Juan Goytisolo would often refer to a comment by Jean Genet to the effect that every artistic work you create should be an adventure and never a routine journey, and that was certainly my experience translating two books of Pla’s short stories, Life Embitters and Salt Water, Archipelago Books, 2015 and 2020, respectively. Neither had been translated into English before and they represent vastly different worlds and emotional states. In prologues Pla is quick to downplay them as “pages from a vast, private diary”, “reminiscences of the ashes of life”, “writing that is insignificant”, but when he also notes that “his ideas about narrative literature have been notoriously influenced by the Dutch genre painters”, any reader’s mouth must begin to water.
The first draws on Pla’s experiences as a journalist in the 1920s across Europe when as he says in the prologue: “I was to an extent a product of the value of our currency from the First World War to the Spanish Civil War.” It must be one of the most original collections of stories from those years in any European language with locations as diverse as Cerinyola, Madrid, Barcelona, a Leeds’ suburb, Meanville, Kensington Park, Glasgow, Paris, Calais, Lisbon, Florence and Berlin, the narrators being Josep Pla or a heteronym, Albert Santaniol.
Sometimes, there is an obvious connection between Pla’s work as a journalist, and sometimes not. Pla was a correspondent in Berlin 1923/24, sent 140000 words in weekly dispatches to the Catalan daily La Publicitat about the economic, political and social situation full of vivid detail and analysis of the impact of the post-war settlement, hyperinflation, deflation and the rise of Hitler. The three stories of “The Berlin Circle” are worthy of a Joseph Roth or Christopher Isherwood as Pla describes the parties of ex-pats flush with foreign currency, the miserable cold and devastated lives, always with an ironic but humane eye. In the first “A Portrait of Inflation”, when the mark is stabilized and Pla and his journalist friend Eugeni Xammar find their pessetes don’t buy so much, Xammar is quick to develop strategies for them to make money so they can avoid “attempts by any form of margarine to infiltrate our bodies.”
With a Russian Menshevik emigré they begin a three-man translation of Kropotkin’s Ethics for a big publisher in Buenos Aires. Tassin translates the Russian aloud into French and German, Xammar types his verbal flow into South American Spanish, Pla is responsible for ensuring the philosophical vocabulary is accurate and “to an extent, for bolstering the content.” Then the Catalan pair buy a pedigree Pekingese, the idea being that the local bourgeois will be impressed and that will bring in social contact and work. That plan succeeds though their cat was upset: “The Pekingese was the ice-cold aristocrat that never came off its perch. Mauzi was the sceptical, enlightened, hectoring democrat.” The second story, “Roby or deflation”, is a more tragic slice of life when narrator Pla is a subtenant in down-at-heel lodgings in grey concrete tenements on the city outskirts. The heavy wintry snow forces Pla to spend several days indoors and this description of what he saw illustrates how Pla is such a complete writer:
I spent hours behind windowpanes where the rain splashed endlessly and left a yellowy-green film; I contemplated the inner yard of that half-barracks, half-factory where the flat was slotted. The flat windows looked over the garden. Twenty or so square meters of sparse pale green grass were home to three spindly, pallid trees and in the middle to a leaning, down-at-heel wooden trapeze with a few dangling rings and two frayed broken ropes. I never saw any children climb it, not even when it was fine, and sometimes in the evening, I’d imagine the trapeze was an abandoned guillotine.
Pla watches a stream of the Berlin poor pass by his window and befriends ten year-old Roby whom Frau Behrens claims is a nephew. He forgives him when he steals his bowler hat so a cobbler can use the bands to reinforce his friends’ rag football and guarantee a game for him, then follows him along ice-covered streets after he has been badly beaten by Behren’s soldier-lover (for turning his love letters into paper balls to amuse the cat). It’s a portrait more sombre than any painted by a Dutch genre painter, rather a sequence of Goya’s black and white horrors of war and inhumanity translated to disintegrating, Weimar Berlin. The final story, “Intermittently Moribund” returns to a bitter-sweet ironic tone as Pla follows the fortunes of a sickly professional dancer from Granollers who had been thriving in the city’s cabaret and club scene…
Obviously the fictional Pla is not the “real” Pla in Europe, though drawing on his experiences (just as much of Pla’s diary, The Gray Notebook, New York Review of Books, 2013, has a fictional gloss and is his portrait of the Catalan writer as a young man), the same is true of Pla in Salt Water, a combination of sea-stories and chronicles of shipwrecks and Costa Brava piscatorial life. This work presented three adventures for the translator: the first, translating the immediate reality of that Catalan coastal world whose vocabulary and life Pla knows in fine detail, the second translating the mood and tone of a writer now experiencing inner exile in a country that has proscribed his mother tongue, and the third, doing so when the whole world has been forced by Covid-19 into a form of inner exile and confinement. Mainly written in the 1940s when he lived in small fishing harbours—Fornells, L’Escala, and Cadaqués— there are still journeys and promenades but they are frustrated, leading nowhere though Pla relishes the immediacy of sensuous experience, champions the lives of loners, the virtues of isolation and the excitement of smuggling. In “Still Life with Fish” in Fornells he comes to appreciate “the charms of tedium”; in “Bread and Grapes”, in Cadaqués, he becomes involved with a smuggler and even an accomplice in murder. “One from Begur”, a story from Pla’s younger days, relates how a one-armed fisherman, Miner, becomes a guide on a German submarine in the First World War and pinpoints another of the book’s themes, the escape from the machine age:
I was being poisoned by a kind of air I’d never breathed before… It was not the fetid smell of decomposing matter. On the contrary, all was tidy and sterilized. But it was air I had never breathed before. It was air charged with the fumes from fuel oil, lubricants, mineral oils, human odors, greasy flock and the acrid stink from the engine and all that iron plating…”
Jean Genet would probably have lapped up the description of the atmosphere surrounding a bevy of young German sailors, and Juan Goytisolo would surely have liked Pla’s stories, had he ever read them. This translator’s adventure and privilege has been to recreate for English-language readers the work of a great writer.