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Xavier Benguerel: Icària, Icària

The novel opens in Barcelona in 1922. Things are not good for the ordinary workers, with a lot of police suppression and exploitation of workers. Clemente Rovira’s father was seized from their home by the police, tortured and killed. Not surprisingly, Clemente is determined to avenge his father. Naturally, his mother, having lost her husband, does not want to lose her only child. Clemente joins a group, whose leader is Aurelio, a retired train fireman, now in a wheelchair. Clemente, of course, wants revenge.

The first plan is to kill an industrialist who is arbitrarily firing workers. Santiago will shoot the man, while Clemente will act as look-out. It does not go well as, when the man turns up when and where he was expected to turn up, he is accompanied by four other men. They abandon the attempt. Clemente, who has been very nervous, is physically sick. They go back to Santiago’s house. Santiago lives alone with his sister, Claudia. Clemente is too shy to ask what happened to their parents. Claudia is well aware what Santiago is doing and she supports him.

Claudia and Clemente start a relationship, despite the act that Claudia is clearly older than him. When Celemente’s mother dies, he moves in with them. The next time they attempt to shoot the man, they are successful. However, other attempts – for example, on the governor – will be less successful. These are presumably based on fact as we get actual newspaper clippings of the events.

However, Aurelio is having doubts about this killing for the sake of killing as it seems to achieve nothing. He starts telling the group about Étienne Cabet and the Icarians. Étienne Cabet was an idealistic French Socialist of the early-mid nineteenth century. He held various government positions but, on a visit to England, where he had fled following accusations of treason against him, he became interested in the work of the social reformer Robert Owen and wrote a book called Voyage et aventures de lord William Carisdall en Icarie [Travel and Adventures of Lord William Carisdall in Icaria]. If you read French you can read Volume 1 and Volume 2. Syracuse University Press published an English translation in 2003 entitled Travels in Icaria, which is still in print.

The book describes a fictitious Utopia in which a democratically elected governing body controlled all economic activity and closely supervised social life. The book had considerable success and inspired Cabet to set up a real community of the same kind. His other publications gained considerable support and he eventually bought some land in Texas and a group of his supporters, mainly but not exclusively French, set out for Texas. Aurelio describes this community to the group and he clearly sees this as a model that should be followed rather than the model they have been following of political assassinations.

The rest of the book intersperses the two stories: the events in Barcelona in 1922, with failed assassination attempts, and the Icarian movement. Benguerel’s method is to slide between the two stories so, at one moment we are in Barcelona and the next in Texas. Moreover, our main characters seem to be involved in both, with Clemente and his parents and Aurelio being part of the Icarian group.

Benguerel describes the Icarian events in detail. The whole exercise is, more or less, a total disaster, badly planned and badly organised. It goes wrong from the start, with the journey by ship to New Orleans taking fifty-two days instead of the planned three weeks. Conditions are calamitous. The weather is either too hot or too wet. Some people abscond (some with the money of the group). Others die. The group has been massively deceived about the land they are going to get from the Peters Group. Cabet himself is not there but standing for Parliament in France (he loses). He eventually arrives and the colony abandon the Texas plot and moves to Nauvoo, Illinois, recently abandoned by the Mormons (because of prejudice against them).

The final act of the group in Barcelona is an attempt to kill King Alfonso XIII. As we have seen from a previous Catalan novel reviewed on this site, Alfonso actually died in Rome of cancer in 1941. In other words, the attempt is a total failure. As regards the Icarians, we know historically that they moved on more than once and, eventually, disbanded. These later events are not covered by this book, except for Clemente thinking that a similar community might be a good idea.

Benguerel seems to be saying that both violent attacks on political figures and the idea of a community of workers in a foreign land are both doomed to failure. However, while it seems clear what he is against, it is not clear what he is for. We are left with Clemente’s half-hearted support of the community idea but with no sense that he will or can bring it about. As with other Catalan novels, we certainly learn more about historical events, which most English speakers will know little or nothing about though, as this book is not available in English, that is not particularly relevant. Indeed, apart from his 1956 novel Els vençuts appearing in French, none of his works seems to have been translated into any language other than Spanish. (This novel was published simultaneously in Catalan and Spanish.) Juxtaposing the two plots does work fairly well, particularly putting some of the characters in both. The book was well received on original publication and won the Planeta Prize in 1974.

First published by Planeta in 1974
No English translation
First published in Spanish as Icaria, Icaria by Planeta in 1974