Who I Am and Why I Write
Years ago, St Michael's Fair in Lleida marked the change of the annual cycle. September was drawing to a close, there were almost no fruit or vegetables left, the terrible summer was petering out and school was starting. Neither Christmas nor New Year constituted significant dates in Saidí. The festivities of Our Lady of the Pillar in Praga were limited to funfair rides that terrified me. The Saidí ones, though familiar, were even strange. For me, there was nothing to compare with St Michael's Fair, for everything that could exist in the world came to the Camps Elisis fairgrounds. "Camps Elisis" sounded exalted, even before I knew the word "exalted".
Sometimes I went Friday, Saturday and Sunday. When St Michael came round you had to make the most of it because in Saidí there was little else to see. I went with my family or relatives or with the parents of one of my friends. I'd say they were the happiest days of the year. We kids jumped from one cabin to another the whole afternoon, from a car to a van, to tractors, trucks, excavators, and went back home with pockets full of balloons, caramels and key rings. There were always one or two who, when they got back to Saidí, had some trophy to show off: tyre valve or oil inlet caps, cigarette lighters from cars and tractors, or any piece that could quickly be pulled off and tucked away out of sight, for example a gear stick knob.
Once I went with Bernat and his father. Bernat and I are the same age but, until we were grown up, he always made two of me. We went from one pavilion to another, meeting up with other kids from Saidí, stuffing ourselves with the fruit they gave us because it was going off on the display shelves. We played around the whole afternoon and had such a good time that by the time we reached the car we were ready to drop. Once there, he showed me everything he had in his pockets, lighters and caps, just as we had seen the previous day with other kids.
I recall all the details, the caps and the lighters, his father's car, the place where we stopped and that no longer exists because they've widened the road, the screech of sudden braking and how his father made a detour on to a track. He was hopping mad. Where had that come from? His father took it all, wound down the window and threw it out. "Thief!" he roared. Bernat pissed his pants, wetting the seat but his father didn't even tell him off, as if he were just waiting to get home. There was I, looking on and keeping my mouth shut: I didn't have it in me to say anything, couldn't think of anything to say in his defence.
When I got home, I said I had a stomach ache and went off to bed. The next day, Bernat showed me marks, red welts on his thighs and back, and several bruises, marks of a belt. There were people who knew about it in the village but no one ever said a word. I, who was always haunted by this thing, started to see his father, him and his family with new eyes. I never went back to his house again.
I'd almost forgotten this story but, not long ago, I went back to Saidí and saw Bernat's son with his legs covered in bruises. How they got there I wouldn't know, but perhaps everyone knows about it and no one says a word. Maybe he got them playing. I'll never know.
Almost thirty years have gone by since those first bruises and I've come across dozens of similar scenes in books and films. When asked why I write, stories like this come into my head, things that everyone knows and yet, at the same time, no one knows anything about them; things that have been written about thousands of times already and that can still be written about again; things that have happened and will happen again; things that are what they seem and yet are much more than what they are; but that, in particular, make us wonder what is the story behind Bernat's son's bruises. Why do I write? I believe the answer lies somewhere along the trajectory that goes from books to experiences but, in fact, all I find there are approximations and I'm not sure if I'd know how to respond without writing yet another text that also requires explanation. I tried to get closer to these terrains with my first books, in Els ventres de la terra [The Bellies of the Earth], L'arbre sense tronc [The Tree without a Trunk] and Una llengua de plom [A Tongue of Lead]. With the what and the how there has to be a why as well. Did I pull it off? It hurts to say, yes and no, the picture is always partial, blurry and out of focus. But, for all that, it's mine.
When asked who I am, I'm at a loss, again, about how to come up with a definite answer that goes beyond what one might find in any official document or the clichés in a curriculum vitae. I know where I come from, that much yes. Among other places, from Saidí, from the road running from Saidí to Lleida, from Lleida to Barcelona, from Barcelona to Balenyà and, from here, to Olot and Sallent. It's very difficult to define who one is because one is not simply that in only one way, and time modifies in some or other manner the direction of events and thoughts. The second lot of books I've written and that I haven't finalised yet is situated precisely here. I've been finding the characters that appear in La força de la gravetat [Force of Gravity] or La matèria primera [Raw Material] in places like those in which I've lived and I've listened to their stories, have worked with their arguments and have covered their settings. Now, when I'm still working on Els camps de força [Force Fields], a book set between Saidí and Alcarràs, I believe I'm not the same person who wrote Els ventres de la terra. The books share settings and, even, to a small extent, time. What is no longer the same is the author.
While I'm wondering what I have to do to finish this last book, I've been writing theatre, some stories, the Contes russos [Russian Stories] which take place, as the title says, in Russia. In the case of theatre, in Caure amunt [Falling Up], I'm talking about an I that is us and a past that could very well be present. In these stories, of the lives of small people in a very big country, I don't know to what extent they could be of big people in a small country. It seems I haven't moved very far from Bernat's bruises or the bend where his father braked.
When I used to go St Michael's Fair, I kept an eye out for foreign exhibitors, the Czechs with the Zetor, Emilia Romagna's fruit, or the kiwis – in those days something exotic – from New Zealand. The world's got bigger and also closer, time moves faster and the future's more uncertain: almost thirty years have gone by and I've gone with them. I think that writing is possessing and sharing some of the trophies the world lets you pull off. The valve caps, a few lighters or a gear stick knob don't amount to much. Yet there are always the bruises.
Els ventres de la terra received a few but eulogistic reviews which concurred in pointing out the maturity of Francesc Serés' aesthetic project. In one article, revealingly titled "L'essència de l'home" [The Essence of Man], Francesc Guerrero quickly and rightly attributed the singular texture of the prose to three factors related with the author's education: his studies in Anthropology and in Fine Arts plus his deep knowledge of a landscape peopled by characters inspired by experience. His attention to detail is in keeping with a way of understanding literature that aspires to kindle aesthetic feeling without forsaking reflection on the human condition. All of this starts out from a knowledge of the world that is committed to life, his own and those of others. Francesc Serés consciously shuns parochial preciousness, for example the more or less successful urban fads that were thriving at the time he was writing.
L'arbre sense tronc enjoyed wider recognition that focused its praise on the naturalness and density of Francesc Serés' prose with the variation that it was noted that the narrative structure reflected greater mastery of literary tools. In a piece titled "Els llocs i els altres" [Places and Others], Ponç Puigdevall highlights such devices as the use of ellipsis to "offer the reader surprising perspectives on the world". Manel Ollé observes that distancing from the domains of obviousness means "forgoing any reproduction of schemes or archetypes or linking events in a well-worked argument". Although the book is divided into three parts headed by the canonical denomination of the parts of a story – "Presentation", "Core" and "Denouement" – Francesc Serés avoids precisely the narrative trunk and weaves his plot directly from roots to branches. An "ironic sophistry" in the words of Jordi Puntí. The life of Assís, the main character, is intuited on the basis of a few significant moments revolving around two constant themes: how the landscape imposes its authority to perpetuate a certain way of life, and how the conflictive relationship between urban world and rural world undermines this authority.
Francesc Serés achieves his apogee of narrative complexity and aesthetic risk with Una llengua de plom. A certain epic of everyday reality proceeding from the previous works spreads through a mesh of stories where the presence of others and the settings resemble a series of high-resolution photos. The density and precision of style make it possible to blow them up without fear of pixellation that will render them indecipherable. With this book came definitive and unanimous recognition of Serés as one of the most solid and ambitious writers of the contemporary Catalan literary scene. Thirteen stories numbered in inverse order, each one protected by a text titled with the expression "onion paper" preceded by the corresponding ordinal, as if in a photo album.
Indeed, photography is another tool that Francesc Serés has worked with in order to capture the territory of his first three novels which have finally been brought together in a single volume De fems i de marbres [On Manures and Marbles]. A visit to his website shows how this has become part of the process of grasping a particular experience in order to construct a literary territory, his Saidí, in the style of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County or Juan Benet's Región. However, his main tool is language, and attentive, critical reading of his literary tradition gives Francesc Serés the style that makes possible a trilogy where commitment to the people and landscapes of ancient memory find a way to make literature endure.
After the dense, mythical prose of De fems i de marbres, the appearance of Força de la gravetat – winner of the "Serra d'Or" Critics' Prize 2007 – represented a risky yet successful change that disoriented some readers. In one interview, Serés tells Lluís Bonada that, "in changing themes, I wanted to change the style as I didn't want to be the slave of any one particular style". This book of short stories shares with the previous works attention to run-of-the-mill stories that become singular when transformed into literary material. However, the landscape of the book is still Catalonia, a country where everything requires more effort, as if the force of gravity were greater here than elsewhere in the world. The time is present. The fragility of the human being and the need to look after others are the two themes that entwine throughout the book, with stories dominated by the landscape that describes the boundary zone between city and countryside, the industrial outskirts where people try to scratch a living in a setting that imposes harsh laws, often marking the body forever.
The style seems simpler, with pared down, essential prose but, as Xavier Pla sagely points out, "Serés is a formidable sentence constructor and the rhythm of this sentence of his, which is complex and sinuous, and at times very long and elastic, is directly related with his very personal way of describing the world".
La matèria primera – winner of the National Prize for Literature, 2008 – is an even more radical step in this direction. Serés takes on a genre, the chronicle, to which he contributes his own literary baggage. On the basis of a number of interviews moving along the track that leads from person to character, comes the creation of a verisimilitude that emanates from the text itself. It is not so much a matter of being true to reality as creating a work that is able to convey the singularity of a kind of story that seems familiar to us, one we've heard many times with all sorts of variations but to which this book restores all its complexity with a critical, sensitive gaze that does not shrink from reflection on present-day Catalonia. This collection of twenty-four stories is more barbed than the preceding book: the theme is how people – the country's raw material – earn a living. This is a difficult subject that requires a lot of security in the literary tools employed. In this regard, Sam Abrams stresses "the courage and human, intellectual and artistic dignity of taking on this Catalonia and minutely portraying it without makeup or subterfuge".
Els camps de força is still in the pipeline, as yet unpublished and it deals with immigration in the western zone of Catalonia, along the lines of La matèria primera. However, it does not look as if it will be the end of a closed trilogy. Although it could perfectly fit into La força de la gravetat, in the story "Morir a Barcelona" [Dying in Barcelona], which was published in 2009, the narrator says, "I still don't understand anything. Sometimes I think it's because there's nothing to understand, that the whole thing's a story with no lesson at the end, that it has a lot of lessons but it all depends on the moment when I go back to read everything that happened, and that's the same as not having any."
Yet in order to get to the point of not understanding anything, he's had to feel close to people, to delve into their thoughts and turn them into literature, to grow morally between identification with his own inquietudes and the necessary distancing in order not to lose perspective.
The risk taken with the work Caure amunt. Muntaner, Llull and Roig [Falling Up: Muntaner, Llull and Roig] also surprised readers. On this occasion the gamble lies in the fact of Francesc Serés' use of stage drama as a critical approach to the literary tradition without relinquishing, however, the central themes of his work. If Serés has shown affinity with some writers through the incorporation and re-elaboration of themes, quotes and formal resources, as a playwright he is directly inquiring into the transmission of historic memory and the value of cultural and literary heritage.
His central characters are three classical medieval authors, each one of which is facing a decisive moment in his life: Ramon Muntaner is defending his way of writing History; Ramon Llull is suffering because of his disciples' attempts at manipulation and Jaume Roig is struggling against the imposition of a certain way of understanding honour and appearances. The three situations raise very up-to-date issues about the relation between the individual and the pressures of power which, terrestrial or divine, comes down from the highest orders to enter the most intimate milieu of the characters: family, friends, lovers and disciples. As Lluís Muntada aptly notes, this is "a book that employs the palimpsest, deformation and a constant exercise of working on the materials of the tradition to make it seem – as Shklovsky says – as if what has always been familiar is experienced for the first time".
Contes russos is an even chancier and, in particular, playful venture when it comes to questioning the way in which literary heritage is handed down. This is an anthology of probable Russian stories in which we find, for example, the story that gives rise to the title La força la gravetat: "La guerra contra els voromians" [The War Against the Voromirians], set in a region where the force of gravity is greater than elsewhere in the world and that therefore suffers the full weight of Soviet-style repression. These stories have enjoyed an extended process of writing and revision, so that it is hardly surprising that there is a rapport between the themes dealt with by the possible Russian writers and those running through the writing of Francesc Serés. This would be, then, a marginal tradition in the history of Russian literature that Serés creates and appropriates. The spatial, temporal and aesthetic difference shapes a chronotopos the verisimilitude of which emanates from the writing, fruit of passionate reading and the desire for emulation.
The sense of humour with which he writes the presentation for each author, pulling together all sorts of journalistic and encyclopaedic clichés, along with a mesh of literary allusions, starting from his own work and extending to writers he admires, highlights the jocular feel of the operation. This stance contrasts, however, with the drama affecting many of the characters. The disparity is effective as a stimulus for invoking a clear moral concern without, however, falling into the trap of Sunday-School indoctrination: the everyday epic, the fragility of people in a hostile environment, the strategies of certain kinship and production structures for surviving revolutions and disasters, the relationship between the individual and power, and so on, are universal themes that find, in this book, a precise way of lucidly opening up new questions.
Becoming in Progress
The epigraphs "Becoming Language", "Becoming Man" and "Becoming Literature" do not suggest completed stages of an evolution but rather aspire to emphasise the predominating tone in a particular period of Francesc Serés' work, on the clear understanding that all three are always present. The appropriateness of the language for each of the literary genres he has cultivated, the ethical commitment ranging from analysis of personal experience to literary creation and lucid dialogue with tradition are, until now, the most outstanding features of Francesc Serés' work. This is certainly a meagre framework for describing an exceptional career but fortunately it is one that is provisional with this work-in-progress that is open to as-yet unsuspected stimuli.