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Baltasar Porcel: Primaveras y otoños (Springs and Autumns)

This is one of two of Porcel’s novels translated into English. Like many of his other novels it is set in his home town of Andratx, Majorca, thinly disguised as Orlandis. It takes place entirely during the course of one day, a Christmas Eve. When this is, is not entirely clear but it is clearly modern times as they have colour television. It is set in Taltavull Hall, family home of the Taltavulls, who are gathered for their traditional Christmas Eve dinner. Though it is set in such a limited time and place, it does, of course, refer to events elsewhere and at other periods. Indeed, it mentions the history of the family, going back to the sixteenth century.

The family had managed to survive with its clock business. This has ceased to function during the Civil War and, after the war, had not immediately reopened, because of lack of both supplies and markets. Once they did get going again, they found they could not compete with the Swiss. However, they were able to find markets in the developing world and Joan Pere, who had been delegated to find these markets, had been very successful. He spent most of his time abroad, which really did not bother him, as he soon felt at home anywhere, particularly as far as the opposite sex was concerned.

Near to Taltavull Hall is La Paret. The five women who live there are related to the Taltavulls. However, since their father had died, they have fallen on hard times as, essentially, they have virtually no source of income. Indeed, though all were adults when he died, none of them was even engaged, let alone married. Ramon Consolat was given power of attorney and he sold off the estate piecemeal, thereby accelerating their ruin. He did eventually marry one of the sisters, Caterina. Ramon is essentially a delivery man and most Saturdays (but not all) he turns up with a basket full of food for the sisters.

Of the other sisters, one meets an Algerian in the port and they have a fling. He goes back to Algeria. She then marries him by proxy and heads off to Algeria to find him. However, it is the time of the Algerian War of Independence. She returns some time later, with only the (tattered) clothes on her back, with tales of woe. The prettiest sister is sent out into the streets every Saturday to see if some nice young man will find her attractive. She does not like doing this so tends to hide. No nice young man finds her.

Much of the book focusses on the various individual characters and what they are like and what they have done. We learn about Joan Pere’s travels. The family do sometimes pick bad times to go places. Joan Pere tries to sell clocks to the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. Not surprisingly, he does not succeed but he does meet Hai-Yun, who is his guide. Both know that even if they so much as kiss (she is married), the consequences could be fatal. He sees her again when he returns to China. He tells us other colourful stories, including one involving a British spy in Burma.

We meet Didac Ensenyat who is staying in the house – dying would be the appropriate word – having been confined there by another Taltavull, Judge Ignasi. Didac had been a skilled boat-builder but now he is old and decrepit. His hobby had been to stare at passing women, sometimes almost molesting them. This was getting him nowhere so he raped his daughter. He continued to do so. She did not resist, feeling she had to obey her father. However, when she realised her sexual charms could be used for profit on others, she spread her wings.

Judge Ignasi was not a good man. He started as a lowly accounts assistant but followed a traditional path – he married the boss’s daughter. However, during the Civil War, he joined the army and was soon in charge. We see him having an affair with a German baroness, whose husband had been assigned to the island but was away in Palmas, with the two of them having sex to the background noise of the shooting of Reds, ordered by Ignasi. You’re as cold-blooded as a snake, people tell him. He does not deny it.

Bernat the Wise, however, is a very different man. He is liked by everyone and everything he does seems to be successful. He believes that Creation is a harmonious unity. An example of his success concerns the water supply for Taltavull Hall. It is always too dry and his parents had constantly complained about it and had to carry water in during the summer. His mother, still alive, is still complaining. Bernat is determined to resolve the problem.

We follow the stories of several other of the family members. Arcadi, the priest of the family, who is miserable and whose behaviour is not worthy of a priest, asks himself who he is. Is he himself or is he simply a family member?

It is not only the immediate family we see. Some visitors turn up. These include the group from Pula. Pula is a remote part of the island named after the Croatian town of the same name, for the very simple reason that the people there originally came from the Croatian town, fleeing the Ottoman Empire. They continued their same activities, however, smuggling and piracy and still do. However, the matriarch of the Taltavulls, Brígida, came from there and welcomes them. Less welcome is a distant cousin who turns up uninvited and unwelcome, Cristoforo Mardà, who had worked with Ignasi during the Civil War, killing Reds. He had personally killed quite a few. After the War, he had walked out on his wife and gone off to Latin America. An unpleasant confrontation with guerrillas, where he came off worst, persuades him to return home.

The story is more or less chronological, in that we follow the various courses of the meal, the preparations and the discussions though, all the time, veering off for the different stories. Many of the stories, as one character points out, involve sex or death but then that is inevitable in literature and life. Indeed, as Bernat points out, those are the two things in the lives of the family. They certainly colour this book. Not surprisingly, not all the sex is within marriage. Ghosts and the Civil War may be said to other themes that appear more than once.

Porcel’s stories and the intertwining of them are excellent. They may be family but each one is different and each one is his or her own person and not simply a family member. Porcel does not hold back. We see the good, the bad and the ugly. Neither war nor family bring out the best in people. This is considered his best book and it certainly makes for a very enjoyable read and though it is small Majorcan family, in a fairly remote corner, they have travelled the world and been visited by the world but yet remained individual.

First published by Proa in 1986
First published in English by the University of Arkansas Press in 1995
Translated by John L Getman