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To What Can We Attribute the Extraordinary Success of Les veus del Pamano?

by Todd Mack
On Monday June 14, 2010, Jaume Cabré was awarded the prestigious Premi d’Honor de Lletres Catalanes. While it is clear that Cabré’s entire body of work prompted the Omniforum to present him with this award, Cabré’s friends and colleagues time and again pointed to the remarkable international success of Les veus del Pamano as one of his most important contributions to Catalan letters.

On Monday June 14, 2010, Jaume Cabré was awarded the prestigious Premi d’Honor de Lletres Catalanes. While it is clear that Cabré’s entire body of work prompted the Omniforum to present him with this award, Cabré’s friends and colleagues time and again pointed to the remarkable international success of Les veus del Pamano as one of his most important contributions to Catalan letters.

But why has this book been so successful? Written in a style that challenges even the most dedicated of readers, and consisting of close to 1,000 pages, it is not the typical bestseller. Yet something about this book resonates with people across the globe.

On June 24, 2010, I sat down with Cabré and asked him, among other things, to what he thought Les veus del Pamano owed its success. He replied by telling me that he had asked the same question to his German editors and they enumerated three main reasons. First of all, the book deals with historical memory, a topic that interests many people today all over the world. Second, the book has complex, deep, believable characters. Finally, Cabré’s unique and challenging style draws people in while helping to compress time and create a confluence of present and past.

One reason Les veus del Pamano has achieved such fame is that as a novel of memory it indexes mnemonic processes that have recently captured much international attention. This type of novel joined autobiographies and memoirs in a surge of publication during the Spanish transition to democracy that has continued to the present. Joan Ramon Resina has provided a key insight into the novel of memory: "Losers cannot afford to forget. They need to brood over the past, on what went wrong and why, in the vain hope of standing once more at the decisive crossroads. Their memory is compulsive" (88). Because Catalonia suffered so much brutality during and following the Civil War, it is no surprise that even thirty years after the transición, Catalan writers such as Cabré would focus their energies on the compulsive drive to remember. It is also no surprise that the book would resonate well in other countries (such as Germany) that are also struggling with a traumatic recent history.

Dominique LaCapra, in Writing History, Writing Trauma argues that victims (and even second-hand witnesses) of trauma tend to struggle between two different modes of dealing with the past. In the first mode, what LaCapra calls "acting out," the victim or witness "is haunted or possessed by the past and performatively caught up in the compulsive repetition of traumatic scenes" (21). In the second mode, called "working through," the victim or witness "is able to distinguish between past and present and to recall in memory that something happened to one (or one’s people) back then while realizing that one is living here and now with openings to the future" (22). Given the horrors of the twentieth century and the role of many people in the current generation as both first- and second-hand witnesses, it is not surprising that novels have come to the forefront as a means of working through the past. According to LaCapra, novels and other forms of art "provide relatively safe havens for exploring the complex relations between acting out and working through trauma" (23). The way in which Les veus del Pamano highlights many of the challenges faced by those who confront a traumatic past must certainly contribute to its international success.

The second reason Cabré’s novel resonates with readers is that it is populated with deep, multifaceted, believable characters. As I traveled this summer through Pallars Sobirà, I often asked people if they recognized individuals they knew or had heard of in the characters of the novel. Most people said yes, that they knew or knew of people just like those in the novel. Many even claimed to identify with specific characters themselves. Cabré achieves this verisimilitude in part through an adept use of the adjectives with which he describes the people of Pallars.

Cabré utilizes adjectives in a way that makes it difficult to stereotype those who populate the work. He lays bare the versatile and often ambiguous nature of character throughout the novel in fascinating passages in which he allows his pen to run the gamut of possible interpretations of a given character. Thus Oriol is described as "ni un bon ni un mal home" (492). He describes himself as: "Jo, l’Eliot [...] un mestre d’escola rebutjat per la seva dona i la seva filla, que té una aventura amb una dona que no li convé gens perquè si és d’algun bàndol és de l’altre, resulta que segons fa córrer la llegenda, tinc una capacitat organitzativa i una mobilitat inusuals" (322). Perhaps the most important example of this complex description is that of Joana/Rosa – at once Tina’s friend and enemy: "La secretària de l’escola, una bona companya de feina, exemplar, irreprotxable, franca, honrada, imaginativa, sincera, capacitada, decent, seriosa, honesta, recta, discreta, freda, cordial, complidora, correcta, íntegra, educada, treballadora, eficient, callada, pràctica, formal, culta, eficaç, ambiciosa, maula, escaladora, astuta, arterosa, bífida, tèrbola, hipòcrita, mentidera, deshonesta, maquiavèl.lica, malèvola, traïdora, pèrfida, odiosa, impúdica, execrable, perversa, infame, nefasta, nefanda, vil i miserable companya de feina, Rosa Bel." (535)

The hyperbole is striking. With Joana the reader is given not just two options, but a whole range of possible adjectives and even an alternate name (Rosa Bel). Each carefully chosen word describes a different facet of Joana’s ambiguous and complex character. Joana is only one of the myriad characters whose complexity draws readers into this novel.

Finally, Cabré’s book resonates with people because its style represents a unique challenge. Les veus del Pamano first and foremost struck me as technically difficult. I read the novel for a Modern Catalan Narrative course at Stanford University. It was my first quarter of PhD study and the ten-week syllabus included Solitud, La Ben Plantada, Nocturn de primavera, Quanta, quanta guerra, Les històries naturals, Estremida memòria, and finally Les veus del Pamano. I was pressed for time and had become accustomed to reading quickly. I soon found, however, that it was practically impossible to read Les veus del Pamano in a hurry. The narrative jumps so suddenly from time to time, place to place, narrator to narrator, that each word becomes important for an overall understanding of the novel.

I learned to read carefully. That was the challenge. It was interesting to talk to people of differing educational, social, political, and economic backgrounds in Pallars. Nearly all confirmed that they had experienced something similar. Many confessed to giving up within the first fifty pages. Others told me that they were tempted to stop reading but were encouraged by friends who had paid the price and made it through. Practically all of the readers I interviewed testified that once they passed a threshold at around page fifty they began to grasp Cabré’s style, the narrative opened up, and they were rewarded with a great story. Cabré creates characters that are complex and believable. He understands adventure, romance, intrigue, and suspense. He knows how to keep the reader wanting more. He knows how to make one fall in love with flawed characters. Reading the novel is like putting together a puzzle – never boring.

I believe that Les veus del Pamano has been so successful because Cabré’s writing is at once intellectual and democratic. He allows for no shortcuts. He invites effort on the part of the reader and then rewards that effort with an engaging story. The novel’s dense style serves the double purpose of forcing the reader to slow down and read carefully while at the same time imploding tenses "as if one were back there in the past reliving the traumatic scene" (LaCapra 21). It is the style of a man who claims as his inspiration writers like Verdaguer and Foix and at the same time owns the complete seasons of Desperate Housewives, Lost, and 24. His writing is at once difficult and exhilarating. Cabré trusts the reader to trust him and then rewards that faith with a wonderful story – one that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.


Works Cited

Cabré, Jaume. Les Veus Del Pamano. Barcelona: Proa, 2008.

Herzberger, David K. "Narrating the Past: History and the Novel of Memory in Postwar Spain." PMLA 106.1 (1991): 34-45. .

LaCapra, Dominique. Writing History, Writing Trauma. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins. 2000.

Resina, Joan Ramon. "Short of Memory: The Reclamation of the Past since the Spanish Transition to Democracy." Disremembering the Dictatorship: The Politics of Memory in the Spanish Transition to Democracy. Ed. Joan Ramon Resina. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000. 83-125.

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