Country Simple

Anyone who starts wading into the surprisingly deep waters of Catalan literature won't be even ankle high before they hear the name of Josep Pla. His official Complete Works alone run to 47 chunky volumes, to which various newly discovered texts have been added over the years; Pla was at many different periods in his long life the most read author in Catalan, and this despite his eschewal of fiction (he wrote only two novels), given that his stated interest was life and life only. Which is perhaps why by the age of 30 he had travelled to Italy, England, Germany, Soviet Russia, France, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Portugal, Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Belgium and Spain proper, which was more than unusual for an unmonied lad from a small coastal village (Palafrugell); as unusual, indeed, as his unmarried but passionate relationship with Adi Enberg, a Catalan of mixed Norwegian and Swedish extraction, fluent in nine languages and the only woman capable of putting up with Pla - he suffered from that common writer's flaw, chronic egocentrism - for several years. Politically conservative, Pla backed the Nationalist side in the Civil War, going so far as to spy for Franco's foreign espionage network (one of his tip-offs led to the sinking with all hands on board of a ship carrying Republican arms, a deed which haunted Pla until the day he died). When he realised that Franco, far from simply restoring law and order, was bent on turning Spain into a fascist (and obsessively anti-Catalan) state, Pla turned his back on politics, and his eye to what was closest to him: his native canton, the Empordà, and his own past. One of the resulting books was 'El quadern gris' ('The Grey Notebook'), consisting of a rewriting, in 1964, of the diary he kept during his 21st year (back in 1918); hence the tension throughout this remarkable masterpiece between the hilarity, optimism and scorn of a brillant young man trapped in an old-fashioned world, tempered by the disillusion and insight of an almost-old man, already regarded as fuddy-duddy on the cusp of the Swinging 'Sixties. Why ramble on about Pla at this particular time, I pretend to hear you asking? Because the first English version of 'El quadern gris' – in an excellent translation by Peter Bush - will be available any week now. That's why.

Matthew Tree, Catalonia Today, febrer de 2010.


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