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Carlos Ruis Zafon on Barcelona, Spain #TheCityasMuse

The dark brooding city that forms the backdrop of Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind and its prequel The Angel’s Game bears little resemblance to the sunny bright city I experienced in the summer of 2011. Stop. Let me think again….. a sliver of a memory jumps out at me…

On one dark night, Rahul and me explored the lanes around La Ramblas in the Catalan city of Barcelona and then meandered back to our rented apartment through the Gothic Quarter. I remember vividly picturing the loneliness and pain of Julian Carax and the insatiable curiosity of Daniel Sempere. Mean looking gargoyles stared down at us and strange shapes in light and shade flitted about, sending shivers down my spine. Then the sounds of tourist revelry brought me back to the present….

Zafon’s book brings to life post-war post-Gothic Barcelona in a special way. The city does not take over from a story that focuses on its intense characters; there are no long architectural descriptions, no paeans to the glorious past. Yet the city is a person, present at every turn. A backdrop, a refuge, a cruel taskmaster, a friend offering solace. Zafon constructs a Gothic Barcelona, dark, elusive, misty and mysterious and he weaves it into the experiences of his characters. This is a city that tourists rarely see but are now being shown, in the form of walking tours, since his book’s fame spread!


“I had grown up convinced that the slow procession of the postwar years, a world of stillness, poverty, and hidden resentment, was as natural as tap water, that the mute sadness that seeped from the walls of the wounded city was the real face of its soul. One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn’t have to understand something to feel it. By the time the mind is able to comprehend what has happened, the wounds of the heart are already too deep. That evening in early summer, as I walked back through the sombre, treacherous twilight of Barcelona, I could not blot out Clara’s story about her father’s disappearance. In my world death was like a nameless and incomprehensible hand, a door-to-door salesman who took away mothers, beggars, or ninety-year-old neighbours, like a hellish lottery. But I couldn’t absorb the idea that death could actually walk by my side, with a human face and a heart that was poisoned with hatred, that death could be dressed in a uniform or a raincoat, queue up at a cinema, laugh in bars, or take his children out for a walk to Ciudadela Park in the morning, and then, in the afternoon, make someone disappear in the dungeons of Montjuic Castle or in a common grave with no name or ceremony. Going over all this in my mind, it occurred to me that perhaps the papier-mache world that I accepted as real was only a stage setting. Much like the
arrival of Spanish trains, in those stolen years you never knew when the end of childhood was due.
We shared the soup, a broth made from leftovers with bits of bread in it, surrounded by the sticky droning of radio
soaps that filtered out through open windows into the church square.”

Of course, the author’s love and sensitivity to the city he grew up in is obvious and he has been outspoken about this. In an interview to The Independent in 2012, Zafon said: “The haunting of history is ever present in Barcelona. I see cities as organisms, as living creatures. To me Madrid is a man and Barcelona is a woman. And it’s a woman who’s extremely vain. One of the great Catalan poets, Joan Maragall, wrote this famous poem in which he called Barcelona the great enchantress, or some kind of sorceress, and in which the city has this dark enticing presence that seduces and lures people. I think Barcelona has a lot of that.”

Amitav Ghosh on Fanqui Town, Canton in the 1800s #TheCityasMuse

This post is a teaser to entice you into submitting an entry to #TheCityasMuse Contest I’m running on this blog. There are more to come. I’m jumping at the chance to bring my favourite¬† descriptions and narrations of cities from a variety of authors of different genres and nationalities. Hope you enjoy these…and may the words fly from your pen (or keyboard) soon!

I’ve recently completed re-reading the first two books of Amitava Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy in preparation to read the last and final one, Flood of Fire. I’ve been fascinated by his description of Fanqui Town outside of Canton, where foreign traders were permitted to set up enclaves while they were forbidden to enter the actual city.¬† Ghosh describes this small and intensely colourful microcosm of the world through the eyes of various characters very different from each other. Set during the 1830s, at a time when colonialism was at its peak and trade via sea flourished, here are some excerpts from Ghosh’s 2nd book of the trilogy, River of Smoke.

This excerpt is from one of the letters that Robin Chinnery, a Bengali-speaking illegitimate son of a British painter self-exiled in Macau, to his lady friend Paulette, the Bengali-speaking orphaned daughter of a French botanist, both having been friends during their childhood in Calcutta. Robin wrote:

“And so at last to the foreign enclave- or ‘Fanqui-town’ as I have already learnt to call it! It is the farthest extremity of the city, just beyond the citadel’s south-western gate. In appearance Fanqui-town is not at all what you might expect; indeed it is so different from what I had envisioned that it fair took my breath away! I had imagined the factories would be prettily primped with a few Celestial touches- perhaps a few curling eaves or pagoda-like spires like those that so beguile the eyes in Chinese paintings. But if you could see the factories for yourself, Puggly dear, I warrant they would remind you rather of pictures of places that are very far away- Vermeer’s Amsterdam or even… Chinnery’s Calcutta. You would see a row of buildings with columns, capitals, pilasters, tall windows and tiled roof. Some have colonnaded verandahs, with the same khus-khus screens you see in India: if you half close your eyes you could think yourself to be on the Strand, in Calcutta, looking at the bankshalls and daftars of the big English trading houses. The colous are quite different though, brighter and more varied: from a distance the factories look like stripes of paint against the grey walls of the citadel………..

……..I am getting ahead of myself: I have yet to bring you to Fanqui-town’s landing ghat, which is called- and this is true I swear- ‘Jackass Point’ (the fabled Man-Town must, in other words, be entered through the point of Jack’s Unspeakable). Yet this suppository is no different from our Calcutta landing ghats. There is no jetty- instead there are steps, sticky with mud from the last high tide (yes, my darling Puggleshwaree, the Pearl, like our beloved Hooghly, rises and falls twice a day). But even in Calcutta I have never witnessed such a goll-maul as there is at Jackass Point: so many people, so much bobbery, so much hulla-gulla, so many coolies, making such a tamasha of fighting over your bags and bowlas. I counted myself fortunate in being able to steer mine towards a lad with a winning smile, one Ah Lei (why so many Ahs, you might ask, and never any Oohs? On the streets of Macau too you will come across innumerable young men who will pass themselves off as ‘Ah Man, or ‘Ah Gan’ and the like, and if ever you should ask what the ‘Ah!’ signifies you will learn that in Cantonese, as in English, this vocable serves no function other than that of clearing the throat. But just because the bearers of the ‘Ah’ are usually young, or poor, you must not imagine that they possess no other name. In their other incarnations they may well be known as ‘Fire Breathing Dragon or ‘Tireless Steed’- whether accurately ot not only their Wives and Friends will know).”

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