23rd June 2024
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Book review: ‘Homage to Barcelona’ – by Colm Tóibín

This is the ideal book for anyone coming to live in Catalunya who wants to tune into the nature of the place, to familiarise themselves with major cultural trends and forces at work in this part of the world.

It covers many aspects of life in Barcelona between the early 1970s and the Olympic year of 1992, as well as several major towns and festivals around the area, along with historical sections on what has made Catalunya distinct, and other sections on significant artists of the 19th and 20th centuries, altogether composing a wonderful symphony with these many notes at play.

You will discover corners of Barcelona that have changed radically since ’92 and others that have remained much the same over centuries; long-ago and recent events that have shaped the local consciousness, general character, attitudes and expectations, as well as artists, politicians, activists and ordinary people of very diverse bents and backgrounds.

Colm Tóibín, a much-recognised writer of both fiction and non-, came to Barcelona from Dublin in his early twenties with little knowledge of where he had landed and nothing but his voracious curiosity, energy and talent to guide him.

He has since spent long stretches of time in the city and witnessed some of the most significant events and transformations. He arrived, as I did, at a time when the Catalan language was still banned from public use and was usually only heard among friends and family. Many people had to learn to write it once Franco died and books, newspapers and magazines were published again in the language.

Tóibín began learning and using the language early on and has obviously become very proficient, as well as highly knowledgeable about the main cultural icons. He was present at early demonstrations demanding autonomy, and at events where important changes were celebrated and singers of la Nova Cançó performed. He attended traditional festivals in Barcelona and other towns such as Verges and Berga where fire and noise are important elements, and you must have a great tolerance for both to get into the thick of things. He goes to the city of Girona and briefly to the Costa Brava and the Maresme, all so closely connected to Barcelona and frequent destinations for people who live here.

He not only takes you to the Picasso Museum and Miró Foundation in Barcelona and the Dalí Museum in Figueres, but also dedicates chapters to each artist, their connections to the city, artistic development, and distinct personal and political natures. He is irreverent and critical where called for, as in the case of Dalí certainly, and highly respectful of the careers and stances of the other two major artists.

He also goes back to the magnificent Catalan Romanesque, and describes the preservation of the powerful murals now to be seen in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) on Montjuïc. He touches on music, with figures such as Pau Casals, who exiled himself over the border in France, or the singers Josep Carreras and Montserrat Caballé, who appeared at significant events outside the Liceu opera house. And of course, he covers the flowering of architecture and design in and around Barcelona, with the extension of the city into the ‘Eixample’ and the wonderful buildings put up with the support of local patrons, as well as public money. In every case, Tóibín shows the deep connections these creative figures felt to their Catalan roots.

This book provides a highly readable account of the resurgence of Barcelona in the 19th and early 20th centuries, through the development and automation of the textile industry, as well as the production of steel, wine and cork. The first railways were built. Modernista architecture related to movements in other parts of Europe sprang up all over, designed not only by Gaudí but also by others such as Puig i Cadafalch – and Domenech i Montaner who did the spectacular Palau de la Música.

There was flourishing literature as well as a newspaper in Catalan. There was a strong cultural consciousness in general, and Tóibín points out that the Great Exhibition of 1888 ‘set about putting Barcelona on the map of the world’. In addition, in sport, the now-famous Barça football club was established, and the ‘excursionista’ movement began, which continues today, with the idea of going out hiking and getting to know the Catalan countryside. These were all elements that went into making the city we know today.

Even in the late 19th century, there was a movement for a federal Spain and Catalan autonomy which was joined by prominent artists and architects. During the Republic, in the early 1930s, there was a referendum on autonomy, and Catalan became an official language. Tóibín points out, moreover, that, despite being a Spanish speaker from Andalusia, Federico García Lorca was much loved in the city for his plays, poetry and drawings which were exhibited in a prominent gallery.

Spending on public health and education increased greatly, and the promise of a new and fairer society was strong. In 1936, ‘alternative Olympic Games’ were planned, in opposition to those to be held in then-Nazi Berlin. All this was cut short by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing long dictatorship.

Tóibín’s writing is superb, light and flowing and richly descriptive, informative as well as emotive and personal.  The book is not long, but touches on so many features both historical and contemporary, that you will come out far more aware of what is around you, no matter how familiar you may be with certain aspects of life in Catalunya.

With some knowledge of the historical references and living memories of Catalan people, from Medieval struggles to the wrenching Civil War and the effects of the long repression – which recent events show us have still not been aired and discussed enough – you will gain a better view of what underlies current trends and emotions.

Tóibín has tremendous respect and fondness for the general character of pragmatism, warmth, hard work, enjoyment of life, sociability, modernity and openness that he has found in and around Barcelona, while recognising that the countryside is of course somewhat different, as it is everywhere.

I would only question his lack of recognition of the degree to which some of the bourgeoisie took advantage of the dark Franco years for their own gain, though that of course is a feature also present everywhere we find repression. But Tóibín concentrates on the positive, as even in the early 1970s when he arrived ‘Barcelona was changing then … People lived in a free country of their own invention …’ It is the restless and creative people, the movers and groovers, the seekers, inventors and builders of a modern society that interest him and, I daresay, us as well. Not forgetting, either, the wonderful food, restaurants, bars and markets we all enjoy along with our Catalan friends and neighbours.

If you like, you can read ‘Homage to Barcelona’ more as a guidebook and pick up some good tips and perceptive observations on everyday life, things to do and experience. But no matter how closely you read it, you will end up knowing many things that will serve you well in your life here, and likely inspire you to be involved in the language and culture.

Homage to Barcelona – First published 1990, revised and updated edition published 2002.

ALSO READ: Book Review: ‘The Barcelona Connection’ – a crime-thriller by Tim Parfitt.

ALSO READ: Book review: ‘A People’s History of Catalonia’ by Michael Eaude.

ALSO READ: Book review: ‘Us with Us’ – a year long sojourn in Cadaqués.

If you would like to write a review of a specific book related to Spain, please email: editorial@spainenglish.com

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