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Lluïsa Forrellad: Siempre en capilla [Always In The Chapel]

Unusually for a Catalan novel, this novel is set in England. It takes place in the 1890s in a certain town in a certain English county, where poverty is rife. The town is called Spick and I wonder if Forrellad is making something of an ironic play on the phrase spick and span, which the town definitely is not. We follow three doctors, all of whom come from relatively modest backgrounds. They are Alexander, Jasper and Leonard. They are struggling with the conditions and health problems of the local community where they work. In particular, they are concerned about diphtheria.

Leonard is a skilled surgeon and it is he who starts the narration. One of the cures for diphtheria is the rather drastic tracheotomy, which can help but is very unpleasant and can cause death (as it does more than once in this book).

Jasper and Alexander are looking for a cure, developing a serum, which involves using animals to test on. Not surprisingly, they get objections from the local animal lovers, who accuse them of murdering guinea pigs (they are actually using rats as guinea pigs).

Part of the problem is that the poor people live in close proximity to one another and in unhealthy dwellings, both of which help the spread of diphtheria. When the doctors recommend isolation of a patient from a poor family, it simply is not possible. As they say, it is harder to cure ignorance than to cure diphtheria.

As a result, we follow the rise of diphtheria in the town, with whole streets affected and whole families wiped out. Forrellad spares us few details, as we follow the doctors’ often vain attempt to save a child.

One of the key issues is the morality of testing the serum on those infected or, in the case of animals, infecting the animals and then testing the serum. Alexander and Leonard (Jasper less so) are both concerned about testing on animals other than rats. However, we also get the issue of testing on humans.

One day, after helping a patient Leonard passes by a local bar, looking for the father of the now dead child. A man, whom the (female) owner addresses as Martino, gets aggressive with him. When Leonard goes back to the bar to get a drink, he finds it open but empty. He looks into the kitchen at the back and sees the owner lying on the floor, a knife in her throat. He reports the matter to the police, who identify Martino as an escaped criminal they are looking for.

However, on returning home, he finds his colleagues are treating Martino (who is unconscious). Leonard wants to turn him in to the police but Jasper suggests they use him as a guinea pig, given that he is likely to die on the gallows anyway. Leonard is horrified. When Martino wakes up, he is given the option: be turned in to the police or be infected with diphtheria and then injected with the serum and, if he survives, they will help him escape abroad.

The issue also comes up when they consider using the serum on a dying child. They back off, when one father tells them they can try the serum but if the child dies, he will kill them.

We follow their very hectic and stressful life as they deal with a full-blown diphtheria epidemic, while also dealing with other medical problems, always seemingly running from one crisis to another. We get a variety of ailments, from typhoid to a man who drinks a bottle of sulphuric acid thinking it was alcohol, as well as the various minor ones. The stress tells on them, both as regards their health as well as regards their relationship with one another.

The diphtheria epidemic eventually runs its course but not before many have died. It seems to strike arbitrarily, some living and some dying, without any obvious reason why. The rich also die. These epidemics are not unusual. We learn of a previous cholera epidemic and a current yellow fever epidemic in Bogotá, which has taken one of their colleagues.

Forrellad won the Nadal Prize in 1953 for this novel and then did not write another novel for fifty-three years. This one was written in Spanish and did not appear in Catalan till 2007, though her later ones were written in Catalan. It is certainly a fine novel, as we see the doctors struggling with trying to develop a new serum and trying to save lives, while dealing with stress and moral issues. It has not been translated into English and is unlikely to be translated.

First published by Editorial Destino in 1953
No English translation
First published in Catalan as Sempre en capella by Angle in 2007 (translated by the author)
First published in German as Die ewige by Ludwig Maier & Gerhard Neumann Verlag in 1956