The dead bee that stings

Juan Marsé, who died aged 87 on July 18, was widely considered Spain’s finest contemporary novelist. His great subject was the defeated Barcelona of his 1940s childhood. “No post-war ever had a better poet,” wrote Manuel Vázquez Montalbán.

Marsé made his name with Últimas tardes con Teresa, still his best-known book MARSÉ’S DIRECT, REALIST STYLE HAS FEW GLITTERING METAPHORS
A native Catalan speaker, he wrote in Spanish, language of his schooling HE WON MULTIPLE PRIZES, INCLUDING THE PLANETA AND THE CERVANTES

Many of his 16 novels chronicle the blighted lives of children in the barren landscape after the Spanish Civil War. In Si te dicen que caí (1973, translated to English as The Fallen), traumatised adolescents are obsessed by violence in a morally and socially degraded city. The kids play at detectives, following strangers and returning to their hide-out to tell what they had seen and then invent the rest. Marsé does not just show the sordid realism of the epoch, but the imagination of these children. He is nostalgic for their future, lost before it arrives. Banned in Spain by the Franco dictatorship, Si te dicen que caí was first published in Mexico.

Broken by defeat

Ronda del Guinardó (1984), El embrujo de Shanghai (1993, translated as Shanghai Nights), Rabos de Lagartija (2000, translated as Lizard Tails), winner of the National Narrative Prize, Caligrafía de los sueños (2011, translated as The Calligraphy of Dreams) and Esa puta tan distinguida (2016, translated as The Snares of Memory just last year) all return to this post-war period. The children fantasise with escape from poverty to glamorous worlds glimpsed in the neighbourhood cinema: beautiful men and women, foreign adventures and large cars. In reality, mothers are driven to prostitution and ex-anarchist fathers are absent, either in jail or shadowy figures flitting between Toulouse exile and Barcelona, unable to trust anyone and themselves no longer trustworthy.

In one of his best novels, Un día volveré (1982), Jan Julivert returns home after 12 years in jail. Broken by defeat, he just wants to live in peace, but the kids idolise the former anarchist, dreaming he’s going to dig up his buried pistol, settle old scores and put the world back on its axis.

Marsé made his name with Últimas tardes con Teresa (1965), still his best-known book. He invented the iconic Manolo the Pijoaparte (untranslatable, but something like the ’Far-from-posh guy’), a petty thief living precariously in a Carmel slum. The novel, with Marsé’s habitual mix of sardonic humour and tragedy, explains the clash of the Pijoaparte, a migrant from southern Spain, and the upper-class student Teresa, whom he meets after gate-crashing a Midsummer Night’s party. The rebellious Teresa is drawn to the ’exotic’ immigrant; while the Pijoaparte wants sex, money and a better life. Different social classes and different national backgrounds (Spanish and Catalan) meet on exciting rides up the coast on stolen motorbikes, but in reality these two parallel worlds brush together without really meeting.

Visual memory

Marsé’s direct, realist style has few glittering metaphors or purple patches. His realism, though, is not narrow, for it includes his characters’ dreams and desires. His “visual memory” (phrase coined by his great friend, the writer and publisher Carlos Barral) enabled him to accumulate layers of detail that create intensity. Memory is “the dead bee that stings” as he wrote, memorably, in Noticias felices en aviones de papel (2014).

A native Catalan speaker, Marsé wrote in Spanish, the language of his schooling, though his prose is spattered with Catalanisms. These contribute to the dense, local taste of his books. He won multiple prizes, including the Planeta in 1978 for La muchacha de las bragas de oro, about an old fascist who after Franco’s death pretends to have been a life-long democrat. In 2008 he was awarded the Cervantes, the first Catalan to receive Spain’s annual prize for a lifetime’s body of work. Eight of his novels have been filmed. Several critics compare him with his admired Faulkner and the comparison is not entirely inflated, as it suggests not just literary quality, but profound immersion in a local area, in Marsé’s case the Barcelona neighbourhoods of Guinardó, Carmel and Gràcia, and the struggle for dignity after defeat in war.


In the mid-70s he became one of the editors of the anti-Franco satirical magazine, Por favor. Combative against injustice and pretension, the quick-tongued Marsé was known for his lethally frank comments. The three main targets of his wit and rhetoric were the church (“this gang of shameless thieves”), social-climbing intellectuals and nationalists of all stripes, whether Catalan or Spanish (“I don’t need any flag. I’m happy enough with my garden”). His vehemence may make him seem loud-mouthed, but in fact he was a laconic man. It was just that, when someone asked him what he thought, he replied sincerely. His translator to English, Nick Caistor, told me: “He was quick-tempered but very generous, with a wicked sense of humour.”

Inevitably, Marsé’s provocative criticisms of Catalan nationalists led to public spats. He attacked writers like Baltasar Porcel whom he saw as earning good money by becoming officially backed spokespeople for Catalan culture. And he criticised nationalist politicians like Jordi Pujol for hiding their deficiencies and corruption under a flag. Some readers will differ, but I have always enjoyed the “wicked sense of humour” of these attacks on a ruling class.

Yet, his criticisms of the Catalan normalisation programme and on institutional support for Catalan, which led him to sign the Foro Babel manifesto in the 1990s, are surely misplaced. Despite his rejection of Franco and Spanish nationalism, he was allying himself with Spanish nationalists who falsely assert that Catalan schools discriminate against Castilian. And his recent attacks on the independence process placed him alongside the Spanish right. A referendum on independence is a democratic right.

We have these great novels: essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Catalonia.



Juan Marsé was adopted by Pep Marsé and Berta Carbó, small farmers from southern Catalonia, after the death postpartum of his biological mother. Both his biological and adoptive fathers were members of Estat Català, a right-wing independentist group – a historical irony, for Marsé was to be leftist and a fierce opponent of Catalan separatism. He spent his early years, often with his grandparents, in the village of Sant Jaume dels Domenys, near Tarragona. Though he never wrote much about the country-side, his ideal of the good life was to sit on a bench in a garden. In later years he had a house at Calafell where he tended his orange trees.

In Gràcia after the war, his father worked sporadically and his mother struggled financially. At the age of 13, Marsé was apprenticed to a jeweller. In the mid-50s, nurtured by an epistolary relationship with a Catalan writer resident in Sevilla, Paulina Crusat, he began to submit stories and articles to literary and film magazines and in 1960 his first published novel, Encerrados con un solo juguete, brought him into contact with the upper-class anti-Franco circles.

He was for many of them the rough diamond, the worker auto-didact, a role he rejected. With some, he formed friendships that lasted all their lives: with Vázquez Montalbán, also from a poor background, with the aristocratic poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, and with Carlos Barral.

He had written much of his first novel on military service in Ceuta, after which he spent three years in Paris from 1959. The germ, he said, for Últimas tardes con Teresa came from these classes, for the young upper-class women were extremely interested in his stories (“I exaggerated them,” Marsé said) of immigrants and petty criminals in the slums. Back in Barcelona, he joined the underground Communist Party in 1962, but left four years later.

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