to get involved in clandestine activism but was forced into it by the arrest of a friend. He wrote it in the third person, but when he showed it to a friend, he was told he’d made a mistake: he should have written it entirely in the first person. They argued, and even though Cabré insisted that he was right, later he had second thoughts. “So I did try to write it in the first person, but I couldn’t do it: subconsciously, it went back into the third. Then I realised that I could do both in the same sentence. I could zoom in by writing in the first person and zoom out again by writing in the third. And that would show the reader where my interest lay.”

In 2004, inspired by an image of an abandoned Pyrenean village school, he started a book with two clear timeframes: the 1940s and the present – but how to bring the two stories together? He experimented with inserting a chapter from one time period into a chapter from another, but it didn’t work. Alternating chapters didn’t either. But again, what if he started a sentence in 1940 and finished it in 2000? That could work. “I could put all the characters and periods together and play God. It was great fun. The trick is to make it comprensible to the reader.”

Confessions takes this stylistic innovation a stage further. “I began writing about an Inquisitor in the 14th century, because to me the Inquisition is the absolute personification of evil because they are unable to feel compassion to their victims. And as I was writing it, that character turned into Rudolf Hoss, the Auschwitz commandant. And then I realised, they’re the same character five centuries apart. But all of that is so distant to my own experience that I needed something closer to it. So I came up with Adria, and brought him up here in Eixample, sent him to my old school and sat back to see what happened. Because now I can be an even bigger God.” He laughs out loud.

I’m not so obsessive as to want to look round Adria’s old flat – or rather, his creator’s – but I did pass by. It’s two floors up on the corner or Valencia and Roger de Lliuria streets, which like every corner in Eixample, is chamfered between two 45 degree angles. While he lived there, for the first 27 years of his life (he left in 1974, the year he published his first book), Catalan writing was stifled, chained. Now it’s everywhere, not least on TV (Cabré wrote the first Catalan soap) and a book like Confessions can sell a million around the world in ten languages, with deals already in place for another 13. Catalonia hasn’t yet latched onto the excellent British tradition of putting up blue plaques to people. When it does, in the best of times, I know exactly where one of their first should go.

• ‘Confessions’, by Jaume Cabré, is published by Arcadia Books, £18.99