Colm Tóibín: sober, intense master Flight to Catalonia

A worthy start to this series, The South tells the story of Katharine, who in 1950 flees her husband and son in Enniscorthy and comes to live in Barcelona. Tóibín explains Katharine's emotional journey over 30 years

I heard Tóibín talk a dozen years ago and he said of a novelist's work: “Your first task is self-suppression.” And then he cited Henry James's “Dramatise, dramatise!” In The South he does both to great effect. Tóibín absents himself from the story (with ruthless discipline, tough to achieve in a first novel) and, in a series of hard-hitting scenes defined by place and weather, constructs a dramatic story of painters fighting for survival under the Franco dictatorship. Katharine is self-obsessed, which initially she needs to be, in order to break out from Ireland and pursue her freedom elsewhere. The main arc of the novel is her struggle to see things clearer, her fight through pain to understanding.

Tóibín knows and loves –or if not loves, relishes Catalonia. The South is something of a tourist guide: Katharine walks round the Gothic Quarter, when she does not have to take refuge in her hotel because of the men ogling her and police hovering in this fascist Barcelona. Her painting teacher is the real painter, Ramon Rogent. She travels with her lover, the anarchist Miguel, to the wild, drunken Patum at Berga; then goes to live in Pallosa, a near-abandoned village in the high Pyrenees.

Long before Carlos Ruíz Zafón made the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri a stopover point on The Shadow of the Wind walking tour, Tóibín has Katherine discover this hidden square near Barcelona's cathedral.

“I felt as though I had found the place I had been looking for: the sacred core of the world, a deserted square reached by two narrow alleyways.”

It is a moment of revelation, that she, the new arrival, feels suddenly at home in a strange place. This promise of change, the possibility of a future in a new country, is a feeling many long-term foreign residents have experienced.

Catalonia & Ireland

The South is carefully constructed in contrasts. Whereas Miguel is obsessed with the defeat in the Spanish Civil War, Katharine wants to find out what happened in the Irish Civil War, when Katharine's Protestant family's house was burnt. It is a contrast of social classes, too –the upper-class Katharine can leave her husband with the help of her mother's money, whereas Miguel has none and, like the third main character, Michael Graves, lives off the few paintings he sells.

Another exile from Enniscorthy, Michael Graves is from the Catholic poor, i.e. from the people who burned Katharine's house: a further contrast. And then Ireland and Catalonia are compared: different countries with different regimes, but both stultified by clerical oppression and the shadow of Civil War.

Tóibín starts from the outside with his characters: where they are and what they look like. He then works inwards. Michael Graves, ill, teasing and slightly sinister, is a masterpiece of characterisation. Katharine is at first passive in the crisis of abandoning her family, but then bursts out in her pain, not denying regret. She has to live through the destruction of her second family, before finding some solace in her old age.

Colm Tóibín's writing style has become famous. It is sober and restrained, ‘monkish' in the Irish critic Terry Eagleton's words, and at times also lyrical in its precision. In certain novels, this type of style can become somewhat monotonous, but not in The South, a grand book that is direct, raw and serious, talking about emotions.

Colm Tóibín, 60 years old now, is one of the English-speaking world's leading novelists and intellectuals, writing widely on literature, Catholicism and gay rights. He grew up in the small town of Enniscorthy, in County Wexford, Ireland, source and site of much of his writing. In the 25 years since The South was published, he has written seven other novels, two short-story collections and several non-fiction books, including Homage to Barcelona (1990).

His connection with Catalonia is strong and enduring. He came to live in Barcelona in 1975: there is a fine description of his own discovery of sexual freedom in a city just emerging from the dictatorship in one of the stories in his collection, The Empty Family (2010). He lived later other periods in the city and in a Pyrenean village.

His novels include The Master (2004) on Henry James's art and suppressed sexuality, The Blackwater Lightship (1999) on how a family in conflict copes with Declan who is dying of AIDS and The Story of the Night (1996), a thriller on gay life under the 1970s Argentine dictatorship. Brooklyn (2009) deals with a young woman's 1930s emigration to New York.

These are Tóibín's habitual themes: grief and conflict in the family, political and sexual oppression, and emigration from a poor and backward Ireland and then the pull of the country back again. All in a sober, intense style, with short sentences and silences that Tóibín urges readers to hear.

«The South» Author: Colm Toibín Publisher: EMECE Pages: 144
“Set in the 1950s, this is the story of Katherine who “flees husband, child and Ireland for Spain. She, a Catalan lover, and another Irish emigre, painters all, fashion new worlds in their work while fighting past worlds in their lives.” (Library Journal)

New series: Fiction in English about Catalonia

This series will feature books by well-known contemporary writers, such as the historical novelist Noah Gordon or Colm Tóibín, whose first novel The South opens the series this month; and by 20th-century names, such as Paul Scott, best-known for The Raj Quartet, or the poet Stephen Spender.

Three very different kinds of crime novels come from Barbara Wilson, whose raucous 1980s Gaudí Afternoon became a Hollywood film in 2001, David C. Hall, with the prizewinning Barcelona Skyline, and Caroline Roe, author of numerous mysteries featuring the blind physician Isaac in mediaeval Girona. Girona's history attracts novelists as much as Barcelona's glamour does: translator and memoirist Lucia Graves's only novel The Memory House is also set there. In sharp contrast, feminist historian and political agitator, Angela Jackson, celebrates British women in the Civil War in her Warm Earth.

And well into next year, we will be tackling Patrice Chaplin, whose books are drenched in the mysticism of the Grail quest, and Jessica Cornwell's mammoth trilogy set in Barcelona, of which only the first volume The Serpent Papers has as yet been published.

These are famous writers and little-known ones; ones who know Catalonia well and others who use it as just a stage set. Together they sew a multi-coloured, many-eyed patchwork quilt of the country.

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