Home » Catalonia » Max Besora » Aventures i desventures de l’insòlit i admirable Joan Orpí, conquistador i fundador de la Nova Catalunya (Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí)

Max Besora: Aventures i desventures de l’insòlit i admirable Joan Orpí, conquistador i fundador de la Nova Catalunya (Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Orpí)

Joan Orpí was very much a real person, a Spanish (or, more specifically) Catalan explorer who founded New Barcelona, now Barcelona, Venezuela. There is one book written about him, by Pau Vila, and this is our main source for information on him. However, this is a found manuscript novel, i.e. our narrator finds a manuscript, which explains more, much more about our hero.

During one of the many sieges of Barcelona, specifically the 1714 one, a captain tells a more detailed tale of Orpí, a soldier writes it down and the manuscript finds its way to the Archives of the Indies in Seville, where our narrator finds it. The captain is clearly a post-modernist as he starts his tale at Chapter XVI and, when the soldiers object, comments When I speak of going against the narration I don’t mean there shall be no story, no adventures, no characters! I speak of the need for a hybrid construction, plurilingualism, exaggeration, hyperbole, pastiche, and bivocal discourse to bring together what convention & morality strive to keep separate. Literature must be a frontal attack designed to suspend all rational judgment in order to reinvent it each second anew! Yes, we can see from the beginning that our author intends to have some post-modernist fun, including questioning the reliability of the manuscript he has – unreliable narrators are, of course, de rigueur for the post-modernist. Indeed, the soldiers also question the reliability of their captain’s tale, feeling that he has quite simply made some of the story up.

We do start, finally at Chapter 1 and follow Joan’s birth in Piera. His father was a farmer. Joan meets the Virgin of Montserrat as a child – the two do not get on well. He does not do well at school and his father is disappointed in him, as it seems he will not make a farmer or a priest or a soldier. Indeed, his uselessness extends to sex, as his first sexual encounter is fairly disastrous, as are quite a few of his subsequent ones.

His father then sends him off to Barcelona to study law, as he seems to like books, but that too, does not work out well. On his journey, he is robbed and meets Satan, witches and a dwarf who pops up many times in this book, often helping him out when he is in a difficult siltation, then finds Barcelona is closed because of an epidemic. He does manage to sneak in but things continue to go badly and he ends up prison. Even his brilliant escape is disastrous. However, like any good university student then and now he is generally labouring harder to earn a degree at the school of debauchery than at the school of wisdom, though the debauchery seems more concerned with carousing as his sex life is as disastrous as before.

To our surprise he does obtain a degree and after a failed attempt at defending the witches whom he met previously (we witness their rather unpleasant execution, not the only execution described in gory detail), he gets a job, working for a rich Jew, recommended by a a man whom he befriends who has just written a novel called Don Quixote. Cervantes is not the only historical character we meet in this novel.

That job, of course goes wrong. He goes to Seville (many more adventures en route, including a highwaywoman who gives him a very pronounced 21st century-style lecture on gender roles). Of course, the job he expected to get is not available.

While in Seville he discovers a bookshop – being naive he applies for a job but does not get it, buying a lot of books instead – and comes across Theodor de Bry‘s Les Grands Voyages, which which depicted the natives of the New World as savages and cannibals. However, his real connection with the Americas comes when he meets Ursula. Her husband catches them in flagrante delicto – his sex life continues to be less than successful – and Ursula kills the man, at which point she tells him that her now late husband has a lot of gold stashed away in the Americas and, if he goes and gets it, they will share it 60(for her)-40.

The remainder of the book involves his adventures in the Americas, specifically in what is now Venezuela. As we know, he founds New Barcelona, but, in this novel, he does much more. He falls in love (of course), comes across pirates (more than once, including Francis Drake), is shipwrecked, attacked by and later rescued by Amazons, almost eaten by cannibals, finds a fortune, loses a fortune, has lots of difficult dealings with the authorities, fights off the King’s troops, meets the King, changes his identity, fights the Dutch (more than once), becomes a governor, is almost eaten by a giant squid and, above all, preserves his Catalan culture, in the face of the Spaniards. Indeed, part of this book is about the Catalan-Spanish enmity.

What makes this book such fun for us, firstly, you never know what is going to happen to our hero. One minute he is up, the next down. Everything is entirely tongue-in-cheek and often very funny and often very improbable, as the soldiers listening to the captain tell the tale point out more than once, to which the captain responds we could also critique the fact that the narrative voice is constantly interfering in the story, notte to mention the cacophonic pirouettes thou oblige me record, the dialectical expressions, the poetic amphigory, the constant linguistic ups and downs, and the impossible mishmash of archaic and modern language, etc. Thou art a rhetorical rebbel!

As mentioned by me and (obliquely) by the captain, it is thoroughly post-modern: unreliable narrator, loads of anachronisms (I have not seen the Catalan original, but Mara Faye Lethem, our translator, fills the book with very modern slang words and expressions), historical characters often popping up, sometimes out of their time, contemporary issues (sexism, colonialism, racism) are discussed in detail, a naive hero, a mocking of the picaresque novel, authorial intervention, metafiction (the captain and the soldier taking down the words of the captain) and parody in general.

Indeed, literature as a whole is condemned: Diego de Saavedra, in his Republic of Letters doth declare that, with the invention of the printing press, ‘everyone drags into the light what would be best kept in the dark, because, just as there be few whose actions are worthy of being record’d, there be few who write something worthy of being read. While I can partially agree with Don Diego, it is not the case with this novel which is certainly worthy of being read, a witty, clever, inventive work.

First published by Editorial Males Herbes in 2017
First published in English by Open Letter in 2021
Translated by Mara Faye Lethem