Down and Dirty
Manuel de Pedrolo's 'Joc brut'.
Surely, in the entire history of recent European literature – let alone its Catalan branch – no writer has been allowed to fall from grace at such breakneck speed as Manuel de Pedrolo. And this, despite the fact that between the publication of his first book in 1953 and his death in 1990, Pedrolo published over ninety novels and short story collections (as well as various works of non-fiction, three volumes of his diaries, numerous translations from the English, and three anonymously published pornographic novels). He worked in every genre imaginable, from experimental existentialist fiction to satirical dystopias, from detective stories to Biblical parodies, from autobiography to science-fiction. Indeed, it was a novel belonging to this latter genre, Mecanoscrit del segon origen ('Typescript of the Second Beginning', 1974) that became Pedrolo's most remarkable best-seller, with 1,400,000 copies sold to date in Catalan alone. Pedrolo also won every prestigious literary award going and was fervently admired by generations of readers.
Yet not long after his death, he was already being shovelled onto the literary scrapheap by a small host of critics who managed, over time, to plant the idea in most readers' minds that Pedrolo's oeuvre was an aberration, an unfortunate error which no normal literature (meaning: one not subject to periodic bouts of state suppression) would have tolerated for an instant. Indeed, Pedrolo's once considerable reputation has shrunk so drastically that today most people tend to regard him as a minor genre writer who never got around to developing a feasible style.
Style, in fact, lies at the heart of this particular matter. Or, to be more precise, the linguistic model that Pedrolo espoused. Despite his belief that literature should be accessible to all and that he therefore used 'plain, straightforward language' (as he claimed in an interview for the Avui newspaper in the late 'Eighties) Pedrolo in fact showed a marked preference for little-known words over their more current synonyms, and for syntactic structures that were popular with certain writers before the Civil War but which sounded quaint, if not shockingly obsolete, when employed in late 20th century novels dotted – as Pedrolo's frequently are - with scenes depicting sex, violence, defecation and all-round gore.
Of all the critics who put their boot into Pedrolo's life's work, none did it with such aplomb as Xavier Pericay and Ferran Toutain, a pair of university professors whose seminal essay 'El malentès del noucentisme' ('The Misunderstanding of the Noucentisme Movement') published in 1996, aspired to sounding the death knell not only for Pedrolo's books but also those of many other writers and translators accused of following in his stylistic footsteps, which – so Pericay and Toutain averred - had been conditioned, in their turn by Noucentisme.
Noucentisme was a pre-war neo-Classicist movement that straddled all forms of artistic expression in Catalonia, and whose declared aim was to endow Catalan culture with more formal structures and resources – often derived from Greco-Latin models - which would, it was hoped, place it firmly in the European mainstream. It was, in this sense, a conscious reaction against the more chaotic, heterogeneous efforts of the 19th century Catalan cultural revival which had culminated in the movement known as Modernisme (whose exponents, paradoxically, turned out to have a much higher international profile than their noucentista successors: as far as architecture is concerned, for example, more people have probably heard of Antoni Gaudí than Josep Goday; or, as regards literature, of Joan Maragall rather than Eugeni d'Ors).
If Noucentisme in painting and architecture meant an excessive use of pastel colours and flowery motifs that positively reek of anaemia today, in writing its effects were particularly, and peculiarly, noxious. Authors of this school tended to opt for a bizarrely rarefied vocabulary (archaisms, Gallicised variants...) in an attempt to 'purify' the language. The abstruse prose that they developed proved itself singularly unsuited to the writing of novels (despite the attempts of certain all but forgotten authors of the 'Thirties, such as Cèsar-August Jordana and Agustí Esclasens).
Right. So Pericay and Toutain, in this essay of theirs, claimed that Pedrolo had reached out back across the barren years of Franco's dictatorship to reconnect with the style of the noucentista writers, thus ignoring the highly successful attempts of many other authors (such as Josep Pla, Mercè Rodoreda, Joan Sales...) to develop a rigorous, modern and colloquial-friendly Catalan prose style over the same intervening period.
Pedrolo, then, with his recherché lexicon and his old-fangled syntactical twists, had placed himself out of the first rank of Catalan language novelists (always according to Pericay and Toutain). Despite his undeniable inventiveness and his determination to tackle all kinds of popular genres, Pedrolo was, paradoxically, a writer stylistically unsuited to these same genres. You can almost see the cartoon gangster smirks on Pericay and Toutains' faces as they twist their knives ever deeper into their chosen victim, for example in this extract taken from the summary of their chapter on Pedrolo: 'His [Pedrolo's] usual style...consists of a false colloquialism pieced together with scraps taken from the Noucentista movement as well as from Anglicisms and Castilianisms which constantly infiltrate the prose...this is nothing other than an inability to use words.'[My italics].
The worst thing about this blanket condemnation is that it contains a tumor-sized grain of truth: Pedrolo's prose does often read as if it's been slapped together artificially, like so many pre-fabricated units, especially in certain passages which cry out for a genuinely human, instinctively colloquial touch. As for his command of dialogue, there are moments when his characters seem to be merely going through the motions of direct speech, as if asking their creator 'will this do?' at the end of every sentence.
But if all this is so – if Pedrolo's prose is so arcane and unconvincing - how come he was, by far, the most popular Catalan language author for at least three full decades of the last century, with sales that not a few English language writers would just love to have?
One possible answer is that Pedrolo's strength lies not in the ambitious experimental novels that make up the bulk of his output, but in the shorter, plot-driven genre works. Pedrolo worked in three popular genres: eroticism, science-fiction and detective fiction, the latter being his personal favourite (he was a huge fan of American noir and a founding editor of the first crime fiction collection in Catalan). Indeed, his very first novel, 'L'inspector fa tard' ('The Inspector Is Late') belonged to this same genre, to which he would successfully return twice more.
Of his three noir novels, the best known and commercially most successful – it has gone into over 40 editions in Catalan alone, and has also been translated into Spanish – is 'Joc Brut' ('Dirty Game'), which first appeared in 1965.
It starts off with a memorably convincing bit of male sexual infatuation gone wrong: 'If it hadn't been for her legs, nothing would have happened. Or maybe it would. It'd have happened to someone else. I'd have read about it in the papers.'
A kind of 'Double Indemnity' type story, 'Joc Brut' tells the story of Xavier, who, hopelessly besotted with Juna - the woman with the legs - eventually finds himself murdering a man at her behest. Naturally, Juna turns out not to be the person she says she is, and an apparently perfect murder turns out not to be so perfect after all.
The beauty of the book lies in its brevity (it runs to little more than a hundred pages), which allows Pedrolo to concentrate almost exclusively on the storyline, whose twists and turns keep the reader racing through the narrative, rendering any occasional stylistic clumsiness negligible or, at least, irrelevant. What's more, as Pedrolo's hero is the kind of gullible sap who could be anyone – the reader included – the story is also highly believable, putting us right behind Xavier's increasingly terrified eyes. Almost certainly, Pedrolo's own experiences as a private detective (a job he held for several months) also add to the credibility of certain details in the story, especially – and I can't elaborate in order not to give too much away – those involving the murder weapon.
Pedrolo is still seen as central to the development of Catalan crime fiction, even though he is not exactly its founding father – he was preceded by Rafael Tasis - and had other, often more more prolific, contemporaries writing in the genre, such as Jaume Fuster, Maria Antònia Oliver, and, notably, Andreu Martín.
It is precisely Martín, the very doyen of Catalan noir, who has no doubts whatsoever regarding Pedrolo's importance as an author of crime fiction. To make his point, Martín occasionally likes to remind people of the true story of an American researcher who contacted Pedrolo for a thesis she was writing – as she put it over the phone - on 'Spanish detective fiction'. Pedrolo, a died-in-the-wool independentist (in the days when such people were very much not in the majority) abhorred the use of the adjective 'Spanish' to describe anything referring to him or his work, and brusquely told the researcher that she 'must have got the wrong person' before hanging up. Undeterred, and considering Pedrolo too major a figure to be allowed to slip beyond her reach, the researcher spent a year learning Catalan in order to interview Pedrolo – and read him – in his own language. The fact that this American specialist went to such lengths for him and him alone – as Martín has pointed out - is surely some indication of just how much she thought he was worth it.
She was, however, too late: the year she spent learning Catalan was 1990, the last of Pedrolo's life.
Matthew Tree, Barcelona INK, febrer de 2013