Home » Catalonia » Quim Monzó » La magnitud de la tragèdia (The Enormity of the Tragedy)

Quim Monzó: La magnitud de la tragèdia (The Enormity of the Tragedy)

The foreword to the book has two quotations, one from Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the other from the Priapeia. Both are about male erections and give us an idea what the book is about because that is, indeed, the subject of this book.

Our hero is Ramón-Maria. He plays trumpet in a burlesque show orchestra. He had inherited his father’s publishing business but, while this was a flourishing business in his grandfather’s time, it has gone steadily downhill and he is now left with a pile of books (including one hundred and fifty-three copies of Huckleberry Finn and one hundred and thirty-eight copies of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). His wife, Rosa-Margarida, died just a year ago. He lives in a large house with his step-daughter, the teenage Anna Francesca. They have two things in common: Rosa-Margarida and an extreme mutual hatred. Anna-Francesca cannot understand why her mother, who had brought up her daughter on her own, would want to marry such a boorish man. The only reason Anna-Francesca does not leave and go and live with her aunt is because she is not going to let Ramón-Maria get hold of the house she grew up in. For his part, Ramón-Maria cannot understand why Anna-Francesca is so difficult.

At the start of the novel, Ramón-Maria is having dinner with an actress from the show where he works, Maria-Eugenia. He has been trying to woo her for some time. This will be his first sexual encounter since the death of his wife. As a result, he is very nervous and drinking very heavily. This makes him nervous about his performance with Maria-Eugenia and, to calm his nerves, he drinks some more. By the time, they finally get to her flat, he is very drunk and clearly unable to perform, despite his and her best efforts. They both fall asleep and when he awakes, he finds he has an erection. They have sex. They sleep. They have sex. She rests and he goes to cemetery with Anna Francesca and his sister-in-law, to lay flowers on Rosa-Margarida’s grave. He still has an erection, which he tries to conceal. However, he goes to Maria-Eugenia’s dressing room and they have sex. That evening they have sex all over Barcelona and yet he still has an erection.

Maria-Eugenia tells her friend Maria-Helena (who is married) about Ramón-Maria’s erection and, in no time, he is in bed with Maria-Helena. Meanwhile, we are following his step-daughter’s sex life. She has been determined to find the right man. Accordingly, she is not on the pill, so as not to give the impression (both to herself as well as to her potential boyfriends) that she is easy and she has remained a virgin. However, at the house of her friend Mercè, she meets Ignasi-Xavier. He offers her a lift home and soon they have stopped the car and are indulging in some teenage fumbling. She knows nothing about him and he knows nothing about her. Initially, this does not hold them back but then Anna-Francesca decides that they should get to know one another and they exchange life stories, before continuing with their sexual activity. They seem to be set for a relationship but have difficulty getting together. When Anna-Francesca goes to stay with Mercè by the sea, Mercè’s boyfriend Lluis-Albert is there. Anna-Francesca does not like him but, before long, she is in bed with him.

Maria-Eugenia has suggested that Ramón-Maria go to the doctor and finally he does, though, on leaving, he visits a prostitute. After tests, the doctor informs him that he has Sciamscia’s syndrome and has seven weeks to live. This is a (fictitious) form of satyriasis (i.e. uncontrollable sexual desire) and not priapism (a long-lasting but not sexual erection). At this point, the book changes tone dramatically. From being a sex romp/sexual parody/extended dirty joke (take your pick), it becomes far sadder, as Ramón-Maria, faced with his imminent death, thinks of various matters concerned with death, such as his last words, epitaph and the idea of just falling asleep and just staying in bed till he dies, till he gets the idea of getting a second opinion. He also remortgages the house, in order to get a large sum of money, though he has no idea what he is going to do with such a large sum.

Anna-Francesca finds out about the money (but not its source) and her plans, both to steal from him but also to kill him, develop as she reads up on ways of murdering someone without leaving a trace. At the same time, her relationship with Lluis-Albert is developing by leaps and bounds.

As I said above, this book could be seen as a sex romp/sexual parody/extended dirty joke but could also be seen as something of a post-modernist view of Spain. It is clearly also about communication or lack of it. I have never read a novel in which there were so many missed phone calls. Anna-Francesca continually misses calls from her two boyfriends and vice versa. Indeed, this is partially why her relationship with Ignasi-Xavier fails. Even when they do connect they cannot find a mutually convenient time to meet. (Oh, the days before mobile phones, texting and WhatsApp.) Similarly, Ramón-Maria misses calls from both Maria-Eugenia and Maria-Helena. We learn, late in the book, that after their visit to the cemetery, Ramón-Maria and Anna-Francesca do not speak for seven weeks and then only when he calls upstairs to her on one of the rare occasions when she gets a phone call and she is at home to take it. She communicates with him by leaving notes (usually because the plumbing is not working) and he leaves her allowance on her bedside table.

As regards Anna-Francesca’s personal life, her discussion with Ignasi-Xavier is one of the rare times there is communication other than sexual and then she leaves him for another man shortly afterwards. In short, the main currency of communication is sexual contact, a sad but probably not entirely unrealistic view of contemporary Spain. Indeed, the secondary form of communication seems to be violence. Rosa-Margarida is murdered by a mugger. Prior to the events in this book, Anna-Francesca is sexually assaulted by a Brazilian. She, in turn, viciously assaults him and badly injures him. She also plans her step-father’s killing, considering various forms of murder. There are various other minor acts of violence in the book.

This is one of those novels that I am still mulling over, not quite sure what the author’s intent is. That it paints a bleak picture of contemporary Spain is clear. I suspect that Monzó wants to do that, while having considerable fun with both Ramón-Maria’s permanent erection and Anna-Francesca’s teenage fumblings. The fact that he changes tone half way through the book, when what seems like a funny condition – a permanent erection – morphs into a very sad one, a potential death warrant, only adds to the view that is primarily a post-modernist view of contemporary Spain, as seen by a Catalan.

Publishing history

First published 1989 by Quaderns Crema
First English translation by Peter Owen in 2007