Thursday, 29 December 2011

La Ciudad de los Prodigios

Eduardo Mendoza is a Barcelona novelist and La Ciudad de los Prodigios (1986) is a hymn to his native city. It follows its hero Onofre Bouvila between the dates of the two Barcelona Great Exhibitions of 1888 and 1929. Onofre is a thoroughly amoral character, and his adventures see him involved in anarchism, gang warfare, profiteering, dodgy property deals, deals of all kinds - all leading to fame and relative respectability. Bouvila is surrounded in this picaresque novel by a cast of suitably colourful characters drawn from all social backgrounds. Just as fielding introduces his chapters with a short essay, Mendoza pauses the story from time to time to give us fascinating digressions on such matters as the Ciutadella, the financing of Exhibitions, the early days of film, aviation, and through both story and history we get a wonderful view on the life of this city at its time of greatest expansion and change. Key dates come and go: the end of the colonies in 1898 and the consequent crisis; the 'Tragic Week' of 1909, the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. Real historical figures like Rius i Taulet, de Rivera, King Alfonso XIII, and (briefly) Gaudí cohabit with fictional characters. There are stunning descriptions, such as the port when Bouvila first sees it, or the depiction of life in a small village, or the shantytowns aroung the Expo of '29. Mixed in with the history are artful inventions (a hilarious account of an alternative scheme to the Eixample is just one of them), and touches of magical realism. This mixture of elements is the 'memoria colectiva' that the novel mentions at the end, a blend of history, myth, fact, fiction and dream which make up the City of Marvels of the mind.  La Ciudad de los Prodigios is a colossal work, compulsory reading surely for anyone interested in Barcelona and the modern Spanish novel.