Black Bread by Emili Teixidor tr. Peter Bush (Biblioasis, July 2016) Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer

Black Bread
by Emili Teixidor
tr. Peter Bush
(Biblioasis, July 2016)

Reviewed by Tyler Langendorfer

Midway through Emili Teixidor’s Black Bread, a question surfaces: “Does memory have a guiding thread or purpose?” The many enigmatic qualities of memory seem to be under investigation here and throughout the entire novel. Its qualities alongside its centrality in the understanding of ourselves: How does it shape the type of person we become? Would we be completely different with a whole new set of memories? Black Bread frequently alludes to memory’s instability, its wavering between continuity and transience: What images and words trigger memories to reappear? Why do some individuals stay in our mind longer than others? Yet perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Teixidor’s insistent investigation is his consideration of memory’s value in our relationships with others: Do memories demand fidelity to loved ones? If friends and family start to fade from the mind, does their importance diminish with them? As the burden of these inquiries takes hold, the adolescent narrator of Black Bread, Andreu, realizes that the dissolution of his connections with the past—-the ephemerality of meaning that this precipitates—-is a fate worse than death.

At the core of this erasure is the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The book centers on the “hungry years” of the 1940s, when Andreu has been left to stay at the farm of his relatives, in a small Catalan community complicit in the act of forgetting. They, the war’s defeated, do little to resist the supporters—-landowners, civic authorities, priests—-of the victorious General Franco from instituting their hegemonic system of rule. Few choose to acknowledge what has come to pass, yet the preceding years’ barbarity endures in subtler forms of terror: house raids, slanderous gossip and the threat of exclusion by the powers that deny and confer privilege. In this setting characterized by sadism and deceit, Andreu must reckon with his own identity and purpose. Yet he struggles to make sense of his memories’ arbitrary influence, haunted at the same time by those integral to his notion of himself, and those expelled without reason.

The immediacy and bitterness of Teixidor’s prose, conveyed in a flawless translation from Catalan by Peter Bush, suggest that similar phantoms haunted the author through the end of his life. Published in 2003, when Teixidor was seventy years old, Black Bread was identified by Bush, in an interview with Words without Borders, as the last part of a “triptych” of Catalan novels that addresses the theme of war, with Uncertain Glory (1956) by Joan Sales as the first part, followed by Mercè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square (1962). Like many texts that address this theme, Black Bread examines the most irreconcilable elements of war’s aftermath. It is an affirmation of the Sebald quotation used for its epigraph, that “we are still fully within that era,” that the trauma and consequences of such events linger on in the recesses of the collective memory long after all attempts to bring closure.

Yet it is not only the memory of these years that motivates Teixidor’s writing, but also how they are remembered. He is unsettled by the faulty basis of our own interpretation of life’s episodes as they happen to us. Revisionist histories may be rife with inaccuracies, but we, agents of perception for what will soon be “the past,” are not necessarily reliable. An epigraph by Agustín García Calvo articulates the inevitably reductionist character of those narratives that attempt to synthesize the historical with the personal:

The deceit of History is the deceit Reality introduces . . . A times comes when you recall an event from your own world and don’t feel happy with the explanation, with the way Reality has been categorized and quantified. You feel that it wasn’t true; it aspired to be the truth, but didn’t make it.

Coupled with Andreu’s statement that “time only mattered when you looked back,” these observations reflect a cynicism toward the validity and nuance of those judgments we make without any temporal remove (and thus, presumably, any emotional remove) from the moments in question. Yet Black Bread is not a restorative act—-with statements such as “the passage of time only ravaged everything,” there are no insinuations of possible reparation—-yet we are enabled to fathom the vast scope of the human loss that has its origin in these years, as it exists to this day. Time has its way with the novel’s characters, shapes their actions, their desires. What remains, tainting even the most benign memories, is despair for the future, the caesura from the lives they could have perhaps led in a different era and place.

These concerns seem a long way off in Black Bread’s beginning chapters, where Andreu describes his life with his cousins on the farm and in the surrounding woods, a “shrine that hid and safeguarded the mystery” of his future. Teixidor frames each opening according to the different seasons, a method of introduction to the children’s activities throughout the year: resting on branches in the old plum tree, hoping to catch the leaves changing color; sitting before the fireplace; wandering through the forest on the way home from school. His cousins are Núria (mostly referred to as Cry-baby), who like Andreu, has been left behind by her Republican parents, and the older Quirze, the next in line to take over management of the farm from his father, “Dad Quirze.” Andreu and Cry-baby live out the games and fantasies of childhood, while Quirze, who claims he doesn’t dream, is contently resigned to the routine, unimaginative life that awaits him in maturity. The somber world of adults is kept at a distance for Andreu and Núria by Grandmother Mercè, in her heart still the “young lass” she once was, whose fantastic, “authentic” stories help “transform cruelty into happiness, laughter and hope. Death, into life.”

The afflictions of war begin to encroach upon this idyll. The stability suggested by the rituals of the passing seasons, is in truth, illusory. A stark contrast emerges between the paradise of the child’s imagination and the “strange and terrible worlds” of adults. We learn of the imprisonment of Andreu’s father for political activity, how his mother, through grueling shifts as a factory laborer and an obsession over her husband’s well-being, ceases to treat her son as a child. Tensions grow between Dad Quirze and the “four bigwigs,” local authorities who resent his “sitting on the fence” during the war, and his current lack of overt support for the Nationalists “cleaning up the Fatherland.”

Tragedies within the community are revealed as well, mostly in the form of gossip. One of the cousins’ main sources is their tomboyish companion from school, Oak-leaf. She tells of Mad Antònia, a mentally-ill woman who roams the forest naked and saw her lover, a deserter, shot before her eyes; and Charcoal Pete, a poor thief whom the ecclesiastical and political authorities parade before the townspeople in a humiliating display of authority.

Yet the most foreboding and evocative allusion to the grim crimes that unfold beyond their worldview comes in the form of a disemboweled, stolen horse. Left to rot on the farm grounds, the mayor and civic guards seek a scapegoat for this felony, and make Dad Quirze responsible for its removal. The ignoble, mysterious death of a beautiful animal signals to the children that their days of innocence are coming to an end. “Once we’d run out of stories, the ghost of that dead horse returned to fill the gap in our conversation,” says Andreu.

Love and sex also have a significant role in hastening Andreu’s initiation into the “remote, concealed, fitful world” of adults, yet he is reluctant to embrace them, knowing full well that they “always bring unhappiness, or at the very least are linked to all kinds of chaos.” The women in the novel (revealingly) are most affected. In Andreu’s family, they are mostly tragic figures trapped in a fixed role they did not wish for. There is Aunt Felisa, who laments her forced marriage to a man she doesn’t love; Aunt Mariona, disgraced after her elopement with a married man, now working as a maid in Barcelona; and Aunt Enriqueta, averse to a domesticated life, whose rumored affairs threaten to engulf the family in scandal. The inadequate conditions for the fulfillment of romantic and sexual desires suggests that neither are possible at a time of such constrained individual freedom.

The adolescents are not spared the darker associations of these yearnings. An erotic attraction to the Dionysian “dark side of life,” not unlike Aschenbach’s in Mann’s Death in Venice, is behind Andreu’s fixation on a young male tuberculosis patient, one of the “living dead” who sunbathe in the monastery garden bordering the farm. This character’s suffering, martyr-like in the eyes of Andreu, is emblematic of the mysterious “injustices of life” he has yet to identify, before he learns that forgetting is “a pit deeper than death itself . . . the death that was definitive.”

A greater consequence in his emotional development (or regression) occurs when Cry-baby invites Andreu to explore her body in a hide-out in the woods, where she reveals to him that she has been abused by their teacher at school, Mr. Madern. In the discovery of these feelings of resentment towards the only man in town who acts as his mentor, he finds that he needs enemies to prove his self-worth, to distance himself from a life of anonymity. At great cost to his relationship with his family, he concludes that this hatred is a “huge step forward on the road towards the conquest of the outside world, towards growing up.”

There are other factors that strengthen Andreu’s desire to abandon what has now become his home. First of all, he considers himself an “infiltrator” with a “fractured existence” within the community, a status that has helped him acquire a sharper capacity for observation. He is now all too wary of the submissive, “‘defeated’“ generation to which his classmates belong, whose only aspiration is that “their minimal presence should perpetuate an established order [in a] universe where everybody sooner or later found their slot.” These reflections inform an important decision later in the novel, where he is forewarned by two images in his mind that may come true should he falter in his choice. One is of the “filthy factory” where his mother worked and the “boredom of so many hours of routine toil,” the other of an offer by the parish priest to join a school in the nearby city of Vic with the “best-regarded boys in town,” those “destined to administrate.” Andreu fears the lack of independence of both scenarios, in their essence the predominant career paths of Francoist Spain.

Secondly, Andreu realizes that the postwar social structure does not enable the poor to balance obligations to family and loved ones with any notion of self-determination. He knows this all too well from his experiences with his parents. It is arguable that in a different time both his mother and father would have been able to dedicate themselves fully in their commitments to another person or cause—-in the former’s case, her husband’s freedom, in the latter’s, the rights of workers—-without neglecting their obligations to Andreu, yet the political tensions of their time make this task close to impossible. Andreu’s attitudes towards his parents are complex, shifting between outright resentment and reverence. Often, the lack of attention they provided gets the best of his emotions, causing him to view his parents as another agency for the injustices of the world:

Quite unintentionally, driven by the injustices of life we all suffer, she’d taught me to do without love. I suspected, in some way or another, that she could have avoided that, and also, that my father could have looked after her rather than roaming the streets and spending hour after hour trying to put the world to rights . . . My father preferred to spend his time solving other people’s injustices of life and thus brought injustice into his own home. Those injustices fell in turn, like a row of dominoes, so nobody was ever left standing, ever, anywhere.

Yet Andreu shares his parents single-mindedness. Later in the novel, when offered the opportunity by the farm’s landowners to study at an exclusive school, he is eager to escape from the town, away from Cry-baby and Grandmother Mercè, and to avoid, at all costs, “emotional attachment to another person.” As he takes advantage of the chance to advance in society and in life, Teixidor raises an unsettling question: if forced to face this choice by political and economic circumstances, to what extent should we sacrifice our prospects for individual success for the well-being of those closest to us; or for the greater social good?

In this respect Black Bread shares a strong parallel with the Dickens novel Great Expectations. Both Andreu and Pip are provided with opportunities to pursue loftier ambitions and in these endeavors neglect those closest to them. Their motives to distinguish themselves may be different—-Pip views marriage with the unfeeling Estella as the ultimate success, while Andreu aims to prove his independence from love—-yet the memories of those they left behind become too resilient for them to ignore. The key difference is that Dickens allows Pip to finally direct his love a way from Estella to willing recipients—Joe Gargery, Biddy, and the convict, Magwitch. With Andreu, in contrast, there is a near complete break with his previous life and any hopes of redemption. Though he recognizes the extent of his dehumanization, he is despondent that his former feelings can ever be fully retrieved.

Such uncertainties permeate Teixidor’s writing, and much of this derives from the fact that Andreu’s reflections on his life, his recognition of memories as they happen, emulate the passage of a dream. Perhaps Black Bread’s most distinctive achievement is the acute awareness in Andreu’s narrative of both the harsh reality of his time and the somnolence of a life fading away before ones eyes, beyond his control. An analogy of a photograph being taken at a pivotal moment of departure captures this state of captivity. In this instance, the actual only takes on significance through remembrance and observation, not direct influence:

. . . waiting for the gadget to click so we could go back to our normal gestures, wanting all that to be immortalized in someone’s memory, in my memory, the memory that freezes us in a few seconds at an exact given time, on a byway of existence, in an ordinary context that only a photo or memory can transform into something special.

Black Bread offers no hope of awakening from Joyce’s nightmare of history, yet it is an bold, commendable effort to expose a troubling legacy from the past, to show those incongruencies and tensions that still have a bearing on contemporary society. Wars may shift localities and participants over time, but their atrocities never diminish in impact, often setting lives that once seemed impenetrable to their harm on a wholly different and frightfully unknown course.

 

Tyler Langendorfer is a writer and translator. A former editorial assistant with the London-based New Books in German, he now lives in Brooklyn.