Tragedy in the Cathedral
Favourite for a Palafrugell literary prize in 1905, Josafat was then rejected because of its immorality. Its publication a year later caused an enormous scandal due to its anticlericalism and sex descriptions. It is now Prudenci Bertrana’s best-known book
Prudenci Bertrana was militantly Republican and anticlerical JOSAFAT IS A NOVEL OF GREAT POWER AND RICH, ORIGINAL LANGUAGE
Josafat is a slim novel, but satisfyingly slow in its development, as Bertrana describes Girona cathedral, where the novel is set, and the dress, expressions and smells – it’s a very smell-sensory book – of his three main characters.
Today it would also be rejected for its sexual content, though not for the same reasons. In 1906 polite society found writing about sex in the cathedral belfry disgracefully unacceptable. Now, the problem is that Bertrana’s portrayal of Fineta, the city prostitute who ensnares the huge, rough country boy Josafat, seems unreal male fantasy. Fineta loves to be hit by him: “she wanted brutality in the pitch-black animal embraces.” She is the Catholic Church’s devilish female, provoking with her “shimmering tresses” a man into sin; “frenzied woman… she cast off her clothes and, writhing like a bacchante, sent her faun into a delirious haze. She was his teacher, gradually initiating him into perversion.”
Prudenci Bertrana was militantly Republican and anticlerical. In his harsh story of ignorant people, he places the blame for their fates clearly on the Church. The priests exploit the innocent Josafat, while being hypocritically willing to themselves take Fineta into their beds. His anticlericalism, though, did not reach as far as rejecting the Church’s view of woman as temptress. Fineta is the classically false picture of a prostitute who loves perverted sex.
How are we to fit this in with the book’s position as a Catalan classic?
First, it is a novel of great power. Bertrana achieves this by a structure as tightly built as the great ashlars and hidden buttresses of the cathedral. The myth of the Beauty and the Beast and its setting – like The Hunch-back of Notre-Dame, a dark Gothic building for a Gothic tale – contribute to the inevitability of the lovers’ fate. Josafat is a religious fanatic. After he assaults an atheist in the street for refusing to remove his beret before an image of Christ, the priests, fearful of law-suits, seclude him in the cathedral as bell-ringer and caretaker. Josafat is tortured by his sexual feelings, which are suppressed by his religious beliefs. He sees the only solution as marriage to Pepona, a childhood sweetheart, now Fineta’s colleague in prostitution. Alas, Pepona is not interested and the tragedy unfolds.
Second, it is a novel of rich, original language. Bertrana abandons the pompous written Catalan of the time to draw close to the vernacular actually spoken in the Girona area. Peter Bush, in his introduction, compares Bertrana to Josep Pla and Caterina Albert, all three modernisers of Catalan literature. Bertrana does not simplify vocabulary: there are many sophisticated descriptions. What he avoids is flourish and adornment for their own sakes.
Prudenci Bertrana was born in Tordera in 1867 and died, depressed by Franco’s victory, in Barcelona in November, 1941. Happiness did not pursue him. Three of his children died in the 1890s (his daughter Aurora survived to become a well-known novelist).
He was hounded out of Girona by both the Josafat scandal and a pamphlet he co-wrote attacking General Álvarez Castro, hero of the Girona besieged by Napoleon’s troops, as schizophrenic. Moving to Barcelona, he could never establish himself as a successful writer. He worked as journalist and painter and in the 1920s edited the anticlerical and Republican L’Esquella de la Torratxa, a satirical magazine based in Gràcia.
Josafat is Bertrana’s best-known novel. He was also the author of Violeta, never published in his lifetime and only seeing the light in 2013, and Jo! Memòries d’un metge filòsof (1925), in which he attacked his former friend Dídac Ruiz, the director of the mental asylum at Salt and his collaborator on the Álvarez Castro pamphlet.
He published several volumes of short stories that have a high reputation. Indeed, Josafat is little longer than a long short story. As Quim Monzó is wont to say, why add and pad to make a novel, when the story can be told in five pages?
2017 was Bertrana year in Catalonia, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Prudenci’s birth and the 125th of Aurora’s. Not a bad moment to remember the literature and politics of two lifelong Republicans.