Category Archives: democracy

The Zeitgeist of Barcelona

Reviewer Francis Barret has awarded four out of five stars to the novel Celia’s Room in a recent Goodreads review. I reprint it below in its entirety.

Nothing is quite as it seems. This book rejoices in ambiguity and ambivalence, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of Barcelona in the period when the optimism and openness precipitated by the restoration of democracy in Spain was fading as the ETA terrorist campaign continued to take lives, political corruption was exposed by the uncensored media, and the city began to undergo massive redevelopment for the Olympic Games of 1992.

Set mainly in the medieval Ciutat Vella (Old City), occasionally moving out to Camp Nou and the leafier uptown districts, the story unfolds through events narrated by two young men with very different backgrounds, perspectives and prospects. Both are engulfed by a nocturnal social milieu that will be immediately recognisable to anyone who experienced the last days of the notorious Barrio Chino before swathes of it were demolished to make way for the antiseptic Rambla del Raval.

Eduardo, a diplomat’s son used to a cosmopolitan life of privilege but traumatised by violent loss, is simultaneously dismissive of and drawn to tawdry “lowlife” decadence, distracting him from his career path. Joaquim, escaping a stultifying rural Catalan background and intent on becoming an artist, is easily entranced by flamboyance, and soon exploited to paint and decorate the interior of an aristocratic but dilapidated old mansion inhabited by a colourful cast of exotic characters with shady sources of income. Of these, the most enigmatic is Celia, a beautiful outsider who remains out of focus until the climax.

While most of the protagonists are recognisable Barcelona “types”, their personalities are not so much stereotypical as archetypal, rendered believable by ordinary human frailties. This is particularly true of Celia, whose mystique is heightened by infrequent but powerful utterances.

The narrators’ depictions of alcohol-driven, drug-fuelled bohemian nights of poetry and song, revolving between bars, after-hours dives and shared flats in the Gothic Quarter, contrast with their personal moments of unease and self-doubt. Misunderstandings amongst the revellers induce mistrust, jealousy, anger and shame. The inaugural house party held in the mansion to celebrate the pagan Vispera de Sant Joan (Midsummer’s Eve) brings these tensions to a sharp explosion of revelations and epiphanies.

The author’s knowledge and love of Barcelona are clear from his vivid descriptions of places, architecture and ambience. Another reviewer (at rightly admired the “passages of almost scholarly historic reference and beautiful expositions of particularly poignant works of art that give the plot a rich cultural context”.

There are some lovely turns of phrase, with flashes of poetic imagery, startling similes and curious metaphors. The tone ranges from lightly self-deprecating to deeply philosophical, with some parts written in an almost scientifically disinterested style and others using language so alluring and sensual as to qualify as genuinely erotic, without being pornographic.

Celia’s Room is not a flawless masterpiece, and could have done with some editing. However, this is the author’s first adult novel, and given the theme(s), he can hardly be faulted for beginning in a somewhat fumbling style, increasing in confidence and rhythm as the story unfurls.

As a meditation on sexuality, I found Celia’s Room insightful and thought provoking. Perhaps more importantly, I enjoyed the story a lot, and at times laughed out loud. This intelligent and entertaining book is fun, and definitely well worth reading!

Spanish history repeating on Libyan soil

Current events in Libya bring to mind similarities with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) even if contexts differ. Yet both wars have captured world attention for their wishful idealism, a struggle for freedom and democracy against repression.
Spain was torn by war after decades of internal strife. The country’s ultra-conservative factions saw a military uprising against the democratic system as the surest road to political and economic stability, a bid to reinstate the iron calm of Primo de Rivera’s earlier dictatorship. The fascist rebels envisioned a swift, bloody coup yet faced the grinding reality of a 3-year war. Difficulties in communications were a factor influencing both sides.
The Libyan situation has been sparked by external events. Access by a segment of the population to the social media (FaceBook, Twitter, etc.) has been decisive in enabling information to spread. The Libyan people are seeking democracy and freedom after more than forty years of dictatorship.
However, like Franco and Mola (the military mastermind behind the 1936 coup to which Franco was a late addition), Gaddafi is employing foreign mercenaries because their brutality can be trusted when one’s own people must be slaughtered. Terror is a key strategy in repressing civilian populations. Mola’s exact words were: “We must spread terror… we must create the sensation of dominance by eliminating, unscrupulously and unhesitatingly, all those who do not think as we do.” And they are pertinent to Gaddafi’s strategy.
The Libyan people, like the Spanish Republicans in 1936, are poorly armed, untrained and lacking professional army officers, the majority of whom have remained loyal to Gaddafi. They are inspired by a will to overcome. Yet it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to triumph over the bullets and bombs of a highly trained army.
Lastly, the Non-Intervention Treaty which kept Britain, France and the USA from sending aid to the beleaguered Spanish government was a key element in the fall of Spanish democracy. Allied as this was to the siding of 75% of Spain’s diplomats with the Fascist uprising, and Germany’s and Italy’s flouting of the Treaty, many saw Spain’s defence as heroically doomed from the start. Yet still they fought and cried: “They shall not pass!” Today it looks increasingly doubtful whether the international community will pass from words to action with the ephemeral promise of a no-fly zone over Libya, but it’s looking as if Libya’s democracy will be stillborn.

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