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Jordi Coca: Sota la pols (Under the Dust)

This novel, the only one of Coca’s works translated into English, is a fictionalised autobiography of a boy growing up in grim Francoist Barcelona. It is not a pretty picture. We learn early on that his baby brother died of meningitis when only a few months old and that his grandfather was shot. There are various reasons given why the grandfather might have been shot but our narrator is told by his schoolmates that it was simply because he was a Red. Indeed, one of them tells him that his baby brother cannot have gone to heaven as the grandson of a guilty person.

The family is not well off. The father has a demanding job, involving heavy lifting with a cruel and abusive boss and badly paid. Poverty appalled me. I didn’t know anything else. As a result of his job and his life, the father takes to drink and can become very violent and abusive

Our narrator does not fit in at school. He tries to associate with the in-crowd but he is bullied and tormented. He ends up watching but not participating in the activities outside school-time. He had the profound feeling of being alone in the world, of having been abandoned. While this situation gradually improves, particularly when he becomes close friends with Joanet, he still has the sense of not being on the inside.

We continue to get a grim picture. The local beach is near a sewage outlet which smells very strongly and pollutes the beach. Despite this, the boys play there. Wandering round the area, he finds people even poorer than his own family. His house has no running water but some houses do not have electricity and have to use oil lamps. (Bear in mind that the novel is set in the late 1950s/early 1960s).

Things continue to get worse. An uncle is killed in a car crash. A friend’s father is arrested and badly beaten. Joanet was right. Life was shit and it was basically our parents’ fault.

The narrator’s father quits his job to set up a company with his brother Pere, which involved acquiring cheap textiles, sorting them and then selling them on. Inevitably, it is very hard and demanding work and, inevitably, the two brothers squabble and fall out. As a result, the father becomes more aggressive towards his wife and son and starts drinking more and gambling.

There is one release for our hero. He becomes acquainted with a strange family, who are very poor but one of them, César, is a reader and seems to have amassed a collection of books. He describes one to the boys – it is clearly Crime and Punishment – and the boys are impressed in different ways. Our hero is really interested and, eventually, borrows a book from César. It is Robinson Crusoe. He reads it through, ignoring Joanet for a few days, and then reads it again. He loves it. César then lends him A Journal of the Plague Year but he does not get round to reading it. (Interestingly enough, when discussing specific books, apart from an oblique reference to Azorin, no Spanish author is mentioned.)

But books offer only a limited outlet. At one point Joanet says he does not want to go on living and our hero agrees with him. Life is thoroughly miserable. Indeed, when things seem to be getting better, something always happens to make it worse.

There is little in this book offering either redemption or a glimpse of happiness for our narrator. From grinding poverty to an abusive father, from being bullied to the prospect of a life with no future and no joy, our hero seems to be facing a thoroughly miserable life. The three books used as reference all seem somewhat apposite: Crime and Punishment with its poverty and the idea of crime as the only way out (the hero’s father does break the law); Robinson Crusoe as the idea of being isolated from any meaningful society, even if their island is the slums of Barcelona, though it seems escaping from there is almost as difficult as escaping from Robinson Crusoe’s island, and A Journal of the Plague Year (which he never gets round to reading), which also portrays a city where suffering and misery are the norm. Whether life in Franco’s Spain was any worse than the grinding poverty of, say, Naples or Marseilles, I am not competent to judge, but there is no doubt in the narrator’s mind that this is as grim as it gets.

First published by Proa/Columna in 2001
First published in English by Parthian in 2007