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Monday, 17 March 2008

Written in granite: Chronicles of the Hidden Truth

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I promised a piece on Pere Calders and, as Spanish has it, a promise is a debt. Calders was one of the most popular Catalan writers of the 20th (or any other) century but, without wishing to get into too much of a debate on Catalan nationalism, the fact that he continued to write in his own language, even when living in exile in a Spanish-speaking country (Mexico) probably explains why he's not better-known outside Catalonia – frankly this is criminal. Had he written in Spanish (or French, or English, or another of the so-called "major" languages) I think he'd be much more widely translated into other languages and recognised as a crucial link in the chain that runs from Poe to Kafka and Borges and then on to Magical Realism, Calvino, Murakami et al. I've only ever heard of one collection of English translations of his stories, The Virgin Of The Railways, although I've never seen a copy. As I'm fortunate enough to speak Catalan I've got the complete short stories in the original and have read most of them many times. As mentioned in What The Waves Are Saying [1], one, Demà a les tres de la matinada,
gave me the starting point for a song, Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m. However I'd like to acknowledge my debt which is far wider than one story = one song. I have rather a lot of IOUs of this kind so I'll be attempting to redeem at least some of them in these entries.

Although he wrote all sorts of things during his long career Calders was primarily an author of short stories. Many of them are very short indeed, there are some which last for just a few words and the typical length is probably 5 or 6 pages. As the title of one of his early collections had it, these are Cròniques de la veritat oculta (Chronicles of the Hidden Truth). Like so many European artists working in the mid-twentieth century, war hovers in the background a great deal, although the focus is on the everyday details, the commonplace as extraordinary and the extraordinary as commonplace. Calders himself fought as a volunteer in the Republican Army in the Spanish Civil War and, like so many of his generation of Catalan writers and artists, was forced into exile for 20 or so years after it ended. Demà is the title story of my favourite of his collections as it also features the wonderful – and now almost preternaturally topical - El sistema Robert Hein in which a self-help book called The Robert Hein System For Getting Rich changes the world. However, as the system works, all the workers at the printers read it, get rich and leave their jobs, so there's nobody to print more copies. Soon a critical mass of rich people is reached and everyone else has to make do with the follow-up: The Robert Hein System For Finding Happiness in Poverty. There's also the Reportatge del dia repetit (Repeated Day Report) which is a prototype for Groundhog Day in which there are several Tuesdays in a row, causing chaos.

Calders' touch is always very light, even when the subject material gets dark, as it sometimes does. The shortness of the pieces keeps things simple, even at their most dizzying. Like so many of the greatest writers, Calders seems to have a world of his own creation, with its own internal logic. One day I'd love to translate one or two of his finest stories but for now you'll have to make do with songs such as Tomorrow morning, 3 a.m., where an idea has been taken but taken in another direction.

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