Terenci Moix: El dia que va morir Marilyn [The Day Marilyn Died]
Moix originally wrote this novel in Spanish. It was not published. He then rewrote it in Catalan and this was the first published version. It had considerable success and was hailed as one of the great modern Catalan novels. A Spanish version, translated by someone else, was published which, at Moix’s request, contained many Catalan expressions in the Spanish text. He then again revised it and the current in-print version is the definitive version.
The novel essentially tells the story of a family and their friends who grew up in Barcelona in the 1950s and 1960s. It has a brief introduction and then five separate section, each one (except the last) focussing on one character and narrated by that character. This method gives the reader a detailed portrait of what Barcelona was like during that period and it is this portrait of an era that is both its charm and the cause of the positive reception it has had in Spain. The book is dedicated to all those who were twenty the day Marilyn died.
There is a brief introduction which has Bruno Quadreny returning to Sitges (a seaside resort about twenty miles from Barcelona, where he and his family spent many a summer). In particular, he notes how much has changed and briefly reminisces about his past, including his love for Marilyn Monroe.
The main book starts with Amelia, the matriarch of the family and gives the dates 1934 to 1947. She starts her account from before the Civil War (1936-39) and, as with the others, often looks at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. She remembers the people of Barcelona as hard-working and honest but, in her view, that is no longer the case. As with her son, Bruno, (and Moix himself), she is fascinated by the cinema and feels that some of the stars of those days, such as Jean Harlow and Robert Taylor, have been unjustly forgotten. (She is telling this to her sons and Bruno comments that in twenty years it is likely that Marilyn, too, will be forgotten.)
She tells about dating Xim (Joaquim), now her husband, before the war and is upset when he decides to join up during the war. She is horrified by the killing of the priests in Barcelona and supports the Falange.
Amelia and Xim get married after the war. She gets a long lecture from the priest about how a wife should be the slave to her husband (something she is only prepared to accept if there is love) and then a lecture from her future mother-in-law on similar lines, adding that love is not relevant. She says that she wishes she had been born a man. This view has not changed, when she learns that Xim has been consistently unfaithful to her.
The family owned a shop and, immediately after the war, business was very bad though we later learn that they do very well. Indeed, one of the key themes is that family moves from being working class to middle class, thanks to the success of the business.
Bruno takes up the next section, with the dates given as 1947 to 1953. We follow his childhood, his relationships with his parents and with his brother, Carlitus. He remembers his father telling him that, thanks to Franco, Spain was not involved in World War II. They are very much under the influence of popular culture such as comics. However, when it comes to the cinema, it is US cinema and cartoons (particularly Disney cartoons) that they love. They go the circus and, as it is from the US, it must be magical – from what other place but America could all the fantasy, all the enchantment of the world come? It is Marilyn Monroe, as the title tells us, who is his favourite star. He soon discovers, however, that his best friend, Jordi, does not share this view, preferring Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson.
We have known from early in the book that Jordi is gay but, at that age, Bruno is barely aware of his own sexuality, let alone homosexuality. However, this will become an important theme in the book and at times come between them, as they will have different friends at university as a result. We see this particularly in the third part, called Jordi, with the date of 1961.
As well as struggling with his sexuality, Jordi struggles with his future. He wants to be a painter but not surprisingly, his father does not think of that as a career. Jordi’s father is a publisher but he publishes commercial works, though is not averse to publishing better quality work if there is money in it. For example, when the censorship is relaxed, he publishes Stendhal, Flaubert and Víctor Hugo. On the whole Jordi and Bruno look down on what he publishes, though Jordi does admit that he benefits from what he calls his father’s banditry, which includes his very poor treatment of his staff and authors. Those who say that money does not bring happiness are fools, he comments.
It is through the publishing firm that they meet Joaquim Benlloc, a writer and Catalanist, probably based on the writer Josep Pla. It is Benlloc that introduces them to Catalan culture, essentially banned under Franco, telling Bruno about Catalan literature and Jordi about Catalan art. Both feel very much Barcelonan – both will state this in very clear and precise terms (I am Barcelona, Bruno states) – but now can be more aware of being Catalan.
The fourth book is told by Xim. Xim as we know, has not been a faithful husband. He freely admits that he married Amelia for sexual reasons only and freely admits his multiple infidelities. He becomes more and more surprised when Amelia asserts her independence. For example, she wants to go and take an external degree and he is amazed and tries to stop her. He is particularly annoyed when they go to a dance and she dances cheek-to-cheek with another man. He has these fantasies of killing the man and the couple later have a huge row. Like Jordi’s father, he has strong views on his son’s future and, like Jordi’s father, would like his son to follow in his footsteps.
The worse event for him is the death of his younger son, Carlitus. Carlitus had been sickly all his life. They were able to get some temporary relief from a Swiss doctor (and a faith healer) but he did die. Afterwards, he states Amelia and I looked at each other in desperation, we embraced in desperation and we were along in the world and we did not love another.
The final book is entitled The Kids and is narrated by Bruno and tells of their lives as young adults. We follow his sex life, of course, and his time at university. We learn that Amelia seems to have a lover. Bruno tries to keep up with the smart set at university but is mocked for his love of popular culture, particularly for his love of popular cinema, instead of Godard, Resnais and Renoir. As with Xim, he is hit by the death of Carlitus and even holds a seance to get in touch with him.
This is not a plot-driven novel but both a Bildungsroman and a portrait of a city and an era, as seen through a particular family. It had considerable success in Catalonia and Spain, appearing 60th on the list of 100 best novels of the 20th century written in Spanish. The key issues – homosexuality, marital (in)fidelity, popular culture, particularly the cinema, economic and political changes, death and, of course the Civil War – are all handled in great detail and very well told. It has not appeared in English, maybe because it was considered too foreign for English speakers or may be just because it is too long.
First published by Edicions 62 in 1969
No English translation
First published in French as Le Jour où est morte Marilyn by Le Chemin vert
First published in Spanish as El día que murió Marilyn by Plaza & Janés in 1984