Barcelona Tales, ed Helen Constantine

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Translated by Peter Bush

Review by Karen Langley

Barcelona Tales Helen Constantine

If you’re an armchair traveller like I am, the “City Tales” collection of books from Oxford University Press will be a real treat and perfect reading for you. To date there have been eleven titles collecting together stories from places like Moscow, Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna and Rome to name but a few. There have also been three drawing on works featuring Paris and one book of French Tales, so obviously that country is a rich source of literature. Two more volumes have recently been issued and this particular one presents a varied and fascinating selection of pieces which feature a city with a rich culture and often complex politics – Barcelona.  

As well as being one of the most ancient cities of Europe, Barcelona is perhaps best known for its prowess in football, its architecture and its part in the Spanish Civil War; it was, of course, central to Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia”. Indeed, it’s a city that’s still often at the centre of conflict between Catalan separatists and the other national political parties. This collection opens with an extract from Don Quixote, perhaps Spain’s best-known literary export, then jumps forward to the 19th century to present a series of stories that stretch chronologically to modern times. It’s a fascinating and varied collection, which captures the diversity and atmosphere of the city.

Like all big cities, Barcelona attracts travellers and migrants – you could argue that the populations of most of the major cities of the world have evolved this way – and the opening piece shows Quixote and Sancho Panza arriving as celebrities. As usual with Cervantes’ writing, there’s a fair amount of humour and slapstick violence; although as Bush’s erudite introduction explains, the story reflects the religious conflicts between Christians and Muslims which existed at the time.

“One doesn’t need much of a taste: once one’s eyes have enjoyed a good dose of artificial light, one soon misses it. Just imagine what our baker must have been thinking, a man who had experienced a place where everything glittered, where everything reflected the brightness of a hundred gas flames, from the black top hats of his son’s customers to the floor tiles. He was now sure he couldn’t possibly live happily in that dark, dirty, remote village.” (Transplanted)

The theme of migration and exile is a constant one through the works selected here. Narcis Oller’s “Transplanted”, one of the earliest pieces, tells of a small town baker who moves to the big city after his son makes good. However, once the glamour and glitter wears off, he’s like an uprooted tree, no longer belonging in his home town but out of place in the city. Similarly, Lia and Jiang, the two protagonists in “Neighbours”, have come from China to make a new life running a bar; and they may have been successful, but the closeness of their neighbours and the strangeness of their behaviour unsettles the couple who likewise end up feeling very out of place.

“Which Country Do You Want?” tackles attitudes of race and class which are uncomfortable to see; “The Sound of Keys” looks at the way a move to the Big City can affect siblings in very different ways; and “A Detective Story” is a dark, sometimes visceral post WW2 story of a gang of youths playing out the tropes of a Hollywood noir tale with a nasty sting in the tale. “Blitz on Barcelona” collects together some pieces recorded by C.A. Jordana during the bombing of the city during the Spanish Civil War, and these make tragic reading.

There’s always a danger with short story collections that you end up picking favourites, and that would be unfair with this particular anthology, as every work is good in its own right. However, I did want to highlight “Dead Time” by Teresa Solana. I was particularly pleased to see so many women authors included in the book, and Solana’s story features two female protagonists – Soledad, who works in a market and harbours distressing suspicions about some murders which have taken place; and Aurora Ballester, a Deputy-Inspector assigned to investigate. It is the latter’s knowledge of her own sex which will help her solve the crime in a story which oozes tension from the very start.

The aim with the “Tales” books is to immerse you in the city concerned, to bring it alive, and the books do that not only with their written matter but also with the supporting material. Each story has an illustration at the start, potted biographies of the authors, suggestions for further reading and even a map at the back marked with numbers showing the location of each story. I’ll probably never get to Barcelona, but this excellent collection certainly left me feeling that I knew and had experienced the city in all its different aspects!

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and has travelled the world through books.

Barcelona Tales (Oxford University Press, 2019). ISBN 9780198798378, 270pp, paperback.

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