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Narcís Oller: La bogeria (The Madness)

The novel opens in Catalonia halfway through 1867. This was a period of considerable political disturbance in Spain, with the rise of Carlism, major disputes between the progressives and conservatives and major economic problems. We shall see some of the problems during the course of the book.

The narrator is unnamed. We know that he is a lawyer and, later in the book, he will fall in love with Matilda though this is only relevant to show as a comparison with the main character. Another lawyer we meet is named. He is called Armengol but he will later become a doctor. It is he who introduces the narrator to our main character, Daniel Serralonga. Daniel is an engineer and landowner and lives in the small, fictitious Catalan town of Vilaniu.

When we meet him, Daniel is twenty-five years old and seems to spend some of his time gambling. He had had a difficult upbringing. His parents married but soon did not get on. She became a devout Catholic, he a gambler. As well as Daniel, the couple had two daughters, Adela and Carolina. The father maintains they are not his and the two were brought up by an aunt. As a result they were not devoted to their father. Carolina, the youngest, is both a hunchback and epileptic.

The narrator and Armengol meet Daniel in a coffee house and we see the first signs of his erratic behaviour. In an act of deliberate provocation, the Commander of the Mossos d’Esquadra, the Catalan police force, enters the coffee house and is roundly booed. Daniel goes one step further and threatens him. He is arrested and sent to prison.

Daniel sees himself as a martyr and writes articles for the progressive press, which he gives to his friends to get published. They find the articles ludicrous and destroy them. When he is finally released, he demands to see the newspapers and they have to pretend that they have been seized by the Post Office. Daniel has to return to Vilaniu. Things get worse for him, as his father kills himself. The verdict by Giberga, a doctor friend of Armengol and the narrator, is madness.

We now follow Daniel over the years. The narrator and his cousin visit the house in Vilaniu. Daniel is away but they meet the strange sisters and, in Daniel’s study, they see his obsession with General Prim. Prim is a general who became prime minister and is then assassinated. Daniel is working for him and is utterly devoted to him. When Prim is assassinated, he comes up with various conspiracy theories (the assassins were never found). He accuses all and sundry and hounds a poor priest.

We continue to follow Daniel through the eyes of the narrator, Armengol and Giberga. Giberga considers his madness is inherited. Daniel gets involved in a major dispute over the inheritance with his sisters. He marries, more to spite his sisters than for love. He speculates wildly on the stock market during an economic boom. Each time we see him and the narrator and Armengol see him, he looks worse and he behaves more erratically. In short, Oller paints an excellent portrait of a man who slowly but surely is sinking into madness.

So what causes this madness? Is it inherited, as Giberga maintains? Is his father’s suicide a cause of Daniel’s instability? Is it triggered by General Prim’s assassination or the huge dispute with his sisters? Is the general political and economic uncertainty a factor? Oller cleverly allows all these factors to be possibilities and leaves it to us determine whether all are responsible or whether it is, for example, inherited but triggered by one or more of these events. In other words, if the political and economic situation had been calm, if General Prim had not been assassinated and he had had a good relationship with his sisters, would he have had a relatively normal and stable life?

The book is set in the late nineteenth century and published in 1899, i.e. when our knowledge of psychiatry and mental health issues was still quite rudimentary. I am not even vaguely qualified to say whether Daniel was schizophrenic or suffering from other mental health issues which, nowadays would have been appropriately diagnosed. I can say, however, that some of the issues we see – obsession with a political leader, conspiracy theories, family disputes and challenges to authority – are clearly common today and if all were considered madness, there would be many, many people declared insane, including several political leaders.

This is the first novel from a new publisher Fum d’Estampa Press and I am looking forward to them introducing us to other Catalan writers. This book is definitely a small gem. It mixes the humorous and serious very well, gives us an excellent view of late nineteenth century Catalonia and shows a healthy disrespect for authority, at least authority in late nineteenth century Spain.

First published by Antonio López in 1899
First published in Fum d’Estampa Press in 2020
Translated by Douglas Suttle