Joaquim Ruyra: Jacobé & Fineta
This is not by any stretch of the imagination a novel but is here as Ruyra is an interesting figure in Catalan literature and we only have one other story by him in English. This is a short book with two stories but both fascinating and somewhat grim.
Jacobé (a female name here) is narrated by a young man called Minguet. He comes from a rich family but, as is the tradition, he is looked after by a nanny figure (called simply Nursie) and her daughter, Jacobé. As children – Jacobé is only a few years older than Minguet – they get on very well, playing on the beach. As is also custom, he calls her Sissy, as though she were his big sister. Jacobé is the only child of a widow, whose husband was French and died of alcoholism, like his father before him. This, as we shall see, is key to the story.
One of the things that Ruyra does very well in this story is foreshadow an impending disaster. Even as children, when listening to a conch, they hear not just the sea but thunder, wind and a pained cry of despair. The book opens towards the end of the story – most is told as Minguet’s memories – and we see Minguet watching the fishermen worried about an impending storm. Even the opening paragaph of the book, about the arrival of autumn, takes a negative view.
Back to our story and Minguet and Jacobé grow up. He goes to school and she becomes a young woman. Minguet still sees her and has started noticed that her physical appearance is deteriorating. She has a look of terror, a pained stare, a darkness that seemed to betray some shadowy deep anxiety . She is getting thinner and looking very haggard. Indeed, eventually, it seems that she is going insane. Both Minguet and her mother are naturally worried with the mother thinking someone might have put a curse on her. The local doctor, who is bit like a doctor out of Trollope, goes one step further. He believes that the cause of her illness comes from the alcoholism of her father and grandfather. No this illness of hers can’t be cured by any doctor of whatever stripe, he says.
This is an interesting idea. Generally alcoholism cannot be inherited though this article shows it does run in families. Indeed, that is a favourite literary theme, most famously in the works of Emile Zola. However, Jacobé has not inherited alcoholism. She is not, as far as we know a drinker, but rather has the sickness caused by alcoholism which, biologically, is doubtful but, of course an interesting idea in literature.
On that day we see in the opening of the book, Minguet is so worried about her that he sets off to walk along the cliff path. The impending storm feared by the fishermen is now approaching and he has to cling to a tree to avoid being blown away. And then he notices that Jacobé has followed him. They talk. She tells him that she is engaged to be married but does not seem too happy about it. She then leaves to go down the path, with the wind howling.
It may ony be a short story but it really is a very fine one. As Ruyra superbly conveys the sense of impending doom and the curse on Jacobé (whatever its cause).
Fineta is a much shorter story. It still concerns the fishing community by the sea and still has a grimness. Delfina aka Fineta lives alone with her father and brother. Her mother has died. Father and brother are out sardine fishing and she is worried about them. She gets up early to go and stand on the shore and look for them. As she goes out she sees a man known as The Woodman. He is an incomer, who makes a precarious living out of woodcutting and fishing. The locals do not trust him and Fineta does not like him. She quickly returns home.
The weather improves so she goes back out. She collects mussels for her breakfast, goes bathing and enjoys wandering around, looking out to sea for her father and brother. Suddenly, someone touches her from behind. It is the Woodman. She tries to tell him to go away but he will not and he seizes her. But now the boat carrying her father and brother is arriving and they seem to have seen what is happening but can they arrive in time?
While shorter than Jacobé Ruyra manages to convey both the mixture of joy Fineta feels – nice weather, bathing, finding mussels – and gloom – worrying about her father and brother and the first the sighting of the Woodman and then his assault on her. Though it is a short collection, these are certainly very fine stories.
First published in 1903 by Editorial Catalana as part of the collectionMarines i boscatges
First published in English (Jacobe & Fineta only) in 2022 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Alan Yates