Barcelona Dreaming, by Rupert Thomson

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Review by Basil Ramsome-Davies

Rupert Thomson has been around for quite a while, a prolific and much respected author; this is the first book of his I have read. So if I lack the experience of following his career as a reader I am blessed with a positive minimum of preconceptions. One thing is certain, though: he’s got me.

Barcelona Dreaming is a triptych of three long stories/novellas, each told by a different first-person narrator, each one just over seventy pages long, all connected by the locale – Barcelona before the crash of 2008 or the wholesale bucket-list invasions by incurious foreign party animals – and including some spillage or overlap of personnel. Each set in a different area of the city, they are expertly woven tales, the style reader-friendly but with a wry subtextual pulse, the metropolis seen as a complex of varying neighbourhoods, memorably laid down by the names of streets, bars, restaurants, the familiar haunts of its citizens. In that sense, it qualifies for the voguish word of commendation ‘immersive’.

Thomson also includes a phantom appearance by one of the city’s stellar celebrities, The middle, or bridging, tale, ‘The King of Castelldefels’, features Ronaldinho, the dazzling Brazilian footballer who inspired Barcelona FC to a sensational recovery and winning form after a period in the doldrums. This story does not take the reader into Ronaldinho’s world, only into the refracted image of Ronaldinho in the mind of Ignacio, the teller. Here, the wealthy star is imagined as an affable, democratic personality who invites Ignacio into his home and even wants him as a Spanish language tutor.

There is dark laughter aplenty. Ignacio’s increasingly far-fetched account of his relations with Ronaldinho might ring a belated alarm bell in his previous statement that, when out on a date, ’I chose not to talk about the restaurants I used to own, and my other business interests were too complex to go into.’ Blackouts, hallucinations and acts of destructive violence occur without his recognition of how or why. His dream is of intimate association with a charismatic hero, a fantasy compensation for being a professional loser who cannot for whatever reason obey the booze adverts’ urge to ‘drink responsibly’. By the finish it has taken him over so completely that it devours the dreamer, alienated from the real, buzzing social life of the city, the ‘king’ only of an illusory realm.

A different dream of romance, erotic and taboo-ish but acted upon, possesses Amy, the fortysomething English divorcee who narrates the opening story, ‘The Giant of Sarria’.  Her gift shop gives her an adequate living, her daughter is at university (Bristol) in England and the previous acrimony between her and her ex-husband has faded. All’s on an even plane until returning home one night she hears weeping from an underground car park and investigates. It’s an intrepid step in the city after dark, and may signal Amy’s latent wish to inject some drama into her existence.

But, as ever, ‘be careful what you wish for’. What it leads to, by rapid stages, is an overload of drama – full-on melodrama, in fact, which transforms Amy’s emotional life. An unforeseen release from cosy normality into a passionate, rejuvenating affair with Abdel, a Moroccan immigrant half her age, imbues her vocabulary with the homely similes of the smitten in popular fiction: ‘he was more beautiful than I remembered–and I felt something open or unfold inside me like a flower’; ‘there was a stirring in me like a glass of water on a café table when a truck goes past.’

There ensue hot sex, street violence, a mortal confrontation, a murder trial and a ‘snapper’ in the outcome worthy of O. Henry, when Baltasar, the eponymous giant, an outlying curiosity till near the story’s end, makes a conclusive intervention. Amy, her reputation damaged, moves house and gives up selling kitsch for a post with ‘an organisation that worked with immigrants from North Africa’, though of her relationship with Abdel she casually reports that ‘it was enough’, appearing to accept the difference wrought in her lifestyle with mature equanimity. Meanwhile a hapless Abdel disappears into the anonymous sub-population of those struggling to cope with a hostile environment, often forced into degrading services for the sake of survival. Being a white woman’s sex toy is not the worst.

The narrator of the final story, ‘The Carpenter of Montjuïc’, is Jordi Ferrer, a native Catalan who ‘gets by’ financially as a translator – ‘mostly fiction’.  He has an English neighbour, penthouse-dwelling Vic Drago (previously glimpsed in ‘The King of Castelldefels’), a flashy dresser seen walking in front of a wife who is ‘carrying two Caprabo bags loaded with groceries’. So much for Vic’s attitude to gender roles. Nonetheless he and Jordi form a bond as ambivalent as Jordi’s liaison with Mireia, once a lover, now just a friend, much to Jordi’s discontent. Mysteriously, Mireia keeps finding keys, one stamped with the single word ‘Bristol’, so again a story thickens with allusions to the previous ones (Ignacio claims to have given Ronaldinho a house key).

Yet the story is named for a woodcarver, Federmann, a man of even greater mystery whose craft skills are impressive but whose reliability otherwise, like Mireia’s, is  questionable. Bullshit, deception and betrayal add to Jordi’s uncertainty, and if he wakes to a disillusioned recognition of reality you would be stretching it to call it an epiphany. The story closes with a dying fall in a description of his final meeting with Federmann: ‘I had no choice but to turn away myself, and we moved off in opposite directions, along paths that would never cross again.’

   Barcelona Dreaming touches on both the indispensable value and the fragility of human relationships. Separation, departure and absence cast a shadow on all three panels of the triptych, but I take from this unusual book a sense of compassionate mutability. Impermanence, whether due to the passage of time, good or ill luck, abrupt accident or almost anything but thoughtful intention, is the prevailing mode. People go with the changing flow. As the existential dream-Ronaldinho says, ‘I don’t think about playing. I just play.’

When I first visited Barcelona in 1959, travelling on the mountain coach from Andorra, I could see a mad outline on the distant horizon – Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia. I knew what it was from Orwell’s thumbs-down in Homage to Catalonia. It’s now a tourist-office promotional fetish, and I still give it the big thumbs-down, but it’s unarguably a wonder, and Barcelona is a wonderful town, bucket-list hordes or no. Thomson’s street-level view of the lives of its residents swings along with the mood-music of its unique warmth and enchantment.

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Rupert Thomson, Barcelona Dreaming, Corsair: London 2021, 978-147215354, 215 pp., paperback.

Read also Eleanor’s review of Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson from 2015 here.

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