The weapon of language

The Song of Youth by Montserrat Roig, translated by Tiago Miller and published by Fum d’Estampa, is the first English translation of an important feminist figure in Catalonia

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In June, students sitting university entrance exams in Catalonia had the choice between analysing an article on coronavirus or a passage from The Time of the Cherries, one of Montserrat Roig’s most famous novels, for which she was awarded the 1976 Sant Jordi Prize for fiction. Despite being only 30 years old at the time, the Barcelona-born writer was already an established voice in the burgeoning literary movement that would later come to be known as the Generation of ’70.

Roig’s books have been published in a dozen languages, including French, Chinese, Italian, German, Japanese and Dutch, but until now have been unavailable in English translation.

Editor Douglas Suttle, from indie press Fum d’Estampa, began reading Roig a couple of years ago and recognised a strong, feminist, poetic voice that “spoke on behalf of a generation still trapped within the Franco regime but already looking towards democracy”.

Roig’s short story collection, The Song of Youth, has just been released, while the publisher prepares a translation of her first novel, Goodbye, Ramona, for release next year. Suttle describes how Roig “intertwines an overarching story with the characters’ more intimate moments”.

Despite recent new editions of her novels, short stories and essays on feminism, there was no official event being planned to mark 75 years since her birth and 30 since her death, both this year. However, thanks to Albert Forns and the cultural agency Tramoia, a series of public events to honour Roig’s legacy took place over the summer, culminating last month in Barcelona in a large-scale celebration at contemporary arts museum CCCB that included a host of famous faces from Catalan culture and arts.

“Roig is undoubtedly the foremost figure from that whole generation and she wrote consistently on Catalan politics and identity, feminism and abortion rights, all of which are still urgent, fundamental issues for us today,” says Forns. “Decades later, her writing still resonates with contemporary society, whether it’s her novels, short stories, articles or interviews.”

As her biographer Betsabé García points out, Roig’s aim throughout her life (which was tragically cut short by illness at the age of just 45) was to return a forgotten era to the collective memory, something she achieved through a body of work with a range and depth rarely seen in Catalan literature. In a recent interview, the editor Pilar Beltran recalled a conversation with the celebrated novelist and contemporary of Roig, Jordi Coca, in which they agreed that Roig had always been “one step ahead of the rest” not just in terms of style but also content. Beltran went on to praise Roig’s book L’agulla daurada in which she documents her stay in Leningrad, and conducts interviews with survivors of the Nazi siege to create a work with one foot in investigative journalism and the other in personal testimony.

“The concept is very similar to what Svetlana Alexievich does and for which she was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. The only difference being that Roig’s book is from 1985, meaning she was 30 years ahead of her time.”

Anna Punsoda, whose novel Other People’s Beds will also be published by Fum d’Estampa next year, is a keen promoter of the contemporaneity of Roig’s oeuvre, emphasising the diversity of its themes and the strong presence of maternity and feminine voices.

“She’s by no means your stereotypical feminist,” warns Punsoda. “Rather, she links her ideas to the earth, to the silent chain that unites us to our grandmothers and great grandmothers, to the pleasures and complaints that died with them and which, as a result, were never recorded.”

English language readers will finally be able to revel in Roig’s use of the written word as a weapon against political and social “dismemory” in an era when immediacy and apathy threaten our collective narratives. Her powerful and striking prose allow the stories of those silenced by dictatorship to come to the fore. This new translation presents us with an undoubtedly feminist and deeply critical writer who consistently sought to give shape, depth and significance to the human experience.

Jordi Nopca is a journalist, literary critic and award-winning writer who lives and works in Barcelona. His first work to appear in English, Come On Up, was published in February by Bellevue Literary Press

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