Joan Perucho would be 100 this year! This bizarre year, 2020, like something out of a 1950s’ sci-fi film, marks his centenary. Perucho imagined invasive anthropomorphic plants, monsters living in libraries, magical water that ate metals and made those who soaked in it in decadent baths speak in verse. Nothing magical was strange to him.
Born in Barcelona’s Gràcia neighbourhood in 1920, he became part of the popular cinema and kiosk generation. As a child, he was fascinated by Belphegor, the phantom of the Louvre; Raffles, the gentleman thief; Boris Karloff as the Baron Gregor in The Black Room, tortured by a prophecy; the vampire Nosferatu: all the figures from popular culture the Surrealists incorporated into their poetic imaginary. As an adult, he was a friend of painters Joan Miró, Joan Ponç and Antoni Tàpies, a publisher of magical books, and a writer of poems about mediums and apparitions and novels that take readers on a journey through time. Through the undead figure, dressed in a bright red and black cape, his books exorcised the horrors of the Spanish Civil War that marked his generation indelibly: in 1936, when war broke out, Perucho was fifteen years old.
In post-war Europe, fantasy literature did not have a great press. It was considered mere escapism. Perucho was part of a group of authors swimming against the current: Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, Isak Dinesen and René de Obaldia, Julio Cortázar and Dino Buzzati, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Roger Caillois. Under the Francoist regime – which would last beyond the dictator’s death – the 1960s in Spain were the time of socially engaged literature. Perucho was left in no man’s land, seen as a capricious, eccentric writer. His contributions were more recognised on an international level. The 1960s in Europe belonged to Federico Fellini, to Roger Vadim and to Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. To Jean-Jacques Pauvert’s and Éric Losfeld’s publications, to the comic Barbarella, to pop art. Perucho connected to these elements through his triple condition as a poet, novelist and art critic.
Les històries naturals (1960), published in English as Natural History in 1992 and later translated into a handful of other languages, is Perucho’s most well-known piece, and was included by Harold Bloom in The Western Canon. To the backdrop of a nineteenth-century war – one of those bloody wars that occur periodically throughout Spanish history – Perucho tells the story of a man of the Enlightenment, a naturalist immune to mystery, who, through adventure, discovers poetry and love. There is also a vampire reminiscent of Count von Krolock from Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers and of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu. This is Perucho’s most well-rounded novel, and combines history, magic, poetry and humour. Before that, he had published Llibre de cavalleries (Book of Chivalries, 1957), which was also translated into a few languages. This journey through time evokes Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and All Fires the Fire, by Julio Cortázar.
Perucho was a man of insatiable curiosity. In the 1940s and ’50s, when he was only writing poetry, he brought the work of Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, Paul Éluard and Henri Michaux into the Catalan language. A poem by Paul Éluard, ‘Enterrar y callar’ (‘Bury Them and Keep Quiet’), inspired by a print by Goya from the Disasters of War series, is one of the pillars of his interpretation of the Civil War: faced with cruelty and killing, the only option is to bury them and keep quiet. In 1954, Perucho published his first short story, ‘Amb la tècnica de Lovecraft’ (‘With Lovecraft’s Technique’). This was the first time this North American writer was discussed in Spain. Perucho had discovered him in a French edition and became a staunch supporter.
He was undoubtedly a bibliophile: a very significant part of his work is based on rare, strange books from his personal library, from which he took plots and characters. And he was a gastronome: he and Néstor Luján wrote one of the first culinary books of the post-war period: El libro de la cocina española, gastronomia e historia (The Book of Spanish Cuisine, Gastronomy and History, 1972). Luján and Perucho put forward a sumptuous view of cooking, based on traditional culinary wisdom, in contrast to nouvelle cuisine. As an art critic for the magazine Destino, between 1960 and 1968, he praised the magical art of the Dau al Set group and gave a voice to the nouveau réalisme and pop art generation of artists. He was in charge of the Hispanic Art Library collection by the Polígrafa publishing house, where he published multilingual editions of: Gaudí An Architecture of Anticipation (1967) and Joan Miró and Catalonia (1968). He also authored the artist’s book Les essències de la terra (The Essences of the Land, 1968) with Joan Miró.
After a quiet decade in the ’70s, in 1980, Perucho reemerged with various novels and countless volumes of articles and poetry books. Noteworthy examples include Les aventures del cavaller Kosmas (Adventures of the Knight Kosmas, 1981), which brought the elegant, spiritual prototype of the Byzantine novel up to date, and Pamela (1983), a spy novel set in nineteenth-century Spain. Perucho was the king of parody and pastiche. In the opening scene of Pamela, Pamela Andrews, the virtuous character from Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, appears to be partaking in some dangerous erotic games involving a flying trapeze with the Marquis de Sade.
Perucho was an exceptional supporting actor: he was linked to all the movements from the Catalan nationalist, anti-Franco cultural resistance of the 1940s to the birth of graphic design in the ’60s and the fantasy trend in the ’80s. You could say his main creation was his own character: the erudite, humorous, hedonistic collector who talked and wrote enthusiastically about everything. The Year of Perucho 2020 has shown that, seventeen years after his death, his literature is reaching new readers and influencing a new generation of writers who are rejuvenating imaginative and fantasy literature in the Catalan language.