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Barcelona's kicking

Barca's writers have been awed into silence by the sublime football played in the Camp Nou stadium. Sophie Hughes meets the soccer-mad novelist who could change all that

Under Travel Books, writer, critic and translator Sophie Hughes talks about her favourite radical literature from all over the world.

I asked a friend – a Catalan and a good reader – which books he thought showcased the best thinkers and voices in Barcelona at the moment and he sent me a link to the now ex-manager of FC Barcelona Pep Guardiola’s biography, Another Way of Winning. Pep put the beautiful back into the beautiful game, repositioning the aesthetic and tactical benchmarks so crushingly successfully that he transformed into a mythical football centaur – half-coach, half-philosopher. Watching this happen, the creative writers in Spain’s supposed cultural capital had gone quiet. Pep himself is said to read Barcelona’s most ubiquitous writer, Enrique Vila-Matas, whose work rightly started filtering through to the US in 2004. His encyclopaedic cult novel on writers who don’t write, Bartleby and Co., is still the go-to book for style-conscious writers in need affirmation that it’s ok for the novel to focus on what one know: not being able to write. Funnily enough, when he’s not busy writing about writers, Vila-Matas can be found either watching or writing about Barça and Pep Guardiola

Little surprise that when Jordi Punti’s first novel, Lost Luggage, lands on my desk and I look him up, he’s not only “watched a couple of games with Vila-Matas” but also falls under the common Spanish breed of novelists who can’t resist writing about football. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of FC Barcelona in 1999, ‘Germans Miranda’ – a collective of 12 young writers, journalists and screenwriters who got together to publish short stories under one name - wrote a volume of football stories, theatrically entitled, El Barça o la vida (Barça Or Life). I hardly need to ask Jordi which team out of the Catalan capital's fierce local derby he supports. “Barça, Barça, Barça. Espanyol is not even a choice. Never was in my childhood, anyway. I started to like football when I was 7 years old, and at that time (1974) to be a Barça fan was also a way to protest against the dictator Franco and the apple of his eyes, Real Madrid. Espanyol was more of a dubious club, with no connections to Catalan expectations, so my parents encouraged me to support Barça.” 

Lost Luggage isn’t about football, but it’s a novel so engaging, with such a forward-driving narrative that despite its 500-odd pages you feel you could get through it in 90 minutes, sacking off the half time oranges. Christof, Christophe, Christopher and Cristòfol are half-brothers living separate lives across the world, unaware of each other’s existence. One day Cristòfol is alerted by the police that his father, Gabriel, has gone missing and from their divided beginnings, the “Christophers” are obliged to team up to find their father, a lorry driver who for thirty years evaded the political furore of General Franco’s regime by traversing Europe. 

It’s the combination of this straight-down-the-line storytelling with Jordi’s ingenious inflections in the language and structure that make Lost Luggage feel so rebellious. He thinks nothing, for example, of switching between writing in the “we” plural, combining the “Christophers” into one collective voice, and the first person singular, but this trick serves a purpose in the story. “The use of "we" is definitely a "tour de force" in the novel. In the beginning I started to write with a single narrator, but it felt too artificial to me, since it was difficult to convey what the other siblings had to say. Then one day I pictured the narrator as The Platters in a concert, you know, the band singing "Only you" – they sing all four together, and then suddenly one makes a solo, or two of the singers reply, and this game of voices seemed really funny to me... And I realized that this was the precise form I needed for the novel.”  

It’s so refreshing to come across storytellers like Jordi, whose experiments with the novel, like Pep’s radical tactics (like the infamous 3-4-3 system), are never gratuitous, or played at the expense of the readers’ enjoyment. Writing in El Pais, Pep said, “In Barcelona it is understood that you can never win in a way that does not feel right to the directors, coaches, players, friends of the press and the people who go every week to see them."  The same inclusive principle should apply to even the most radical new fiction – experiment, but include the reader in those experiments. Jordi tells me his aim was “to write a complex story that could be read in different layers: one for readers who want just adventures, another for who prefers a historical recreation, another for readers who are looking for a digression about human condition... and also, in the end, a novel for the ones who'd like to have it all and don't feel excluded by anything.” FC Barcelona suffered a loss when Pep left town, but perhaps now a few rays of the international limelight will shine on another tactical mastermind, this time in Barcelona’s literary scene.