The Madness by Narcís Oller

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Translated from the Catalan by Douglas Suttle

Reviewed by Eleanor Updegraff

Joining the ranks of small presses dedicated to one particular region or language, Fum d’Estampa is a Barcelona–London go-between that seeks to bring an English-reading audience ‘the very best poetry, prose, and essays in translation from writers using Catalan and its dialects’. Following a soft launch with two books, September 2020 saw the publication of its first major title: Narcís Oller’s slim but punchy The Madness in translation by Douglas Suttle. Something of a classic in Catalan but previously unknown in English, this is an intriguing choice that marks out Fum d’Estampa as a press aiming to do something different.

First published in 1899, The Madness is said to be one of the first novels to truly analyse mental health in a social context. Narcís Oller (1846–1930) was a man of letters, known chiefly for his novels – which were praised by Zola, among others – but also as a translator of writers including Tolstoy and Dumas. Just like these literary giants, he was deeply concerned with social matters, something that comes across clearly in the pages of this novel. With a story that unfolds over several years and encompasses much of the turbulent history of Barcelona and its surroundings, The Madness chronicles the descent into mental illness of young revolutionary Daniel Serrallonga and, more pertinently, the way his ‘madness’ is viewed by friends, family and society at large.

Although the book is described as an examination of Serrallonga’s mental state, the novel’s chief significance lies in the way his condition is framed. The narrator of The Madness, a man slightly younger than Daniel and a law student when the novel opens, is the only channel through which we receive impressions – both his own and others’ – of the book’s ostensible subject, and as such a presumably unreliable conduit of the true state of Serrallonga’s interior world. We are told early on in an upfront manner that Daniel ‘was quite the lunatic, shy and prone to the most inexplicable inconsistencies of character’, but even before this are made aware that much of what will be related to us is informed by prejudice and hearsay. Even the opening line of the novel proclaims it loud and clear: ‘He was already the talk of the town when I first met him.’ The Madness, then, is not so much an exploration of how individuals manage their mental health, but how society judges them for it.

Seen in this light, a little-known nineteenth-century Catalan novel suddenly becomes extremely relevant. And, for all its brevity, it contains many nuances: the law and medicine students who chiefly inform the narrative represent the rational, balanced side of society, while Daniel Serrallonga is continually presented as a loose canon, a directionless and highly strung individual who becomes far too embroiled in the unsteady politics of the time. There is, however, a sense that our narrator admires him, as much as society might censure his wild actions, describing him at one stage as ‘out of control, sublime, incomparable’ and himself descending happily into a state approaching delirium when he falls in love for the first time. He also makes stabs at defending Daniel from others’ criticism, asking ‘if there are hunched bodies and wonky eyes, could there not be hunched or wonky souls?’ Yet the very fact that he is narrating this story at all must make the reader question his apparent sympathies. By turning Serrallonga into the subject of his story, the narrator automatically singles him out as a social anomaly.

Besides delivering an incisive social analysis through sharply observed scenes and brief but telling episodes of dialogue, Oller provides us with a fascinating glimpse of Catalonia’s explosive history. This theme too is introduced right at the beginning of the novel, with shots fired on the Rambla in the opening lines; Barcelona is instantly set up as a potentially dangerous, tumultuous place. The events of the novel unfold in parallel with the Carlist Wars and subsequent gold rush, the influence of which can still be felt in Catalonia today, and the changing pace of the novel reflects these periods perfectly, the prose itself speeding up or slowing down depending on whether the region is in conflict or a state of peace. Fum d’Estampa has helpfully included an insightful introduction by Andrew Dowling which offers plenty of context on this history, though it would possibly serve the reader better as an afterword so as not to spoil any of the novel’s substance.

Barcelona might be an unsettled city, yet far more threatening as a location is Serrallonga’s rural home, visited by the narrator and his cousin in the middle section of the novel. At this point The Madness takes on some of the tropes of a fairy tale: a dilapidated house inhabited by two sisters who could be described as ‘mad’ in their own ways, around it a shabby town ringed by impenetrable woods and foggy mountains. It is in this setting that the climactic scene of the novel plays out – a wholly unexpected and slightly subversive ending that comes as quite a shock to a reader recently lulled into a false sense of calm. This scene too is a damning indictment of society, in particular the rise and results of mob rule, and leaves the reader poised on a knife-edge, not quite sure what it is they have just witnessed.

‘Where is . . . the fine line between sanity and insanity?’ asks our narrator: the theme of this surprisingly complex novel condensed into a single sentence. Though very much a product of its time – The Madness undoubtedly takes a nineteenth-century view of things, something the contemporary reader ought not to forget – this is a novel that still has considerable relevance in terms of the way we relate to others, particularly in the context of mental health. Sharply translated by Douglas Suttle, who has smoothly adopted a rather dated language and renders Oller’s original text into subtle, flowing prose, The Madness is a politically, historically and socially significant novel that suggests Fum d’Estampa Press has a lot more to say.

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Eleanor is a freelance writer, translator and proofreader/copy-editor, living in Austria. She blogs at The Monthly Booking.

Narcís Oller, The Madness (Fum d’Estampa Press, 2020). 978-1916293939, 125pp., flapped paperback.

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