They challenge one another to tell shocking stories, creating their own mythologies about the strange habits of animals and people, especially characters like Charcoal Pete who is caught stealing potatoes or Mad Antònia, the young woman who reportedly went crazy after seeing her boyfriend executed before her eyes and now runs naked through the woods. —Joseph Schreiber
Translated by Peter Bush
400 pgs, $14.95
.There is an interlude, just shy of a third of the way into Black Bread by the late Catalan writer Emili Teixidor, where the narrator steps back from his childhood reminisces to question the nature of memory. He asks why some things stay etched on his memory while he has forgotten others completely, and wonders, “how can I know I have forgotten what I can’t remember?” He recognizes that some places, people and incidents fade quickly whereas sometimes a word can come back unexpectedly and ignite a flood of distant memories. These reflections appear as a curious break in a narrative marked by a degree of youthful naiveté, but remind us that the journey from childlike to mature understanding is uneven and necessarily distorted in retrospect. So, although it is never entirely clear just how far removed the protagonist stands from the experiences he is sharing, as his account continues his ability to hold on to his own innocence will increasingly come into conflict with the harsh realities of life in post-war rural Catalonia.
In recent years, much revisionist debate has been dedicated to exhuming questions of the true impact of the civil war and the Franco dictatorship on Catalan culture and society; “true”, that is, depending on where one’s interests lie. Against this backdrop, a novel like Black Bread, originally published in 2003 when Teixidor was seventy years-old, could easily be construed as an attempt to reclaim history through lived memory. That may, in part, be a fair assessment, but this novel offers much more. It is, on one level, a tender and sensitive coming of age story, one that filters the joys, fears, mysteries, and discoveries of the fitful transition to adolescence through the unaffected lens of childhood memory. Our narrator, Andreu, an astute observer of his own confused emotions, must learn to navigate a world filled with dark dangers and even darker delights. He knows there is much going on around him that he doesn’t understand—truths that he isn’t certain he even wants to understand. However, his growing awareness and conflicted reactions open space for an indirect but honest commentary on the realities of Catalan existence during this time. In this respect, the work can be seen in line with that of writers like Josep Pla and Mercè Rodoreda.
The recent release of Black Bread as part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, in a wonderful rendering by Peter Bush, brings one of the major novels of modern Catalan literature and its author to an English language audience for the first time. Born in 1933 in Roda de Ter, a small town halfway between Barcelona and the French border, Emili Teixidor was a writer, teacher and journalist. He began to write fiction for children and young adults in the late 1960’s as restrictions against publishing in the Catalan language were gradually relaxed. In a short essay written in 1998 when he was still best known as a children’s author, he addresses the satisfaction of writing for young readers and the value of the imaginary worlds we encounter in our formative years:
. . . I think that there is a mystery or secret that concerns us all, old and young, such as an inkling of the immense possibilities regarding the future that these years hold, so that the seriousness and even the sadness of adults would be nothing more than the awareness of loss or the wasting of this original force. These images, these books, also have a liberating function. They have the capacity to help us to escape from specific situations that overwhelm us. There is nothing more frustrating than the impossibility of escaping, of fleeing. . . . The dramatic urge to live and the ferociousness of existence would seem to pose a threat to the wealth of wonders that we accumulated during our early years. But the reserve of these possibilities and the indestructible trust in the achievement of the desires expressed by these images or sentences, situations or characters, is probably the only thing that can keep us solely hopeful and strong during the difficult years – if not the only thing that can keep us truly alive.
There is something telling in this observation, it illuminates a concern that grounds the larger story that Teixidor sets out to tell about life during these tumultuous years of Catalonian history. By building on the delicate tension between the child self’s desire to hold on to the world of the imagination and the adult self’s disillusionment, he creates the compelling narrative voice that drives his most famous literary work.
Black Bread derives its title from the dark bread rationed to the poor throughout Spain during the 1940’s, the so-called “hungry years.” The early post-Civil War period was marked by widespread deprivation, the growth of a black market, and the persistent efforts of the Franco regime to root out suspected political agitators of all stripes. As the story opens, eleven year-old Andreu is living with relatives. His father has been imprisoned on suspicion of ties to political activism, while his mother works long hours in a textile factory. Her free time is consumed with gathering paperwork and support for her husband’s defense. Yet out on the tenant farm with his indomitable paternal Grandmother Mercè, he is not the only “refugee. His younger cousin Nuria, nick-named “Cry-Baby,” doesn’t even know the whereabouts of her parents who were forced to escape to France following the war. Together with their brash and confident older cousin Quinze, they spend long summer days lounging on branches high up in the plum tree. From this secret vantage point they can monitor the comings and goings of the adults to and from the farmhouse, and peek over the wall of the nearby monastery. If they want to get closer look they stand right by wall so they can observe with morbid fascination the naked bodies of the tubercular young men who lie languishing in the garden, drawing whatever faint benefits the sun can offer their ailing bodies.
Teixidor makes skillful use of his adolescent narrator’s limited retrospective stance, allowing his understanding to swell in response to the different circumstances he encounters. One has the sense that Andreu is aware that the fragile innocence of childhood can be easily threatened. His relationship with his parents, for instance, is already tinged with a bitterness and resentment that only grows stronger over time. After his father is arrested and their home is turned upside down by officials, he immediately finds himself emotionally estranged from his mother. His memories of the time he spends in town contain little child-like wonder:
She now spoke to me as if I had suddenly grown up. She spoke to me as you speak to adults. And that, rather than the brutal police raid, made me understand how serious the situation was. Suddenly, that despondent woman had no warmth of feeling left to see me as the child I still was; overnight she stopped holding my hand, that she put elsewhere, and no longer carried me around her neck so I had to walk by myself; now there was no time for singing and hugging because all her attention was required for someone in a much more fragile state than I was, and at a stroke I felt exposed and unprotected. I understood in a vague, confused way that she was simply feeling a new, acute pain, that the wife now predominated over the mother, and a wife’s harshness and tension overrode a mother’s loving inclination.
By contrast, the farm with its fields and orchards and forests, provides a refuge, a place where Andreu can still be one of the “young-un’s” as he puts it. Here mystery still exists. Efforts are made by the many adults around him—Grandmother Mercè, his aunts Ció and Enriqueta, “Dad” Qunize, the farmhands, and Father Tafalla from the nearby monastery—all try to protect the children from the very real threats that exist around them. This is, after all, a time when the slightest provocation could bring the authorities to the door. People were very careful to conceal their thoughts and communicate indirectly rather than risk speaking openly.
Andreu does not imagine himself a good student, or a bookish type, but he is acutely aware that the language the adults use is doubly charged with meanings that he can only guess at and he is alert to the fact that there are things that are not discussed in his presence. He and his cousins struggle to figure out the moral location of the words they hear bandied about so much. They are eager to know what makes someone a “bastard” or a “bugger” and what defines the difference between “our folk” and “others.” Yet they are enraptured by Grandmother Mercè’s stories, the funny and scary tales she regales them with, especially at night. Her tales are a comfort and an entertainment, but the stories of the goblins who run up and down the stairs provide a cover for the maquis, or guerillas, who still pass through the farmhouse seeking food and shelter on their way to France.
Although they live in a time of much subterfuge and unspoken tension, the children work out much of their own anxieties and excitement through the games they play in the forest. Here, together with “Oak-Leaf,” a girl Quinze’s age, they challenge one another to tell shocking stories, creating their own mythologies about the strange habits of animals and people, especially characters like Charcoal Pete who is caught stealing potatoes or Mad Antònia, the young woman who reportedly went crazy after seeing her boyfriend executed before her eyes and now runs naked through the woods. There is a raw enthusiasm to their attempts to figure out the “facts of life,” and their desire to make sense of the more arcane truths of the world.
Doubts do begin to work into Andreu’s conscience as time passes. With the hormonal stirrings of adolescence, he and his young cousin begin to tentatively explore each other’s bodies but, for some reason that he can’t quite fathom, his thoughts tend to be preoccupied with an image of a particular young man lying among the ill and dying in the monastery garden. He cannot reason why the sight of this one youth commands his passions so completely. But, by this point he has noticed that some adults manage to hide dark secret lives, so he assumes that this is simply a hint of the double existence all grownups lead, something he will come to understand in due course. His more serious doubts begin to extend into the realm of religion, social class, and the limitations imposed by society. A cynicism, borne of what he has witnessed with his own parents, sets in. He vows to avoid being tied to a life on the land or on the factory floor, the fate awaiting most of his peers:
I didn’t consider myself to be either strong or courageous enough to be like them, but I had learned that the providential, orderly universe that my agricultural-labourer or factory-worker schoolmates intended to inhabit was an illusion, and that if I wanted to survive, I should trust only in myself, that my strength lay in my powers of dissimulation, my inner struggle, my partial, oblique adaptation to the moment and the concealment of my true intentions; my weapons were treachery, sleight-of-hand and deceit, if need be.
However, when he is offered an opportunity to escape, with the means to continue his schooling and create his own future, Andreu is caught off guard and isn’t entirely sure what he wants to do.
The true power of Black Bread lies in the author’s ability to capture the nuances of adolescent experience in a time of turmoil and change. A cast of memorable characters, interpreted through the memories of his sensitive young narrator allow Teixidor to create a world with true emotional depth. Although this novel only covers about three years of Andreu’s life, it has an epic feel. As elements of sadness, grief, and anger slowly begin to work their way into our hero’s voice, it easy, as a reader, to feel a sense of loss; it is as if we have allowed ourselves to grow up again alongside him. Here one can’t help but feel that Teixidor’s experience writing for children and young adults has been parlayed into a narrative that rings true to remembered childhood experience, but is clearly aimed at the adult reader. In the end, we are reminded how important the “wealth of wonders” that we accumulate through the imaginary worlds we encounter in literature are to our ability to understand and survive challenges in our own lives. For Andreu who has been nourished on the stories that his Grandmother, his teacher, and his friends tell, we are left to wonder whether it will be enough to provide him with the strength he is likely to need in the years that lie ahead.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Scofield and The Quarterly Conversation. He tweets @roughghosts