A Catalan Writer Comes to America, Is Unimpressed
Toni Sala Travels 50,000 Kilometers, Avoids Metal Concert in Portland
The taxi driver who picks me up at the Crowne Plaza Houston River Oaks Hotel—a man who must weigh as much as half a dozen Europeans—talks on his cell phone while driving, and neither of us are using our seatbelt. Without warning—even though he’s driving me to the airport and I might miss my flight—he leaves the road, drives into a gas station, gets out of the car, and fills up while the engine is running, still talking on the mobile phone. At a guess, that should be about ten traffic violations in Europe. Not to mention that he must keep a gun in the glove compartment. How can it not be fascinating, this scene, to a European provincial like me?
Houston is nothing less than the moon for me, and I am what the moon is for Houston.
I lean forward and speak with the taxi driver. I tell him that a book of mine has been translated into English. The man is paying attention to me and listening carefully through the classical jazz playing on the radio. I’m talking nonstop. If he understands my English as well I understand his, then he’s probably missing half of what I’m saying, anyway, so I can be loquacious. I tell him that Chad W. Post, publisher of the University of Rochester’s press Open Letter Books, estimates at his website that only about three percent of books published in the United States are translations; moreover, in works of fiction and poetry the figure goes down to 0.7 percent. Being a foreigner is bad business in this country. Then the taxi driver asks me where I’m flying, and I tell him about my tour. Three months ago, I didn’t know the United States, I had never set a foot in this country. In November I traveled to New York, Toronto, Portland, and San Francisco. In this second trip, I’m traveling from Houston to Austin, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Brooklyn.
After explaining this, I relax in the back seat. I take a look at these huge trucks passing by. In half an hour I have seen more cars and bigger cars than in my whole life.
Suddenly, the driver is laughing with his entire body.
“Wow! You do a tour like this and you say it’s nothing?” he’s laughing like crazy. “Oh, my friend, you’re a famous writer, good heavens! You are a successful writer, if you’re doing this tour!” And he’s turning around and looking at me and laughing nonstop.
In San Francisco I noticed some exaggeration on the subject of money and fame. The same thing as in Europe, but here everything is more outwardly expressed.
“But you’re famous? You are famous?” a blonde kept repeating to me, in a department store. “You are famous?”
“Yes, among my family. But I’m not exactly Obama.”
“You said Obama? Do you know Obama? Do you really know Obama?”
When I’m flying over Texas, I do the math. Fifteen planes, nine hotels, 45,700 kilometers… Something doesn’t fit. I am a Catalan writer. We Catalans know what precariousness is, and we know that the literature is a weed that grows well in these conditions: in times of moral drought, in places of communicative drought, in periods of economic drought, in circumstances of loving drought, of self-satisfaction drought… It’s at these times when literature is distilled.
Or maybe these are prejudices of a newly rich man, maybe I am just inexperienced.
In Toronto I was surprised that, as a guest of the International Festival of Authors, a driver was waiting for me at the airport, a driver just for me, a driver who carried my suitcase, chatted with me and dropped me at the hotel, all-expenses paid. I thought: maybe this is unnecessary, but it’s an interesting thing, finding me surrounded by young and obliging hostesses. I’m still wondering if all this has anything to do with literature, or rather if it’s not merely neutral to literature, but deceptive. For a writer, for a reader, the battle is always against lying.
I started this tour asking myself—and asking the other guests, infinitely more experienced than me in these adventures—what all this world of exposure, smiles, attention, show business, and foreign languages has to do with literature in general and with the Catalan literature in particular, a literature so conscientious, so idiomatic, so rigorous, even.
There is no need to overdo things. I’m not exactly Thomas Mann—”where I’m going, that’s Germany,” he said. It’s just that I’m new to this game. As I write these lines, I receive an email inviting me to Australia. How could I say no? It’s not that it’s more than I can handle, it’s only that I mistrust it. Writing is a matter of caution. I’m delighted with the American translation of The Boys, with the praise of the literary journals, with this tour that allows me to put my feet on the most influential country on the planet—an extremely comfortable country and, also, very familiar, when you have devoured thousands of Americans books, films, and news shows. But I am the classic type who goes to Toronto and almost misses the Niagara Falls. And then one day they take him there and he is delighted. I am the classic type who goes to New York and doesn’t go up any skyscraper. And then one day someone takes him up to a 96th floor, in Chicago, and he finds that this is one of the sights of his life. I would never have gone to see the bridge in San Francisco, until I passed it by on a bus and had to get out in order not to die. I’m the classic type who is at home fretting and thinking, “What are you going to write about, if you never go out of the house?,” and who when he’s traveling wonders: “But when are you going to write if you are never at home?” Forty-six years old, and I’m still that way.
I really liked Portland. In the hotel, there were condoms as candy on the bedside table in my room—in Houston and Austin I would find Holy Bibles. One night, outside a noisy nightclub, I met some drunken heavy metal fans. I told them that the following day I was launching my book at Powell’s Bookstore, they said they would come, and in exchange I was invited to attend their concert for free. Cowardly, I turned down the offer. They paid me in kind and the next day—they did not come to the bookstore. But now on Facebook I am friends with James Weaver, guitarist of the heavy metal band Othrys. I met his charming wife—”sorry, I can’t talk, I’m very drunk”—I saw pictures in Facebook of their dog, their house, and I congratulated James on his birthday.
In San Francisco I had a few days off while I was waiting for the release of the book, and I spent them going around the city of Vertigo, among the dead. San Francisco is a good place for the release of a book about death. The event at The American Bookbinders Museum was very well organized, with music and food, and Mara Faye Lethem, the translator of the book, came over to have a public talk with me. The success of a book like The Boys would be impossible without a good translation.
Houston was awesome. Mark Haber, the bookseller at Brazos Bookstore is a great admirer of Mercè Rodoreda. He sells and has very prominently displayed all the American editions of the novels and short stories by Rodoreda, and after the event, while having dinner with me, he talks with me about Rodoreda with the delight and the deep gratitude we feel for the writers who amaze us. Rodoreda lived the last years of her life just a few kilometers from my house, and I’ve already said that the landscape of Houston and the landscape out there are as alike as the Earth and the moon, and this strikes me, but mostly I am struck by the fact that Rodoreda wrote with enough rigor for her books to cross such long bridges through time and distance. I agree with him, Rodoreda is an enormous writer, and I get excited thinking about what Josep Pla or Josep M. de Sagarra would have thought about the fact that their books are available, today, in the United States. I think of what they would have thought, and I thank them again for the work they did, especially during the dictatorship. Without them, I would not write, at least not in Catalan. Without them, I wouldn’t have been translated, nor would my work have been so well received in America. The translation of my book is a result of the recent publication in the U.S. of some Catalan classics of the 20th century. A national literature is a family. If you are part of a good family like mine, it’s not unusual to be welcomed with open “Brazos.”
In Austin, at Malvern Books, I also receive a wonderful welcome. The bookstore is full of people. A singing cowgirl, who sang with Joan Baez, Tish Hinojosa, introduces me with a small concert. For me, the star is her, but she insists that the star is me, who has come from so far away. Then, some people approach me to ask me privately about death, as if I were a priest. There must be something to it. A man comes to say hello and tells me when he was young he once interviewed the Catalan poet Salvador Espriu.
“As an African American, I’m interested in the Catalan culture.”
In Chicago I find my Catalan publisher waiting for me. It’s funny, she had crossed the Atlantic to join me for the end of the tour. Her Catalan publishing house is small, and so in Philadelphia—when we find out that the hotel charges by the room and not by the number of guests—we share the hotel room. I don’t know if there are many authors who have slept with their publishers. I suspect there are. There must not be so many who have slept in separate beds.
In Chicago, I teach a couple of classes at the university. Meeting American students who have learned Catalan is very striking. Even the architecture of the classroom is striking. In the evening I read in the Seminary Co-op Bookstore, a bookshop with an extraordinary collection of books.
In Philadelphia it’s raining a lot. We have a few hours and, since we are there, we plan to go and see the Liberty Bell, the Liberty Bell that in the year 1776 summoned the citizens of Philadelphia to hear the Declaration of Independence. It seems Catalonia now perhaps is, possibly, making some efforts to maybe get its independence. Probably this has placed my country on the front line of visibility. I think about it while we are looking for the Bell. Who knows why I am now here. It’s raining heavily. We are late. We do not find the Bell.
In New York, I drop in at the legendary Strand Book Store on Broadway to sign some books. In the evening, in Brooklyn, we celebrate the last party. Once again an event with my translator, and the Community Bookstore fills up. Hal Hlavinka, the bookseller, conducted the longest interview in my life, for BOMB magazine. Now I can say hello to him, and thank him. It’s a great closing party. The bookstore is full—besides the translator, here are almost all the staff that has made this adventure possible, including the Institut Ramon Llull.
After dinner, the publisher, the translator, and I go out, and we end up in a bar. There I slide a couple of bills into the dancer’s thong. I’m not impressed. Who would have thought it.