On July 11th last, Jordi Cussà i Balaguer passed away at the age of 60 in his native town of Berga. Now, I’m not such a fool that I don’t know that many if not most readers will be thinking or even mouthing ’Who?’ or – the more callous among you - ’So what?’ So let’s start with the who. Jordi was a Catalan language poet, novelist, playwright, translator and theatre director. As for what he wrote, how he wrote and the impact he had on his readers, we’ll get onto that in a moment.
Because for me, above all, Jordi was a friend, and I don’t mean one of those friends you get on OK with and chat to from time to time, I mean a full-on, no-taboo-subjects, always-picking-up-exactly-where-we-left-off friend. We presented each other’s books together (both in Berga and Barcelona), we drank together – both being drinkers – and talked about everything under the sun, at length. However, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to convey the nature of a true friendship – that meshing of two often very different temperaments into a close, genuine attachment. So, as I said, I’ll move onto his work.
As he was one of the very few translators who was able to render slang-rich authors like Chuck Palaniuk into credible Catalan, I asked him where he’d learnt English – a language he had all but complete mastery of - and the answer was, well, unexpected: he was an autodidact who had started off by taking a single volume of Shakespeare’s complete works and working his way through it with a dictionary. After which effort, he moved on to dozens of more accessible texts as well as keeping his ears open for colloquial expressions and street slang.
Of which he knew quite a lot because throughout the 1980s he’d been a junky and drug dealer. I assumed that he must, therefore have been a fan of the Beat Generation, but he found them dull, and preferred Homer, Sophocles, Sappho, Plato and Aristotle, and ancient Greek literature in general.
Which is why his range of subject matter is so broad and diverse: two of his masterpieces – as might well be expected - are based on his experiences with heroin, but three others are set in the ancient world, and yet another in China 250 years before Christ. Other books include political thrillers, black comedy, you name it...
This doesn’t mean, however, that he was a literary dilettante, given that all his books are instantly recognisable thanks to a uniquely forceful, flowing style that gives his readers the feeling of surfing on crest after crest of countless verbal waves. In fact, it really doesn’t matter what he writes about: you may think you don’t want to know about the drug world of forty years ago, or Chinese emperors or medieval Catalan poet-knights, but once you dive into any one of Jordi’s novels or story collections, more likely than not you will discover that the water’s lovely enough for you not to want to stop swimming until the tide goes out.
Which begs the question: why was he relatively little known during his lifetime? Again and again, I’ve met people of all ages and backgrounds who stumbled across one of Jordi’s books by chance, and they all said much the same thing: ’He’s amazingly good. How come I never heard of him before?’ Who knows? His publishers certainly backed him to the hilt, but professional critics seemed to have looked at his work askance. He never wrote for the ’market’, being oblivious to fashion: no genre fiction, no (real) historical fiction, and so forth. All through his writing life he felt, with reason, that he’d been sent to Coventry by the local literary establishment (although many individual writers knew and admired his work). That is, until just before his death (from a respiratory illness), which is when two of his best books were translated into Spanish, his latest novel won one of Catalonia’s most prestigious literary awards, and his first novel was being given the graphic novel treatment. He also knew that one of his finest novels would be appearing in English courtesy of the Fum d’Estampa Press in the UK. In fact, I’m writing this article – in the language my friend translated over twenty books from – partly as an inadequate homage to the extraordinary person he was, but also to tell the readers of this magazine that the aforementioned novel is called ’Wild Horses’ in English, and that it’s coming out in February. Please, don’t send it to Coventry. Unless you have friends there.