My protagonist was hard to bear ...
Proa cover_301
Proa: Senyoria
Jaume Cabré confesses that it became hard for him to bear the protagonist of his novel and so he gave him 'human touches'. Sa senyoria (His Honour) is Rafel Massó, in 1799 the highest civil authority in Barcelona, who finds himself entangled in a crime.

Interview by Tito Ros

Tito Ros: Why did you decide to write a novel set in l799?

Jaume Cabré: I didn't actually decide to, it was the novel that led me to do it... This novel occurred to me after seeing a photo in the paper of a judge entering prison in Lleida. It was 1985 or 1986, when for the first time two judges were tried for perversion of the course of justice. They were judges from Franco's time. That photo got me thinking, not so much about the anecdotes that the situation might suggest, such as a man who had spent is life on the bench then being locked up in a cell and finding himself there with someone he had condemned. Rather, what inspired me was the thought that this person was living through an inner torment. Because a judge, from a social viewpoint, is a highly respected person, a man of status. So, to find himself on the other side of the fence from where he has always pronounced sentences must be atrocious for him. That made me think of a judge as a main character in a novel who has committed a crime and who is terrified that he might be found out.

TR: But you set the story two centuries earlier...

JC: For months I was working with a judge in 1986 and, one day, I described his office at home, that of a long line of judges, and I described a portrait he had on the wall of a gentleman in a wig who was a great-great grandfather of his. I described it in such detail that I fell in love with the portrait. I decided that I liked him so much I didn't want to let him go just like that. So, I went with the judge in the portrait and I dropped the other one. I went back to the Barcelona of 1799. Actually, what the novel is about - which is the hunger for power, human passions, the uses and abuses of power - are contemporary themes, and in this sense I see Senyoria as being utterly relevant to our day.

TR: But why 1799? Because it was the end of a century? Because it was soon after the Storming of the Bastille?

JC: I simply found myself in that period. It was the end of the ancien régime and the beginning of new social and political forms. There had been a bourgeois revolution, in France, and therefore new values in which the artistic and intellectual circles were reflected.

TR: What your novel reflects is that the winds of revolution that came from France had quite a different effect here. One gets the feeling that, rather than revolution, what the Barcelona bourgeoisie hungered for was to rub elbows with the nobility...

JC: Yes, what they wanted was to accede to the privileges of the nobility. Here, both the aristocracy and the upper bourgeoisie were waiting to see what would happen after the French Revolution.

TR: And, here there was a "differentiating factor", which was that the upper strata of society had become Hispanified...

JC: Remember that the Hapsburg aristocracy had either gone into exile or been executed. The repression was terrible. Another aristocracy enjoying vast privileges took its place. By 1799 this new aristocracy had been around for four generations, and the other one, those who had survived, either had lost everything or were in Vienna. Of course the new aristocracy was more loyal to the Bourbon government. Catalonia was occupied territory and the highest authority was military, the Captain General. And the highest civil authority was the Civil Regent of the Royal High Court, who is my character.

TR: Your character is quite frightening. He applies the law as he sees fit, which is clearly a criticism of...

JC: Absolute power, which inevitably leads to abuse. The interest is in how the character can change: he goes from being a very self-assured man to discovering that he has weaknesses.

TR: What happens with the character is that, despite his ability to be so despicable, you find yourself getting to like him. Was that your intention, that he should end up being likeable?

JC: If you know a person of course you understand him better. You might not share his values, but you understand him. The reader might have a tough time with the character, which he regards as a real SOB. For me it was also hard to live with a main character whose values were so alien to mine. That's why I gave him certain facets that made him more humane, such as his love of astronomy, for instance. This makes him somewhat of a progressive for his time and he even has a conversation with Félix Amat, who is a historical character. That enabled me to sympathize more with the character, because I'm interested in astronomy too.

TR: You also justify some of his acts, by creating a life for him that is very boring, starting with the relationship with his wife, Doña Marianna...

JC: That may be, but I think there are other characters that we also sympathize with because of how pathetic they can be, as in the case of Doña Marianna, or because they are victims, like Andreu Perramon. There are also historical characters, as in the case of Ferran Sorts...

TR: Did he exist?

JC: Yes, he was a musician who lived for a time in St Petersburg and in Paris, and who died in exile, having followed Napoleon's defeated troops back to France. But in novel the relationship with Andreu Perramon is my invention.

TR: Of all the secondary characters that appear in your novel, which ones are historical?

JC: Apart from Ferran Sorts and Félix Amat, there is the Baró de Maldà, whom I put in the area of El Pi, which is where his house was, where the shopping arcade is now. The Baró de Maldà was a very important man of letters in the late 18th century; the works he wrote, which have never been published and were written in Catalan, were at the time making him difficult, or rather, dangerous... The day that Rafel Massó, sa Senyoria, goes to fetch some pornographic prints from a bookshop in Carrer Petritxol, I have him run into the Baró de Maldà. The Captain General also existed, although he ruled Barcelona two or three years after the time of the novel. In this case I brought him in because I loved his name.

TR: It is interesting to read your novel and see how an area of Barcelona, the Old Quarter, which we know so well and seems so small today, could then, in the late 18th century, have so much social life...

JC: Remember that where Plaça de l'Àngel is today is where the prison was then. The street that runs from Sant Jaume to Via Laietana, which is now called Llibreteria, was called Baixada de la Pressó when I was a child.

TR: What was your main source on Barcelona in that period?

JC: Oh, there were a lot, because I had to research so many things. I even had to research the bells, because at the time everything ran by bells. I had to find out which bell rang at which time... I can also tell you that opposite Rafel Massó's mansion, in Carrer Ample, where Plaça Medinacelli is today, was the Convent de Sant Francesc. Things have changed, but the streets are still the same ones.

TR: Reading your novel one realizes how ignorant we are of our city: we walk around it unaware of the fact that in Carrer Ample, for example, we are passing by former mansions...

JC: I have heard that at some schools the teachers organize tours of the different places that appear in my novel. They go along Carrer Ample, to the Cathedral, to the Pi bell tower, along Carrer Bòria, to Pla de Palau, which is where executions were held. There is also the area of La Ribera, which was razed. In fact, the excavations now being done in El Born are part of the Barcelona razed by the Bourbons... People know these things, but they don't talk about them.

TR: But the bells no longer toll, do they?

JC: No. They might do so some day or another for some solemn service, but no longer for everyday affairs. They no longer use them to mark the hour.

© University of Wales, Aberystwyth 2002-2009       home  |  e-mail us  |  back to top
site by CHL