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Jesús Moncada: Camí de sirga (The Towpath)

Jesús Moncada was born in the town of Mequinenza (Mequinensa in Catalan), a Catalan town that was moved (i.e the old town was destroyed and a new one built) to make way for a large dam/reservoir for a hydroelectric project. This novel is a fictionalised version of those events and the history behind them. If you read the Wikipedia article (linked above) you will see a reference to an old Mequinenza family called Montcada. I assume that our author is descended from this family. Whether he is or not, he does (affectionately) mock the upper classes of the town.

The book starts with an anonymous chronicle written about the events and, specifically, when the first house was destroyed. The church clock stopped, the weather was stormy, a loud bang as the house fell was heard throughout the town and everyone stopped what they were doing and Llorenç de Veriu came back from the dead to see his old house. It turns out that this was untrue. The church clock often stopped though that day it did not, though it was fast. Few people noticed the first house being destroyed and the weather was nice. Llorenç de Veriu was not seen, alive or dead.

Much of the focus is on Carlota. She was the daughter of the late Senyor Torres. He had married into the Camps family, which owned the liquorice extraction factory. Torres took it over and soon had made much success out of it. He was not attracted to his wife – too skinny for his taste – though they did have three children, including Carlota. He preferred to get his pleasures elsewhere. However, he does have a ferocious mother-in-law. We meet him when he is having his portrait painted, watched by his adoring daughter and fairly adoring wife. During the painting, a shot is fired, the bullet goes right through his forehead (in the portrait, that is) and grazes the cheek of the real Senyor Torres. Was it an anarchist? That is the conclusion but, as with the anonymous chronicle, we learn a somewhat different story. Indeed, there are several such stories, where we initially get the received account and then, later, the real account.

Much of the book can best be described as vignettes from the history of the town and its people. Gossip, not surprisingly, is rife in the town. In Proustian fashion, the vignettes are triggered by an aroused memory. This can be from an item found when clearing out, prior to moving out of the town, from a chance remark, from an encounter, particularly when someone is seen in or near a place where something notable (by the standards of the town) happened or just by reminiscing about times past.

Carlota may well be the main source but she is certainly not the only one. We see her as something of a dried-up old lady but she definitely has a past. She was married and both she and her husband were frequently unfaithful. Indeed, infidelity seems to be the norm in the town. The town was economically most prosperous during World War I. The shot fired at Senyor Torres overshadowed the news from elsewhere – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The town was unsure which side to take in World War I. The Germans were Protestants, the British had stolen Gibraltar, as far as the French were concerned, Napoleon was still remembered (his army had occupied the town). What they did know, however, is that they wanted the war to go on forever. Sometime before the war, coal had been found in the area and they were able to sell large quantities of it to the combatants.

The main beneficiaries were the landowners who had coal on their land, and the Café Eden, which did a roaring trade, with drinking, music, gambling and prostitution. Most of the married men spent their time and money there, though the married women were not all sitting quietly at home. However, by 1919, the gamblers and prostitutes had gone and the café closed down. The coal industry did revive during World War II

The town is on the Ebro so shipping is or, at least, was key. There are two rival firms and two major shipping disaster. Because of the current, in the early days, the barges had to be towed back by humans till someone thought of using a donkey. This is major breakthrough, hence the title of the book.

History does appear quite a few times. The town is occupied by Napoleon’s army. When it retreats, it leaves behind a cannon which someone takes. The cannon reappears during the Carlist Wars. The town, which is liberal, sets it up to forestall an invasion by the monarchists. When someone hears a noise one night, the cannon is fired and people shoot liberally at the enemy.

The Civil War and the period leading up to it are key as are labour relations, particularly between the miners and the land owners and lead to a lot of strife. Indeed, the differences between the well-off and the ordinary people are key to this book. Moncada is very happy to mock both but, particularly, the well-off, not least for their hypocrisy, though it is usually done with affection.

Much of the second part of the book deals with the Civil War and its aftermath. Not surprisingly, the rich are pro-Franco and the less well-off support the Republic. Also not surprisingly, this leads to conflict. The Torres family and other rich people flee the town as do some of the poorer people, who go to Barcelona. However, there is relatively little revenge killing on either side though a few people leave the town, never to return and a few even end up in Mauthausen concentration camp. The homecoming at the end of the war is not glorious, not least because the Republic blew up the only bridge.

This is a wonderful book, telling the story of a town that is not so much disappearing as just moving to the other side of the river. As the dam construction has been going on for thirteen years, people have come to accept it, with one exception – Carlota. Moncada focuses on several themes: how well the ordinary people generally get on with one another, the corruption of the rich (many made their money by cheating the poorer people) and rampant sexuality. Virtually everyone seems to be at it and all too often not with their marital partner. Hypocrisy is also to the fore. Senyor Torres, for example, condemns the blonde from Lleida, who has several sexual partners in the town, when she becomes pregnant out of wedlock. He fails to point out that he is the father of the child. There are numerous other examples. There are also several examples of the received point of view and what actually happened.

Moncada presents us with a whole host of well drawn characters who people the town, from Nelson (so named by a visiting Englishman), captain of a barge, a rare case of a good husband and father and son of victim of an early shipping accident, to the gossiping maids, who make sure that everyone knows about the indiscretions of their employers, from the pharmacist who is arrested five and a half times to the sailor who was almost killed at the Battle of Tétouan, a battle where Carlota’s grandfather was killed, and many more. While it is often witty, mocking the foibles, particularly of the rich, it can also be poignant, with deaths, particularly in the Civil War, and the end of the town, with poor Carlota the last hold-out.

First published by Edicions de la Magrana in 1988
First published in English by Harvill in 1994
Translated by Judith Willis