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Translated by Tiago MILLER



Matthew TREE

To understand the impact that WILD HORSES had and is still having on Catalan language literature (it has also been translated into Spanish and, obviously, into English, and will surely be appearing in other languages in the near future) we need to take a (very) brief glance at the history of Catalan writing in the last century. Before 1939, it was pretty much like any other European literature: aside from mainstream literary fiction, it had proto-feminist fiction (notably SOLITUDE by Victor CATALA aka Caterina ALBERT), erotic fiction (the novels of Carles SOLDEVILA and Francesc TRABAL, for instance), comic writing (by the surrealist philosopher Francesc PUJOLS, among others) and books in every other genre that was equally popular at the time.
                When Franco and his fellow rebels won the Civil War, they did everything they could to outlaw the Catalan language, which was made illegal in books, schools, the cinema, the theatre, as well as on transport tickets, remembrance cards, advertisements, road signs, tombstones and so forth. These strict prohibitions were partially lifted in the 1960s and a new generation of writers began to emerge, although as one of them (Joan SALES) wrote to another (Merce RODOREDA), the fact that not a single news item or review could be published about any Catalan language book meant that they were all, so to speak, sent to Coventry, unable to re-enter the mainstream they had been happily swimming in before Franco’s victory.
                This combination of hermetic censorship—followed by a niggardly, heavily conditioned loosening of said censorship for the last fifteen years of the Franco regime—meant that for nearly forty years Catalan writers and publishers felt that the only way out of the cul-de-sac they found themselves in was to opt for a literature that was prestigious. But prestige—as understood at the time—came with a price: it meant that genre literature was marginalised and obscenity and violence were frowned upon (as supposedly damaging to a literature that was fighting for critical respect). A prime example of this transformation can be seen in the complete works of the great prose writer Josep PLA, the forty-six volumes of which were published between 1966 and 1984. Among them are books which had been published before the Civil War and which on occasion had contained the odd ‘crude’ word and the odd erotic or bawdy reference. These were surgically removed in the post-war editions. In general—with a few exceptions—the Catalan writers of the time, good as many of their novels and stories were, avoided anything that smacked of sex, drugs or rock and roll.
                So when Jordi CUSSÀ brought out WILD HORSES—an energetic, forceful, evocative stream of a novel which was based largely on his own experiences as a dealer (and addicted user) of heroin—in the year 2000, he was the first writer to credibly expose the druggy underbelly of the lives of a fair percentage of Catalan youth (he also threw in plenty of sex and rock lyrics for good measure). The novel was praised by many readers and critics, but was also avoided by that large chunk of the population which preferred not to see what was going on under their noses, and which no one had previously spelled out to them in black and white.
                It didn’t help that CUSSÀ didn’t limit his setting to seedy Barcelona dives—which, thanks to the work of French writers like Jean GENET and Pieyre de MANDIARGUES, would have been ‘culturally acceptable’—but lifted up the carpet that covered rural Catalonia to reveal that people were busily shooting up in some of the country’s most picturesque towns and villages.
                For the reasons already given, Catalan literature had not been able to have a local equivalent of the Beat Generation. CUSSÀ, in one bold go, managed to plug most of this gap not only because he wrote about drugs and sex, but above all because, like the Beats, he had an original, personal style, a written voice which speaks directly to the reader (as it does in the other seventeen books he went on to publish). His style is characterised by surprising, often funny, expressions, by the joining up of words to create unusual portmanteaus (‘sonofawhore’), by a constant celebration of physical and mental pleasure, and by an uninhibited, free-flowing (though later carefully revised) use of language, which oscillates between the lyrical and the earthily colloquial.
                CUSSÀ was an addict for a decade and knew only too well the damage that heroin could do, but one of the great strengths of Wild Horses is that he never, ever moralises. The truth about drug addiction—half adventure, half lethal tragedy—is laid out for all to see, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.
                When the book first appeared, as stated above, it was praised by the few and sidelined by the many. Twenty-two years later, in the world of Catalan literature—it should perhaps be remembered that ten million people speak the language—it is now considered a modern classic, and CUSSÀ, a major 21st century writer.




‘Between Two Waters’

It’s true when I say I’d gone a number of years without doing primetime material, except only very occasionally, and that my last experience of the daily mainline commute was in Madrid, back in the neighbourhood of Vallecas. Therefore it’s also true that, after making the decision, I had a supply problem as I’d conscientiously let my little black book fade to black, and that comes with a price. But never in a million years would I have imagined that getting a couple of grams of heroin could be so complicated.
                To begin with (out of pure habit rather than any real hopes of picking up any harry) I ‘got lost’ in the two wondrous labyrinths of the underground either side of the lower part of Les Rambles, nowadays almost completely refashioned by champagne socialism. But eight or ten years back I knew three or four holes where you could almost always get small amounts of any illegal drug, except crack perhaps as it was a fashion yet to be exported to our shores. The first place I looked up, or rather, looked for, was the flat of a certain Micky from Sabinanigo, who spoke with a lisp and was someone I’d had a certain trade trust with back in the day. Not only could I not locate Micky but after half an hour of asking around over rounds (if you know how to play your cards right you can find out anything over beers, even where the Pope takes a dump), the answer came that the house I was looking for had been torn down three years ago. Next I went to check out another nearby bar (a shithole of a place as large as it was gloomy as it was empty that always reeked of piss and damp sawdust despite the toilet having being closed to the public since the dawn of time) only to confirm it no longer existed, especially as there was never more than five customers in there and all of them only ever drank small beers or cups of coffee. To my absolute surprise I found it exactly the same as before, with the same woman manning the bar and the same sad clientele. The obscure reason behind a 120 m2 bar just forty paces from Les Rambles remaining in that miserable 1950s tavern purgatory is, has and always will be, to me at least, a socioeconomic enigma of the highest order. If I didn’t have other plans, I reckon I’d make them an offer and open a restaurant specialising in paellas.
                Of course, the fact that I recognised owner and place didn’t mean owner and place recognised me, and the only thing I came away with, on account of some old androgynous whore I randomly clocked going into the chemist’s on the corner, was that Micky had died six months ago and Blackbeard (a small time pusher who looked like Rasputin and was normally in the area) had got caught in the act two years back and was in Can Brians doing a stretch three times that. But, if I wanted, he/she could get me whatever I was looking for... of course, I’d have to give him/her the money upfront. Aware I was breaking the most basic rules of the black market (for the record: never deal with touts and never pay for anything until you’ve got it in your hands), conscious I was doing what in Vallecas they call ‘biting’ (hook, line and sinker), I decided—in order to wrap up the adventure once and for all—to risk a thousand pessetes and go wait for an hour, having changed the Great Gloom for a fusion between wine cellar and delicatessen that didn’t smell much better but at least had toilets. It goes without saying that a thousand pessetes wouldn’t be enough but if it went smoothly then afterwards we’d see.
                At around five-thirty (or seventeen thirty-eight, according to the Pepsi clock on the wall), forty-eight minutes after the agreed deadline, I pulled my arse up off an excessively warm bar stool and paid for the two gins and tonic with the seven one hundred coins I’d won on the fruit machine. Crossing Les Rambles on my way up to the northern labyrinth, I consoled myself by calculating the money I still had to play with, despite the dirty trick that dirty fag had pulled. But up top things were no different: no one I knew, or trusted in, in and around Plaça Reial. That is, none of the old-time African traders who set up the first flea market, or any of the Peruvian porters who sometimes helped them with moving the goods, or anyone in the basement boozers on the periphery or on the periphery of the basement boozers. And after sending a thousand peles down the drain I wasn’t in the mood for pissing away anymore.
                It wasn’t even a quarter to seven in the evening but the November fog was flooding the minimetropolis with a thick nostalgia which in wintertime condenses the longing for summer. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, I felt like shooting up purely for the sake of it and to hell with all your stupid-ass asspirations and the rest of your so-called civilising conceits. It was donkey’s years since I’d forgotten that vertiginous emptiness, that sweet ennui, as Bian called it, as lethal as it was morbid, but the quality of that sad perception of the world, and my world in particular, perfectly complemented the emotional memory of my junk years and the only thing I was missing was a good fix (in Catalan, ‘fix’ is pronounced ‘fish,’ which is why over that absurd evening I kept calling myself a ‘fish out of water’).
                I crossed Les Rambles again, collected the car from the Placa Gardunya car park, and journeyed the few kilometres to the ferocious jungle that is Can Tunis, a place even the famous Dotor Livingstone would struggle to emerge from unscathed. After a glut of twists and turns, and doubts and fears over this street or that, this house or the next, this face or the one lurking behind, which no doubt raised the suspicions of the local security service (the police never went there), I finally scraped enough courage together to test the old arts of an old userdealer. With the ten five hundred notes folded under the sole of my foot (right shoe, as always), I wandered twenty metres up the street with a quick Camel as an excuse, without losing sight of the Golf in case the mosquitos were looking for fresh meat, instinctively putting my trust in a chance meeting that, otherwise, never materialised. Always the way: when you don’t want to see certain people there’s always a fly landing in your soup but when it’s roles reversed no one’s buzzing around. It’s true that two or three individuals offered me heaven and hell for a few rotten greens but one was a trembling turkey dressed up as a gypsy king and the other, in addition to cold cravings and dubious gypsy royalty, was a cheap whore. It’s terrible having to go down to the lowest rungs because of fucking addiction. I, Jaume Argentina i Vidals, also fell a fair few, even if it was on a different social ladder, during my hardest horse riding years. Never again. But let us leave both aspiration and its adjacent psychological terrain to one side: the universe was still the same universe, the sea still reeked of polluted sea, and the fires that the teenagers lit in the middle of the squares to illuminate their shady dealings still stank, as always, of dirty wood and greasy rags; of junk in flames, of dreams going up in smoke or coming true, for better or for worse, within the grotesque process of a common child delinquent’s ‘triumphal’ transformation into an adult trafficker in the ranks of an organisation.
                But socioeconomic theories are for those who earn a living from them: let us return to my particular emotional anguish because none of these profound reflections were going to get me a speck of dust. In that outright unrepeatable moment all the springs and rivers and seas and oceans were guiding the poor little fish towards the ineluctable hook. In the end, I decided to take a chance on a golden-haired gypsy girl with bright blue eyes who was leaning in the doorway of a miniscule cafébar. I went up to her and asked in Vallecas Spanish if she happened to know who might have a bit of you know what.
                ‘Ha ha! Come off it, snout face!’ she replied. ‘Lose a few pounds first before you come sniffing around!’
                It took me a moment to process the information correctly, giving her time to put the finishing touch to her meticulous description of my appearance.
                ‘You’ve never shot up in your fucking life! You reek so much of bacon even the stoolies are shitting their pants.’
                I was about to show her a few of the souvenirs I have for life on the epidermis of both forearms when a mixed couple stepping out and a male couple about to step in heard the last part and sent me packing towards the car with wild accordion laughter.
                While I was wondering whether to go mad or simply go home, sick of playing splat the rat with a blindfold, two morons of mishap approached, who the fish—by now, well and truly, out of the water—hadn’t detected on its radar. Let us just write it off as the price of the adventure because one thing is having been to war and quite another is returning to the front line ten or twenty years later. All things considered, I came out of it pretty well: the tiny, gaunt, hunchbacked one with the squirrel face positioned himself directly in my path with a bent Ducado between his lips and the eyes of a bragging murderer.
                ‘Giv me all yeh moneh or me partneh ere is gonna stab yeh wiv aids.’
                His marked accent awoke my dormant instinct, and after grabbing him by the shoulders and sending him flying into his ‘partneh’, i.e. the imbecile brandishing a needle in his right hand as though it were a Magnum, the kitchen sink drama was done and dusted before I’d even considered the consequences. The two pathetic stick up men were so meagre that they collapsed like a castle of toothpicks, interlocking limbs and squalor where they fell. And I, once again running on instinct, despite the little good it’d done me up until then, got going as calmly as possible under the circumstances towards the car to flee that waking nightmare. But just as I was drawing up to it, from a bar so nondescript that I hadn’t noticed it when I’d parked up, came a voice, a flamenco spirit’s delicious song that I knew well from gypsy Madrid: if that sonar tapestry wasn’t a bulería by Enrique, aka El Sardinita de San Lúcar, then my name has never been El Gaucho Catalán (Oh, Vallecas and its million meccas!). The bodega, or whatever its licence listed it as, if it even had one, was a long, thin animal pen divided into three sections on different levels. Directly opposite the entrance was the bar; three steps down and to the right of the audience were half a dozen tables pushed up against the wall forming a stalls of sorts; and at the back, at the same height as the entrance, sat the paradisiac stage. But Enrique, Quique, El Sardinita wasn’t on stage or among the tables but rather sat on the end of the bar top next to a wine barrel with a guitar swaying between his open legs.
                ‘Gauchooo! Don’t cry for me Argentinaaaaaa!’ he sang, leaping from the bar and throwing his guitar into the air. ‘Whereyabin?’
                He was celebrating the fact that after twenty longs years of art and hard graft, he’d managed to record an album.
                ‘Serious stuff, Gaucho,’ he kept repeating, evoking an expression of mine that became famous at Bailekas, the ‘establishment for the sale of alcoholic beverages’ that I ran for those three years as worthy of Kafka as they were of Madrid.
                He sincerely wanted to repay me the one hundred Prado-sized monkeys I’d coaxed off his back in exchange for a handful of private flamenco performances by buying me a glass of red wine to celebrate the album and then a spliff to commemorate the fact it would be a CD; in other words, eternal.
                It’s true that in that utterly unrepeatable moment, surrounded by El Sardinita’s human warmth, in turn surrounded by his two dozen friends (men and women of all ages celebrating the fact that one day of life is life, even for the downbeat), yes, in that Moment I discovered some discursive sense to the whole stupid Kafkaesque adventure preceding it, and for a moment, just one, it led me to question my original decision. It was as though a jigsaw puzzle had entered into that particular afternoon or even into the entirety of existence in general and that this were the Piece, precise and exact, that gave meaning to all the previous fishes out of water. But it’s also true that after a few wines, some fried fish, and more spliffs (vinillos and pescaíllos and chinillos, in Quique’s idiom), followed by more proud singing by the boldest cocks and more ritual dancing by the sweetest chicks, I was finally able to corner Sardi and convince him, between rails and joints, that if he really wanted to prove his friendship he had to get me a few grams of ‘ese asco,’ or ‘that filth,’ as he called it. But it’s also true—as true as death itself—that I didn’t tell him what I wanted it for. Fish in the ocean, fish out of the water, or in other words: night-night, sleep-tight.

Jordi CUSSÀ (Berga, 1961 – Berga, 2021) was a Catalan writer, translator and actor. Although he lived in Barcelona, Sant Cugat del Valles and Naples, he retained strong roots in his hometown of Berga, where he founded the Anonim Teatre in 1978. In the 1980s, he began writing short stories and his first novel WILD HORSES was published in 2000. It reflected his drug addiction that began in the 80s, and which he referred to as his ‘red years.’ The novel, like the ones to follow, was celebrated for its formal and linguistic innovations and, despite going out of print, it became a cult classic. In the early 2000s, he began to both write verse and translate writers from English into Catalan, among them John BOYNE, Truman CAPOTE, Patricia HIGHSMITH and Chuck PALAHNUIK. He also translated the poems of YEATS and SHAKESPEARE as well as the lyrics of Bob DYLAN, The BEATLES and Leonard COHEN. He died in 2021 at the age of 60.

Tiago MILLER (London, 1987) is a writer and translator based in Lleida. He has worked on translations of a number of Catalan writers, such as Pere CALDERS and Raul GARRIGASAIT and his articles on language, politics and literature have appeared in Nuvol and La Republica. His translation of Monserrat ROIG’s THE SONG OF YOUTH was published in English by Fum d’Estampa in 2021 to great critical acclaim.

Matthew TREE has lived in Barcelona since 1984 and writes in both English and Catalan. His 1999 short story collection—ELLA VE QUAN VOL—won the Andromina Award.


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