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Raül Garrigasait: Els estranys (The Others)

Our narrator, like the author, is a translator from German to Catalan. Lke the author, he is called Raül. Like the author, he is from Solsona, though, initially, instead of telling us the name of the town, he merely gives the coordinates which enabled me to identify Solsona, thanks to G****e Maps.

He is visiting the ancestral home of a legendary lineage of Carlist guerrillas called the Tristanys, when he hears someone mention Felix Lichnowsky, a Prussian who entered the army of the Spanish pretender Don Carlos. (Note that in this book he is refereed to as Charles of Borbó, though he is more commonly known in English as Don Carlos of Borbon. We tend not to translate regnal and royal names into English, though the Spanish and Catalans do translate them into Spanish and Catalan respectively.)

The name rang a bell and he remembered that Lichnowsky had made an appearance in Joan Perucho‘s Les històries naturals (Natural History).

A few months later he gets a request to translate Lichnowsky’s memoirs into Spanish. He is surprised that there would be a demand for such a book in Spain but as it is well-paid and he has the time, he agrees. He approves of this publisher but we have all heard of publishers who are rolling in money, have friends in high places and suck like vampires. However, as we later learn, dealing with a small publisher has its own problems.

He decides some research is appropriate and heads off to Berlin, a town he does not like and describes as a wasteland. He finds the Staatsbibliothek and is able to look at a box of documents relating to Lichnowsky. To his surprise he finds the papers of one Rudolf von Wielemann, who was also involved in the Carlist wars. This book is partly von Wielemann’s papers, put into order by our narrator and partly Raül’s approach to the work and his discussions with an older man and teacher called R.

When I started reading about von Wielemann, I thought we might be entering into the familiar territory of the misfit soldier in an army – think The Good Soldier Schweik. While von Wielemann is a misfit, he is no Schweik. However, our author certainly introduces a strong element of humour, particularly with the Catalan soldiers, especially a group known as the Shambolic Six and von Wielemann’s relationship with them which is, to put it mildly, not exactly in accordance with strict military procedure.

Our poor hero is twenty-seven and comes from a well-to-do family. He himself is thoroughly indolent. He reads, he plays music, he falls in love. His father points out to him that, as a von Wielemann, he has to make his mark somehow and what better way to do that than go to that backward country in the west and fight for the Carlists against the liberals, returning a short while later with a medal and the greater glory of the von Wielemann name.

It does not go well. His first problem is the language. He speaks bad French but he certainly does not speak Catalan and, in particular certainly does not speak the Leida variety of Catalan. He comes from what he would consider a civilised country and here he is, a man brought up on Order and Structure, in a chaotic country, where there seems be to be no order, no structure and little civilisation.

He tries to attach himself to Carlos but the Pretender finds him intimidating (he is tall). He has a letter of introduction from his uncle, a Prussian general, but there seems no-one he can present it to. The Catalan soldiers mock him and when he tells them he is Prussian, they think he is Russian.

Finally he is given a job – to help in the hospital. There are, not surprisingly, a lot of wounded, with exposed wounds and operations taking place without anaesthetic. He faints. He wakes up in a bed with a strange woman looking after him. Soon after, he discovers that the Carlist troops are withdrawing but not with him. What is he to do? He asks around and finally he is told he must stay as he has a secret mission to perform. What secret mission? He has no idea.

And so he stays. The city is in ruins. He has no assignment and no-one, except perhaps for the mayor, to give him an assignment, nothing to do. He stays in the house of the woman, a widow he learns. He does make friends – with Dr Miguel Foraster (it means foreigner). They have a common love of music and von Wielemann plays Beethoven on Foraster’s piano.

Meanwhile the war has moved elsewhere and Raül and R. are ruminating on the issues. They raise a variety of interesting points. Why are the Catalans such devoted Carlists? Very simply because they are devoted to the idea of King and God. They are far from holy in their behaviour. Nevertheless, the traditional ways – an absolutist monarch and a church with all of its traditions, icons and customs is what they are used to. The Liberals, who are interested in modernisation, are anathema to them. The Liberals pass new laws but the only thing you understand is you can never be sure they won’t screw you over somehow. They comment further on this situation: The cruel dogmatism of a mediaeval ecclesiastical tribunal clashing with a free spirit of modern man, old faith against new reason, tradition versus liberty.

Though Garrigasait does not mention this, this seems to me to be the situation we now have with populists. The Trump supporters wanted the traditional white majority US with no illegal immigrants and people of colour in subordinate positions. The Brexiters want the idealised independent, free Britain of the past, with no immigrants. The Israelis want a land only for Jews and free of Palestinians, as it was two thousand years ago and so on. All of these people look back to an idealised past which probably never existed but they still want it back.

Raül and R. also discuss the disappearance of Prussia and the Prussians and, more particularly, how order is seen as something of a millstone while God and King are remote. The more power they have, the less we have to worry ourselves with order.

Meanwhile the war is going on. Carlos fails to take Madrid, The Count of Spain tries to introduce discipline into the Carlist army, the Catalans call Maria Christina of the Two Sicilies Christina the Whore and our hero finally gets command of a platoon as the Liberals attack Solsona.

This really is an excellent books as Garrigasait tells a very clever story, uses ribald humour to portray the military and the Catalans, mocks the Prussians and raises some serious issues, while delving into the history of his own region. Translator Tiago Miller clearly had some fun, trying to convey the Leida dialect of Catalan into colloquial English, as he tells us in the afterword. Another fine work from Fum d’Estampa.

First published in 2017 by Edicions 1984
First published in English in 2021 by Fum d’Estampa
Translated by Tiago Miller