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Jordi Cussà: Cavalls salvatges (Wild Horses)

In his introduction to this book, Matthew Tree says Cussà was the first writer to credibly expose the druggy underbelly of the life of a fair percentage of Catalan youth… He lifted up the carpet that covered rural Catalonia to reveal that people were busily shooting up in some of the countries most picturesque town and villages…When the book appeared, it was praised by the few and sidelined by the many. In short, this is not your traditional Catalan novel.

Let’s start with the title. As Matthew Tree states, this novel is about the drug addicts, the wild horses, if you will, of Catalonia. Sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’n’roll are what it is about. The second meaning of the title can be seen in a quote at the beginning of the book which is from the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’Wild Horses. Indeed the quote is quite apposite:

Faith has been broken, tears must be cried
Let’s do some living after we die

There will be many more quotes from songs throughout the book. There will also be at least one other horse-based title: America’s Horse With No Name.

The third meaning is less obvious. Horse is often used as a slang term for heroin, not least because both words start with the letter h. Spanish has translated the English word literally so that caballo, meaning horse, is also slang for heroin, despite the two words starting with different letters. Clearly the same has happened in Catalan with the Catalan word cavall also being slang for heroin. Horse is indeed used in this book as slang for heroin as is harry.

The novel follows a group of – well, let’s call them wild horses – young Catalans who are interested only in sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’n’roll. The story is told by Alexandre Oscà i Punyol, known as Lex. His family background is complicated. His father is dying of leukaemia, his older brother has had something of a breakdown when a mountain rescue he was involved in goes badly wrong, his younger sister has already started on the road to drugs and drink at a young age and, not surprisingly, his mother is not coping particularly well.

Lex is looking back from 1996 to, primarily, the 1980s but, in some cases earlier. He writes some of the text but some is clearly written by various characters who were involved in the Catalan drug scene, often in the form of letters/emails and some are told to him verbally. Lex is clearly our author writing this book.

Lex has a group of friends who indulge in regular sex and drugs, including Lluïsa Cabellera whose funeral (AIDS, methadone abuse) opens the book. Lex himself is a DJ and we follow his musical life (Jim Morrison, not surprisingly, is his guru). Various friends of both sexes drift into and out of his life. we follow his DJ life but also his drug life – his first use of heroin, his gradual dealing, which becomes more and more, together with his friends. I still believe that at the outset of our addiction we were hooked not just on the drugs but also on the lifestyle that came with them he says. He also says that they were indifferent to any type of future.

The group open a café for slackers but it becomes a front for their drug dealing and we get stories about their dealing, including close runs with the police and an accidental bank robbery though eventually the police show, as Lex says, that they are not quite as stupid as they may seem.

As well as his drug life, Lex looks back at his family and it is clear that, like many families there are issues. Does that explain his use of drugs? He does not make any formal connection and given that many others turn to drugs it may not be relevant.

Throughout the book there are several key issues. They travel but generally to places where they can score – London, Paris, Amsterdam, Naples. People die – from AIDS, overdoses, hepatitis, suicide and various drug-related complications. Some try to give up drugs. There is a sad tale of a couple who have two daughters and find out only later that they have drug-related AIDS which they have passed on to their daughters with the inevitable consequences. Lex himself gives up but then just wants to score one more time and struggles to find a supplier in Barcelona, all the ones he knew having gone, one way or the other.

People also go to prison. They get caught by the not entirely stupid police and not just from drug use but also from theft to fund their habit.

And, of course, we get a lot of discussion about drugs. What s the best drug? What is the most dangerous? Injecting cocaine, apparently. Can taking a stronger one help deal with the effects of another drug? What, surprisingly, we do not get, is the pleasure of taking drugs. I would assume that a heroin fix is meant to make you feel good but, if it does, this is never mentioned.

Lex tries to quit and even gets a proper job, running an Italian trattoria in Barcelona with Micalea , whom he met in Naples and married. Not surprisingly, it does not all go to plan.

We do meet numerous people with whom he has connections – one of the few things in his favour is that he tends to keep in touch with some of his fellow druggies and most of them seem to be on the same self-destructive path that he is. His best friend is Fermí though the two often clash and Fermí seems to be on an even more self-destructive path than Lex. Don’t you want to quit horse?, asks Lex. Don’t be ridiculous. You know better than anyone no one quits horse. Once you get in the saddle you’re in it for life is Fermí’s response.

My reaction to this was a certain amount of disbelief in the idea that pretty well all young people in Catalonia and, particularly, in Berga, Lex/Cussà’s home town were junkies. I am not competent to judge what was happening in Catalonia or, indeed, anywhere else but have to wonder if this was really the case and, if so was it replicated elsewhere, such as in the rest of Western Europe and in the Americas. I am well aware that drug use has been and still is extensive but, perhaps naively,but it was mainly limited to less harmful drugs (though cocaine use is presumably extensive).

I am also aware that many rock/film stars were heroin addicts. His musical references do include a few drug-related ones such as J J Cale’s Cocaine though not, as far as I recall, Velvet Underground’s Heroin.. Lou Reed, lead singer of Velvet Underground, famously shot up heroin on stage while other users include Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ozzy Osbourne. Sid Vicious, Topper Headon, Kurt Cobain, Steven Tyler, Kurt Cobain and many more.

The other thing that I found somewhat odd was that apart from their bar and the trattoria, drug dealing, Lex’s DJ career and one other character playing in a British rock band and a few casual jobs, none of them had any sort of job, let alone a career. If all these people were shooting up, who was running the shops, bars/restaurants, local government services, delivery services and so on, not to mention the doctors, lawyers and civil servants? Moreover, very few followed any higher education and very few had long-term romantic relationships, with casual sex (nearly all heterosexual) being the norm.

While this is obviously not the first drug-related novel I have read – Cussà follows a long tradition – I think it could well be the first where virtually every character – and there are quite a few – is a junkie. It certainly is different from the other Catalan novels I have read and certainly something of an eye-opener. Next time I walk down Las Ramblas in Bacelona, I shall not be looking out so much for the pickpockets and touts but the junkies and dealers.

First published in 2000 by Columna Edicions
First English translation in 2022 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Tiago Miller