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Hidden Behind Walls

By Stephen Sparks

Miquel Bauçà, The Siege in the Room, trans. Martha Tennent, Dalkey Archive, 2012

The first sentence of The Siege in the Room is the most arresting in the book: “Maybe the world hasn’t always been sad.” It’s the opening of Miquel Bauca’s Carrer Marsala, one of three texts translated and gathered by Martha Tennent for Dalkey Archive. It comes out of nowhere, a sentence that can stop a reader dead, like a wall built just past the starting line. Where can a writer go from there? The paragraph continues:

When we say our words are dragged down by inertia, we mean that what we learn as a pup stays with us. The same applies to other things. Girls, for example, use the phone but don’t know its precise function.

Bauca (1940-2005), a reclusive Catalan writer troubled by alcoholism and schizophrenia who believed that the writer should lead a furtive life, placed great, possibly excessive, value on enclosure. Perhaps this was genetic: he explains in a rare biographical note that a memorable part of his childhood was spent helping his father “with his most clearly defined passion: constructing dry walls in order to divide and subdivide the bit of scrubland” his old man owned. Whatever the explanation, Bauca, a self-confessed “apartment hermit,” needed walls. He hid behind them where they existed, erected them where they didn’t, and much of the action in the three novellas collected here—The Old Man and The Warden round out the collection—takes place within the hermetic confines of inescapable rooms in which his obsessive narrators spool out uninterrupted monologues on everything from the mysteries of the female sex to the value of corporal self-punishment. Given this, it’s perhaps not surprising to find that Bauca’s prose is studded with obstacles—“well-laid linguistic traps,” his translator calls them. And not only his prose, as an approach to the writer himself requires a series of detours around unflattering labels. He was called a misogynist, a homophobe, and a racist. He inveighed against Parisians and weathermen. His insensitivity is distasteful, of course, even if somewhat tempered by his obvious mental instability.

Taking this into consideration, it is tempting to read the collection as psychiatric case study and to leave it at that, a minor curiosity in a minor language. And, to some degree, that approach has its merits. Bauca’s work exhibits classic characteristics of schizophrenic art. It is littered with hallucination, paranoia, and obsessive vitriol. It incessantly goes off the rails. In short, it continually borders on disjointedness.

A more charitable or patient reading, however, reveals Bauca’s attempts at fashioning something of deeper value. A typical passage, from Carrer Marsala, demonstrates this:

The sun is more and more cold, but very Elizabethan. Now is the time to pluck up our courage. A lot of energy is required if we want to avoid danger and not punish the dog too hastily, which would leave our nerves frayed. So, are there people who live together without touching one another? Maybe, maybe not. In any event, apparently the instinct is to do something.

Even a small sample size taken out of context—it would be fair to say there is no context—this drily humorous lyrical nonsense bears evidence of a subtle (and antagonistic) literary mind. One senses that behind the facade of his logic-defying prose, between the occult, dreamlike associations, there stands an underlying structure. It is almost impossible to resist the urge to tease out connections, to patch together from Bauca’s disconnected sentences an order, however flimsy. Is he pulling one over on us? Or is his work an exercise in subverting readerly expectation? This uncertainty is compounded by the manic energy of his prose, which has the careening speed of a mad flight, as if it’s been given a slight push from the top of a hill. Offering no reassurance, Bauca tests his reader’s courage with this blind plummet. His prose verges on excess, shifting without apparent logic, skittering through brambles of non-sequiturs. And, despite the thrill of the fall, there is nothing carefree about it.

As a narrative strategy, this is risky and not entirely successful. But it is—and this is a point worth making about a writer who seemingly had to write—a strategy. Bauca is aware of the risk he’s taking, even if he often fails to reign himself in. The urge to do so, however, becomes a poignant motif throughout these works. The most urgent of his obsessions, one he returns to again and again, is a compulsive, desperate need to maintain composure; calmness, he believes, is the path to wisdom. This is most apparent in The Warden, which ostensibly chronicles the narrator’s possibly imaginary relationship with a woman who is his captor, fellow inmate, or both. A few fragments detail the urge:

People far wiser than I have been able to elude both danger and shame…

I’m not as wise as I should be…

I have to be good, draw upon her wisdom…

What is their secret? This knowledge cannot be learned; it is either hereditary or the fruit of some early instinct…

In themselves, these verbal reminders humanize Bauca: one feels for his first-person stand-ins, even if they’re not entirely sympathetic. Sympathy alone, of course, does not a literary work make, nor does it do enough to offset the irrationality of Bauca’s prose. But again, the writer redeems himself with flashes of lyricism and deadpan humor.

In an interview published in Transcript, Bauca answered a question about his whittling down of Carrer Marsala in the following terms:

It was a good thing, to have despised all that material. I would probably have waffled on and on. This change is due to an inevitable, automatic increase of wisdom, thanks to my good behavior, not thanks to a wish to be all-embracing: the latter has always been the motor behind everything, it was there the first time I looked at the world.

Taken alongside an anecdote Tennent includes in her introduction, that Bauca relied on a literary acquaintance to “cut anything [he] didn’t understand” from the work, one begins to understand Bauca’s desire for method, if not its attainment. His editorial insistence reveals an understanding of technique absent from most logomaniacal production. Bauca, whose writing evolved from realist to outlandish, culminating in avant-garde alphabetical poems (none of which have been translated, it seems), was not merely a madman with a typewriter, he was a formally inventive stylist, one who understood the value of excision and the power of disjunction. Even if he was slave to his compulsions, he knew that he had to shape them. “The typewriter stops, then starts up, again and again, as if it wanted to go somewhere,” he writes.

This forceful editing—done with a pair of scissors—results in show-stealing moments of comedic genius and occasionally dazzling lyricism. Bauca brings to mind Beckett or Stephen Wright when he suggests,  “We should destroy the leaning Tower of Pisa accompanied by Diana Ross” and follows with a caveat that “The trouble is she’s often on tour and me in the hospital.” The jokes (are they?) rely upon an cannily specific use of the non sequitur, a notable characteristic of Bauca’s work. Why the leaning Tower? Why Diana Ross? The association is a private one without cause or effect in the work, arising and subsiding wavelike, leaving us questioning not the action, but the field from which it arises. Why again the following?

Unless I can immediately establish myself in a hotel in Utah, I’ll start to tremble and smash my dishes. It will begin to rain. A nervous, absurd rain. I attempt to open and close the windows. Quite pointless.

These three novellas, with their constantly shifting and tangling, are difficult to pin down. At times I felt that the prose was working on me, the reader, rather than the other way around. I was uncertain as who, exactly, was besieged: reader or writer? As a consequence, I find it difficult to make definitive statements about Bauca’s work. Are these the products of genius? Some thought so: Carrer Marsala, the most digressive and associative of the three pieces collected here, a long monologue chronicling a litany of fantastic complaints, desires, and impossible encounters, earned its author prizes from the City of Barcelona and the Generalitat de Catalunya—neither of which, his publisher boasts, he bothered to accept. Or are these the works of an incoherent, obsessive schizophrenic? Bauca forces us into that ambiguous no man’s land of uncertainty, a gray area we are all too likely to avoid in favor of something easier.

Whatever the case, our literature needs fringe figures like Bauca, invisible, besieged and battered, striving not for literary glory but something deeper—wisdom—that is always in such short supply that we should take it wherever we can find it, even if it’s hidden behind walls.

Stephen Sparks lives in San Francisco. He blogs at Invisible Stories and contributes to Tin House and Writers No One Reads.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, August 16th, 2013.