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Víctor Català: Solitud (Solitude)

This novel is one of the classics of the modern Catalan novel. It was first published in 1905 and though Català wrote other works afterwards, she had only limited success, despite living for another sixty years. She tells us in the foreword that when she initially wrote it, she cut out two chapters as she thought the book was too long. When she was planning to republish the book at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, she planned to put them back. When she returned home to fetch the manuscript, she found that her house had been raided by the authorities in the search for guns. They had taken the shotgun used by her great-grandfather to fight against the Napoleonic invasion but her manuscript, apart from a few scattered pages, had also disappeared, so this book still contains only the original eighteen chapter plus a few fragments.

The book is about Matias and Mila, two newly-weds. He has been given the job of a caretaker of a hermitage up in the mountains and their honeymoon is the long and arduous journey to the hermitage. Mila bitterly complains for much of the journey, her concerns exacerbated by the sight of the steep path to their destination. When they finally get there, her comment is How lonely!

They are met by Gaietà, a shepherd, and a boy assistant, Baldiret. A tour of the premises does not improve Mila’s mood. The chapel is devoted to St Pontius, according to Gaietà, the patron saint of good health (though I can find no evidence for this). Mila finds it frightening, as it seems to be full of what she calls stinking and worm-eaten junk. The noise of the mountains – St Pontius’ Roar – does not help. The next morning the view is merely grey and, despite the splendours of the mountains, not appealing.

A few of the missing pages mentioned appear as Baldiret loves stories and Gaietà tells him several during the course of the book, all of which have an element of fantasy about them. However, there is a dark side and the dark side is Anima. Anima is a wild mountain man who seems to make his living from trapping rabbits but, according to Gaietà, he is the nastiest man in these mountains. Mila and Gaietà see him from a distance but Mila will see him again.

Things start well as Mila cleans the place up and it looks much nicer. However, things do not go well between Matias and Mila. He is lazy and eventually starts running up debts. He tries to earn money by carrying the shrine of St Pontius around and selling prayers associated with the saint. Mila thinks the money should go the sanctuary but Matias has other ideas.

When Spring comes, they can make more money, selling food and drink to hunters and other visitors. When the Festival of Roses, associated with St Pontius arrives, they hope to make a lot of money by organising a feast but people do not pay, there is almost a riot and lots of their things get damaged.

Gradually the couple become estranged, not helped by Mila’s attraction for Arnau (which is reciprocated), her attraction for Gaietà (which goes off when she finds out how old he is) and Matias’ debts. Meanwhile, Anima is making his presence felt but not in a nice way. Worse still, Matias is spending more time with Anima. The two have taken up gambling which Matias is successful at but which is illegal.

One day, Gaietà tells her that he is leaving for his winter shepherding but, at her request, promises to take her up to Highpeak, a mountain she has never been up. The trek starts well though Mila is somewhat fearful of the mountain but soon gets into the spirit and enjoys the journey. However, when they get high up, they see a face peering down at them. It is Anima who seems to have been following them.

It is not surprising that this book has been hailed as a Catalan classic. Català not only tells a good story, she gives us a lot more. We have the joys of the mountains, albeit with Mila’s fear of them. We have good versus evil. We have a strong feminist slant, both with Mila’s sexual interest in two men, one a widower, the other engaged, while she is married, not a point of view we would expect to see in 1905 in a strong Catholic country. We have the portrait of a failing marriage. We have a strange saint, whom Mila both fears and venerates. We have a series of tales, mainly told by Gaietà, dealing with the mountains and their myths. Above all, while her husband proves his lack of worth, we have Mila’s strength in dealing with her issues but also her anxieties, as she struggles to cope. This is a novel that should be better known.

Víctor Català: Solitud (Solitude)

First published by Joventut in 1905
First published in English by Readers International in 1992