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Cover > Translations of catalan literature > Jaume Cabré > L’ombra de l’eunuc (The eunuch’s shadow)

L’ombra de l’eunuc (The eunuch’s shadow)

by Maria Roser Trilla
Jaume Cabré has described L’ombra de l’eunuc (1996) as an exercise in lucidity. The principal character, Miquel Gensana, a man pushing fifty, wonders whether there is any meaning to what he has done in his life. The time span of the novel covers a dinner with a girl in his family home in Feixes, now converted into a restaurant. And it is during this dinner that Miquel asks himself “at what moment did his life fall apart” and follows this with a lucid review of his past.

Miquel Gensana belongs to the generation that lived through the political activism of the 1960s, the clandestine opposition to the Franco regime. Now, after the transition that brought a return to democracy in Spain, distance allows him an ironic look at those past events. Deeply unsatisfied, and with a permanently sad expression, Gensana is also of an amorous nature but has little success with women. He could redeem himself through art, but he feels the frustration of someone who is not a creator but merely a critic. He would like to be the poet, the novelist, the musician – the artist reviewed – but he feels perpetually sterile because “when he looks back, the critic sees a eunuch’s shadow”, in the words of Georges Steiner.

Cabré sets about constructing a universe, a whole world. It is a total novel (in fact the story actually begins and ends with the word tot, meaning “all”). Miquel’s recollection of the past (“For we possess nothing certainly except the past” is the quotation from Evelyn Waugh at the beginning of the book) links in with the stories of other members of his family, among whom is his tender, sensitive, repeatedly disappointed Uncle Maurici. A couple of family trees – one official and the other “true, unknown and certain” – of the Gensana family (the surname also has a ring of genetics about it) save the reader from getting lost among the profusion of plots and threads, conflicts and names. Miquel, who happened to be born on the same day of the same month of the same year as the author, is the last of his line; this branch of the family ends with him. And the fact that the dinner takes place in the old family home, now a restaurant, is also a symbol of this extinction.

In the course of the book, the members of the family, particularly Miquel and Maurici, acquire various nicknames and epithets depending on the events they experience and the way in which they act – rather in the manner of mediaeval kings. For example, Miquel Gensana becomes successively Miquel II Gensana the Undecided, Miquel II Gensana the Intellectual, Miquel Che Gensana, Miquel Marlowe Gensana, Miquel II Gensana the Catacumen, St. Miquel Gensana the Communist of Christian Origin, Miquel II Robin Hood Gensana, Miquel II Gensana Nephew-Grandson, Miquel II Gensana the Apostle of Orthodoxy, Miquel II Gensana Free from All Heavy Burdens Except Memory, Miquel II Gensana the Prodigal Son, Herr Michael Gensana, doktor in Freundschaft from Heildelberg, among many others. The character’s different names thus make him a member of a generation produced by “strokes of apostasy”.

This novel, a way of making music with words, follows the pattern of Alban Berg’s concerto for violin and orchestra, which the composer completed two months before his death, precisely at the age of fifty, in the summer of 1935. It is dedicated “To the memory of an angel”, the title of the second part of the book. (The title of the first part, “The secret of the aorist”, a grammatical reference, takes us quickly to the past.) And a certain stylistic roughness that can be discerned in the novel has hints of pantonality. In L’ombra de l’eunuc, Cabré explores a new form of narrative: the use of the first and third persons in the same sentence. Like a kind of zoom lens, the narrator brings us closer to or further from the character depending on the narrative voice used. But this highly original technique is accompanied by an exceptional mastery of language, with numerous references to poetry and music. The various registers, which are always consistent with the character and the situation (such as the colloquial Catalan spoken by a member of the resistance movement or the pre-regulation Catalan of a poet ancestor), add to the richness of a splendid novel about art, about music and about existence.

Translated by Joanna Martinez
Jaume Cabré, 2004, ILC. Foto: Tanit Plana
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