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La magnitud de la tragèdia

by Matthew Tree
At last, the beginning
For nearly two decades, one of my most persistent aspirations was to become Quim Monzó's translator. There were various reasons for this mania, the most of important of which was purely personal: I wanted my only English friend with whom I talked about books, including all of Monzó's, to be able, at last, to read them. For Monzó's work, although it has appeared over the years in Czech, Russian, Romanian, Portuguese, Norwegian, Dutch, Japanese, Italian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Galician, French, Finnish, Spanish, Slovenian, Swedish, Danish, Basque, and German, has never been published in Great Britain (although it has in the United States: in 1984, Ballantine Books published O'Clock , a short collection of stories translated by Mary Ann Newman).

When, at last, The Enormity of the Tragedy appeared in British bookstores in June of 2007, in an excellent translation by Peter Bush, I didn't care one bit that it wasn't me who had translated Monzó, given that I had long since thrown in the towel, convinced that as far as Monzó was concerned, the British door would be hermetically sealed for centuries. So when I saw it that someone else had got his foot in it first, I couldn't wait to congratulate him.

On the other hand, Monzó himself had always maintained an attitude somewhere between stoic and unconcerned when it came to the deafening silence of the British publishers. In 1997, upon being asked by a journalist of the online magazine The Barcelona Review why his work had never been published in the United Kingdom, Monzó replied with a laconic “I assume they're not interested.”

Maybe he was right. I even think that there is a likely explanation for this lack of English interest, an explanation that brings us back to 1986, the year Barcelona's successful candidacy for the Olympic Games was announced. Suddenly, Barcelona joined that exclusive club of European cities one must visit in order to seem cosmopolitan, especially in England, where Barcelona became the most visited continental city by a long chalk. From then on, the British began to cultivate a picturesque view of Barcelona (before they hadn't had any view at all), and many of them became fond of certain novels by certain Barcelona authors — La ciudad de los prodigios (City of Marvels, 1986) by Eduardo Mendoza, La sombra del viento (The Shadow of the Wind, 2001) by Carlos Ruíz Zafón, among others — that offered an affectionately material, almost cinematographic, image of the city, the stories replete with descriptions of more or less typical customs, places, and people, to the point of seeming at times like a kind of novelesque travel guide; ideal, to be sure, for a foreign audience who wants to “get to know” a large, fashionable city.

Monzó's work is clearly the complete opposite of this kind of undercover romanticism. The city where he was born almost never appears in his books, or, rather, it is present but not conspicuous as it is in the above-mentioned novels. Thus, a novel like La magnitud de la tragèdia , in which there is no physical or atmospheric description of Barcelona, simply did not meet the, we might say, literary-touristic expectations of English readers.

It was then with a mixture of surprise, relief and vicarious happiness that I heard of the publication of The Enormity of the Tragedy in London. To begin with, the publisher, Peter Owen Publishers, although relatively small, still enjoys a considerable prestige (house authors include Mishima, Dalí, Gide, Cocteau, Colette and both Bowles). Furthermore, the translation is, as I have suggested, of extremely high caliber. Monzó is a difficult author to translate, thanks to, among other things, his pithy or colloquial style, sui generis, with its many hidden qualities, in part because he plays with idiosyncrasies specific to the Catalan language to the point where it is almost impossible to find their equivalents. Thus, a mediocre, badly handled or even normal translation, in Monzó's case specifically, would have been a small disaster and would have cut off his British reputation at the outset.

Luckily, that's not how it turned out. Just to give one example, in The Independent , critic Michael Eaude described The Enormity of the Tragedy as “hilarious and tragic,” underscoring the book's originality and the author's “tremendous skill.”

Further, one of the most important American publishers, Viking Penguin, is interested in the North American rights to The Enormity of the Tragedy ; and more translations of Monzó titles are planned soon in England: the novel Benzina (Gasoline), and the new collection of stories Mil cretins (A Thousand Cretins), which—given Monzó's exceptional quality as a storyteller (in the aforementioned review, Michael Eaude affirms that he is “one of the best short story writers in the world, without exaggeration”)—surely would lead to, sooner or later, the publication of 86 contes (86 Stories), a book that would no doubt consecrate Monzó in the English speaking world and, consequently, would make possible a certain normalization of Catalan literature's international status (in other words: it would stop being considered “rural,” “provincial,” “nationalist,” “isolated,” or “for authors who want to be big fish in a little pond,” just to mention some of the clichés about Catalan literature still very much present in the heads of many foreign literary journalists).

In short, there are many reasons to believe that the publication of Monzó in the UK is not just a one-off event, but the beginning of a progressive and persistent introduction of more and more Catalan authors to the European and worldwide market, authors who have been excluded for an inexcusable length of time and for reasons which have been anything but literary.

In fact, there is a first, small, proof of this “reinsertion”: if one types the words “The Enormity of the Tragedy” in the search field of the online store Amazon, it automatically recommends two more books: Under the Dust by Jordi Coca, and O'Clock , that small collection of Monzonian stories published in 1984 by Ballantine Books, now rescued from what once seemed sure-fire oblivion.

Translated by Robin Vogelzang
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