Lone Ranger - 'Cavalls salvatges' by Jordi Cussà.
When any language is officially banned (as Catalan was between 1939 and 1961) or officially ostracised (as it was between 1961 and 1975) the bottom drops out of its literary market for the simple enough reason that the marketplace itself has disappeared: bookshops, distribution networks, newspaper reviews, literary magazines, and so forth, are no longer to hand. The entire apparatus which had earlier served to transmit Catalan literature to its potential public was jammed in 1939 with a spanner so big it would take years and years even after Franco's death in 1975 to get things working normally again (indeed, as we will see, certain lingering after-effects of that dictator's proscription of Spain's second language, are still being felt today).
Caught in such straits, Catalan language writers were obliged to forget about their now non-existent popular market, and to concentrate solely on High Literature. And so it was that for thirty-nine years, some of the finest poetry and prose and drama in modern Catalan literature was written – often in exile – and then smuggled into Catalonia from publishers based abroad or, especially after 1961, printed within the country despite all the above-mentioned difficulties regarding distribution, etc., not to mention a readership now hampered by two decades of strictly monolingual schools and media (in Spanish).
As a result, Catalan literature managed to maintain its prestige through thirty-eight years of Castilian autocracy, but paid a price for doing so, given that its readers increasingly consisted of relatively small circles of intellectuals and critics and, of course, some determined readers of Catalan, whose literary opinions, however, barely filtered through to the population as a whole. Half a handful of authors managed to achieve something like commercial success – Mercè Rodoreda, Manuel de Pedrolo, Pere Calders... – but, in general, popular fiction in Catalan had become a thing of the past.
To the extent that in 1975, when the censorship stopped, all but the elderly could be forgiven for having forgotten entirely that before the National troops cantered into the Gran Via, it had been possible to read just about everything in Catalan, including satirical and erotic magazines (L'Esquella de la Torratxa, Papitu), crime fiction and, notably, a plethora of novels – many of them of enduring literary quality - which explored the seamy side of Catalan society, such as Juli Vallmitjana's gruesome La Xava (1910) and Josep Maria de Sagarra's wilfully scurrilous Vida Privada ['Private Life'] (1932).
The above-mentioned titles, together with many others deemed too 'popular' or too scabrous, were largely sidelined or ignored by the academics and publishers who were involved – each in his or her own way - in deciding what was and what was not good for the prestige of Catalan literature (and so to a certain extent, given the historical context, of Catalonia itself) during the years of dictatorship. There was, then, a widespread tendency during those years to avoid the promotion of fiction which included scenes involving sex or gratuitous violence...or drugs.
A tendency which had lost any raison d'etre it might once have had by the start of the 'Eighties, when readers started to get impatient with a literature perceived as suffering from a prolonged attack of namby-pambiness. A hefty chunk of reality, they sensed, had been left out of the Catalan picture. No wonder, then, that a host of younger writers – 'led' by Quim Monzó - started to expand the thematic horizons of Catalan fiction, thus making a decisive break with the squeaky-cleanliness of the guarded, prestige-conscious years.
For a while, then, there was a sort of open season on previously taboo themes, which often meant that more attention was paid to the subject matter of a book rather than its literary quality. For example, a considerable (though now forgotten) fuss was made over 'El llimerol. Papers d'un ionqui' ['The Surface Current. A Junky's Jottings'] by Lluís Busquets, which was heralded as the first ever Catalan novel about heroin addiction when it appeared in 1984. Despite the hype, by all accounts it turned out to be a damp or even downright soggy squib. Simply put, it rang false. As would be the case with many similar attempts at 'dirty realism' – Bill Buford's term having become fashionable in Catalonia – throughout the rest of the 'Eighties and 'Nineties.
One of the problems these writers faced was the illusion held by just about everybody at the time that anyone remotely classifiable as streetwise would, by default, speak in Spanish. This meant that for many readers, any would-be low-life fiction just didn't ring true if written in Catalan, a language apparently fit only for fiction set in middle class or 'educated' circles.
In a nutshell, right up to the start of the 21st century Catalan literature was afflicted by a kind of prestige hangover, unable or unwilling as its authors were to venture convincingly into certain areas – such as a visibly busy drug scene - still considered too dodgy.
Broadly speaking, this is the context in which Jordi Cussà's novel Cavalls salvatges ['Wild Horses'] appeared in the year 2000.
Cavalls salvatges paints a comprehensive, mosaic-like picture of Catalonia's druggy underbelly that few before had dared or cared to comment on. The novel follows the travels and travails of a group of friends who make their living as best they can both consuming and commercialising every type of illegal drug imaginable (they also drink a lot). Cussà reveals the existence of the rural addicts who, in the 'Eighties, were dispersed over the entire country. It might seem odd to find chapters containing scenes replete with drugs and sex in such seemingly sleepy backwaters as Pont de Suert (the capital of the remotish Alta Ribagorça canton) or in Vic, the sacred capital of Catalan religious conservatism, but it is precisely in this kind of unlikely setting that Cussà's characters make their money and puncture their arms and penetrate each other imaginatively, as they try to keep two or three steps ahead of the law.
Just for this fantastically convincing portrayal of a world hitherto unexplored in (Catalan) fiction, Cavalls salvatges deserves its place in the literary sun. But there is much more to the book than a simple description of substance abuse in a certain place at a certain time. To begin with there is the overall tone of the book, which sports a buoyancy that acts as a welcome contrast to the inevitably heavy subject matter. Cussà's free-flowing style allows him to make constant humorous asides, plucking out passing thoughts and pushing them in the reader's direction with a card dealer's ease. Take this sentence, for example, in which a character describes searching for a fix: 'I took the risk of penetrating the savage jungle of Can Tunis [a tough Barcelona suburb] from which even the celebrated Doctor Livingstone wouldn't have known how to get out of in one piece.' Or the following one: 'After an excess of twists and doubts and near attacks of the squits between this street and the next one, between this house and the one beside it, this face or the one just behind it...I summoned up enough courage to exercise my skill as consumer and minor dealer, with my ten banknotes crushed – of course –under the toe-end of my right shoe.' There is a similar humorous, amoral punch to just about every line in the book. The main character, Àlex, may find himself in objectively appalling or frightening or downright dire situations, but the vibrancy of his voice sidesteps any temptation on the part of the reader to pity or criticise or (much less) morally condemn him.
Cussà's stylistic skill doesn't stop there, given that he also constantly bolsters his language with unexpected assonances ('magnes o manguis' ['generous or sticky-fingered']), with invented portmanteau words ('a sad addictsmile'), with run-together repetitions ('truelytruely') and with the odd interspersed rhyme ('seguia i resseguia' [he followed and traced]), the latter recourse coming straight from the Catalan folk tradition of rodolins (simple rhyming verses).
All this, as we've said, is at the service of a novel about a group of drug addicts so far gone the word 'rehabilitation' never seems to so much as flit across their thoughts. The events described are not heartening, involving as they do petty violence, overdosed junkies, ruined young lives: Cussà again and again makes it clear that the world his characters inhabit is absolutely, hopelessly real.
One interesting aspect of the novel is that Cussà has managed to bring all this to life without scrimping on the slang, which he renders into convincing Catalan rather than opt for inserting Spanish colloquialisms (a common habit among Catalan authors trying hard, or too hard, to do 'low-life' speech).
Indeed, in any language it can be hard to make the marginalised sound authentic, as Ian McEwan found out to his cost when his criminal character Baxter (in the novel 'Saturday') became a literary laughing stock in the UK. Cussà, however – perhaps because he is writing from the inside looking out, and not the other way round – puts not a foot wrong: every sentence makes the reader feel he or she really is dwelling amidst bona fide drug traffickers or desperate addicts. Take, for example, the moment when Àlex discovers an envelope with a 'punta de turc' inside: a 'punta de turc' – 'pinch of Turkish' – is street slang for, obviously, a small dose of heroin. Another example: at one point, Àlex orders a 'didal de whisky' (literally: 'a thimbleful of whisky') in a sleazy bar and it sounds absolutely right. Yet, neither of these phrases are habitually used in Catalan, whose speakers, as mentioned, tend to borrow from the Spanish when using slang ('un didal', for instance, is usually rendered in real life as 'un xupito'; although several of Cussà's readers – this one included – have now taken to asking for a 'didal'). In other words, Cussà creates his realistic language whenever conventional colloquial Catalan lets him down.
Last but by no means least, Cussà has done everything in his power to ensure that Cavalls salvatges does not fall into the trap of becoming little more than a period piece, a sort of hat drama with needles. Indeed, he is not really interested in social realism at all, but in his characters – all of them tragicomically believable – and in the two true themes of the book: death and survival. It is no coincidence that the opening chapter ('Natural Overdose') describes a funeral, and that the book ends with a death. Indeed, the ending becomes a kind of compressed summing up of what the entire novel is about: the all too familiar choice between a farewell to a way of life or to life itself.
In short, this extraordinary first novel broke down many hidden barriers and introduced an innnovative, vigorous author onto the Catalan literary scene (where, by the way, he is still somewhat marginalised). It should be added that Cavalls salvatges is only available in Catalan. So far.
To give an idea of Cussà's more lyrical style – yet another surprising ingredient of Cavalls salvatges – here is a translation of the above-mentioned ending:
'eternity is all we have left to share, beloved Alexa, an eternity of silence woven with the sounds and echoes of inorganic life, which, despite the constant mutation and gradual disappearance of the mirages of memory,...still honours you and accompanies you on the way to the land of the
Matthew Tree, Barcelona INK, Octubre de 2012