Joaquim Carbó, a Luxury

Pep Albanell

If I had to define Joaquim Carbó in just one word and taking into account my relationship with him spanning almost three decades, I'd unhesitatingly choose tolerance. He is, of all the people I know and have dealt with, the one whose behaviour is closest to the definition of this concept offered in the dictionary: "Willingness to accept in others a way of thinking, acting and being that differs from our own". In a tolerant person one assumes other qualities such as generosity, empathy and good feelings –the profile of what we might call a "good person". In Carbó's case these assumptions are true: he is a good person.

After such a categorical statement, I must hasten to add that, in my idea of a good person, there is no trace of any kind of moral and intellectual goody-goodyness and neither do I believe that good people should be exalted, or that they shouldn't be overcome by indignation, passion or rage when they are faced with behaviour that is abominable to their convictions or that attacks their rights. I believe that Carbó is a "good person" with quite clear ideas. At least, his are much clearer than those of many of us.

I'm not sure that there's any truth in what someone said one day, namely that good novels can't be written with good sentiments. Practically all of Joaquim Carbó's literature for children and young people –not to mention a good part of this genre written around the world in the twentieth century– is the empirical demonstration that this is some kind of wisecrack lacking any solid foundation. Like perversity or foolhardiness, good sentiments are no more nor less than literary raw material, and the quality of the resulting work depends on the use made of them or the treatment the author gives them.

All authors are, at bottom, partly our characters: we construct them with what we have or what we don't have, what we believe or what we don't believe, what we love or what we hate... This is why Joaquim Carbó, too, could say: "Henry Balua is me." Thus it happened that he created a kind of hero who is poles apart from the bold, intrepid swashbucklers of the traditional action novel, the champions or supermen of the traditional adventure story, but his is a hero who is just as interesting and electrifying as they are. He's given us gripping stories, meticulously constructed and inhabited by profoundly human, accessible, simple, honest characters that are committed to the world in which they live and, even when moving in faraway, exotic settings, they are very close to the reader. This is not about creating politically correct characters –sometimes they are not remotely that!– but humanly correct ones, which is quite another story. He may write with good sentiments but this doesn't mean that Carbó shuns the cruellest and most scabrous reality that surrounds him. On the contrary: rebellion against social injustice, analysis of conflicts of interest and the struggle for a dignified existence are also constants in all of Joaquim's books for children and young people.

However, this benevolent Carbó harbours a literary Mr. Hyde in his work for adults. All the things that his main characters for children and young people can't be are, in contrast (and perhaps by way of compensation), the things that the characters in his adult literature can be. If Carbó's literature for children tends to be populated by fighters for a cause and idealists, in his literature for "adults" one finds a profusion of characters who, half-victims and half-tormentors, are moving around in the doltishness and injustice of their social and moral milieu. Carbó presents us with a bountiful gallery of selfish, stubborn, narrow-minded and often hapless people, served up under the warping prism of corrosive, implacable humour. The stories, which tend to take place in our society and in our circles, are not built up around complex plots or great intrigues. They tend to be chronicles of quite run-of-the-mill occurrences where the characters, bitterly aware of their limitations, struggle to escape the paltry defeats that –far from the tragic grandeur of the truly vanquished– turn them into the very antithesis of the hero: petty, soiled and irredeemable. The vicissitudes of these non-winners are described not so much with humour as with merciless irony, with sarcasm that can even turn sadistic.

I was still living in La Seu d'Urgell when I read Carbó's first work Un altre tropic [Another Tropic], winner of the Joan Santamaria Prize for the Short Story. I was very impressed with the ductile expressive language he used to transport the reader to a box at the Liceu Opera House, sitting next to some girls and their male companions who are there for the first –and perhaps the only– time in their lives. In this text, one of the first he published, one can already divine his original weapons: a mocking realism that confronts his characters with their own social obfuscation and moral pettiness, which reflect in turn a society scraping by in the stultifying, asphyxiating atmosphere of the post-war years. I went looking and found some other writings of his, especially stories: La sortida i l'entrada [Exit and Entry], Solucions provisionals [Provisional Solutions], Amb una precisió fantàstica [With Fantastic Precision], and the novels L'escapada [The Escapade], El carreró contra Còssima [The Anti-Còssima Alley], Els orangutans [The Orangutans], and S'ha acabat el bròquil [We're out of Broccoli]...

Then, now that we've met, I've naturally read all the rest of his work, amongst which, apart from his regular contributions to the Ofèlia Dracs Collective, I'd like to draw attention to two small volumes of very short short stories, which he calls "bonsais". In writing them, he forced himself to stick to an exact number of lines, or words, in which the containment, the expressive capacity and narrative precision come together to give, in all probability, the best examples of what we might call the "Carbó style".

Let us go back to the sixties. In those years, social realism predominated in the mainland literary milieu: not very complicated plots, scant transcendentalism and not much reflection. The task was to reveal the world –especially that of the lower and least privileged classes– as it was, free of adornments and philosophising. In Catalonia, the incisive, combative and committed realism of the main Spanish-language writers became, in part of the Catalan school, a grey, contemporising realism, lacking any dramatic bite and, more than once and in more than one author, mimetic.

In this setting, Carbó's realist writing stood out for its nihilist touches and power of revulsion. There were times when I had the impression that Carbó was harsh with his characters as if he was hoping that, in reaction, it would be the reader who would rebel against his creatures and the lives they led. Nonetheless, when you least expected it, through some twist in the story, a tender touch would appear, almost performing the function of a mirage in the middle of the rough, hostile labyrinth of a badly made world.

I believe that the Catalan cultural establishment is in debt to this important part of Carbó's work, which was not properly understood at the time and is not sufficiently recognised today. However, for some years now, Joaquim Carbó, as if he were giving another turn of the screw to that exacerbating and even vexing realism that he wielded to divulge the moral paucity of the world in which we live, and to reveal to us the less worthy aspects of ourselves, has once again been offering a particular vision of the world and its denizens, their vices and virtues and the cultural manifestations of all this. He doesn't do this through narrative but employing what he calls "not fiction" in texts that combine the sociological essay, discursive memory and personal diary.

It is likely that there are few people in the country who are as up-to-date as he is with what is being published, what is being premiered on the stage or screen, what is being performed and what is being exhibited in Barcelona. I have the sensation that there hasn't been a single interesting show in Barcelona in recent years that he and his companion, Rosa, haven't seen. His cultural references are, then, superabundant and very rich. In these texts into which he has recently been pouring his creative impulses, Carbó talks about what he knows, what he imagines and what he has seen. He speaks of himself, his social and cultural milieu, his present, and his mediate and immediate story. And he does so with exemplary grace and naturalness. I don't know where I get this idea but I am sure that these recent works of his stem from his great contribution in the world of literature for children and young people. At least the first two manifestations of this hybrid genre are directly related with it. I refer to the commemorative volume Joaquim Carbó, setanta anys, un centenar de títols, un milió d'exemplars [Joaquim Carbó: Seventy Years, a Hundred Titles, a Million Copies] in which he reproduces the answers he tends to give to the questions asked by girls and boys on his school visits. Moreover, the book offers a comment on each of his titles published at that point (2002), together with an appendix with all the articles published in the press. The other work is La caritat explicada als joves [Charity Explained to Youngsters], which was published by Columna in 2004.

Nevertheless, it is in Un disset de maig [One Seventeenth of May] 2005) that Carbó's talent for viewing reality with a critical yet sensitive eye is most patently and brilliantly displayed. With the pretext of writing a chronicle of one day, any old day, Carbó portrays, recalls, reflects, recovers and reinvents his, which is to say our, everyday reality. The other –as yet unpublished– text of this ilk is titled, if I'm not mistaken, Viure amb els ulls [Living with Eyes], in which he reviews everything that has given him life, that has impassioned him, interested him, disgusted him, made him indignant... This is pure, crystallised Carbó.

It is a luxury to be able to enjoy his work and his friendship.

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