Antònia Vicens

A Witness of the Early Tourist Boom Speaks
Vicens - foto1
by Bartomeu Fiol. Translation by Matthew Tree.
Whatever the later consequences of the development of the tourist industry in Majorca may have been, those of us took part in its initial boom - which began, more or less, in the late 1950s - recall the dynamic, even euphoric, impact which it had on our lives and on young people in general in that period, a lively impact which we now remember with a certain melancholy, forty odd years afterwards. Indeed, we should bear in mind the limits on the possibilities of finding work, and, especially, the isolation and cultural torpor in which we lived, thanks to the continued effects of the post-war period, which was grey and full of poverty, not only in economic terms - rationing went on until 1950 or 1951 - but also from a cultural point of view, there being no freedom of expression, and Catalan having been reduced to the status of a B language, tolerated for use in the family - inevitably! - but completely absent from public life.

The first influx of tourists, who partly still reached us by sea - the Danish clients of Simon Spies, for example, did the route from Copenhagen to Barcelona by train, and then, after spending the night at the Oriente hotel on the Rambles, took the Transmediterrània night boat -, gave young people on the island at the time a chance to find a job, at least during the tourist season. This was the case with Antònia Vicens, who worked as a receptionist or secretary at a small hotel in Cala d'Or, very close to her native Santanyí.

Naturally, this creation of jobs was made possible by the gradual opening of little hotels, residences and bed and breakfasts, which did not require large scale investment, and whose financing was made easier, in part, by the wholesalers and travel agencies themselves (the expression 'tour operator' had not yet been coined in the 1950s).

But that initial economic boom also had other social consequences. It was not only the fact that workers started coming to this island, from which the natives, on the contrary, had tended to emigrate before. The influx of tourism also had a huge effect on the customs of young Majorcans and, so to speak, on public morality. The ease with which relationships could be struck up with the young foreign women resulted in an understandable sense of elation or joie de vivre, one reflection of which are the Rondalles de picadors [Tales of Picadors] by Josep Melià, for example, published more or less at the same time as the novel we wish to talk about here. It is no exaggeration to say that from the countries of the north, from the countries beyond the Pyrenees, airs of freedom reached us, here on the ever so conservative Island of Calm.

Obviously, these airs of freedom and change also reached the municipality of Santanyí, in the south-east of the island, first at Cala d'Or - where there had already been a certain amount of embryonic home and hotel building activity before the uncivil war of 1936-1939 - and later at Cala Figuera and at Cala Santanyí. Antònia Vicens, from Santanyí, is the author of 39º a l'ombra [39º In The Shade] a novel which reflects the early years of the hotel business which went on expanding in order to cope with mass tourism, totally different from pre-war tourism.

Our novelist has complained, rightly enough, of the lack of cultural infrastructures in the Santanyí of her childhood and early youth, there being just one school for girls, that run by the Franciscan nuns, and no public library. Nonetheless, it should be recognised that this lack of facilities did not impede the appearance of the so-called Group of Santanyí, created by the small number of lovers of literature there at the time. This was possible, above all, thanks to the presence and leadership of Bernat Vidal i Tomàs, one of the town's two apothecaries, seconded, as always, by his loyal sidekick Miquel Pons. This group, which was deliciously local and universal at the same time, counted with the presence of figures as notable as Blai Bonet, Antònia Vicens herself, and - some years later - Antoni Vidal Ferrando, as well as some others. Few villages in Majorca have produced so many writers.

This novel, which won the Sant Jordi Award in 1967, has recently been translated into German by Jenny-Petra Fanan, and published, with the title 39º Im Schatten by Elfenbein Verlag, and it was also republished by Edicions 62 last year; we therefore have to regard it as fully incorporated into the current literary canon, for a whole series of reasons, which have been recognised by the critics for many years: the quality of its writing, the robust or stocky Majorcanness of its language, and the testimony it provides of the impact of tourism on the reality of the island.

When we refer to the quality of its writing, we are referring to the rhythm of its narrative discourse and to the efficiency of its testimony with regard to what it tells, neither of which get lost in digressions. We are also referring to the construction or characterisation of its characters, to the abundance and spontaneity of its dialogues - of a truly stimulating richness and freshness -, and to the concision of its descriptions. Also to the lightning phrases or comments which, from time to time, illuminate the entire text by summing up situations, impressions, feelings. To give an idea of its energy, of its efficacy, it is worth repeating a few of these here. "And, plop, the war began". "The countryside, the sky, nature, all were something akin to a ripe pear about to go rotten". "He who has most imagination, wins". "May God watch over our house and farm! We'll all go to heaven, if they want us there!". "Who would have dared contradict a cousin who had seen the Virgin!". "He didn't want to purify himself anymore; he wanted to finish the job of making himself filthy". And, although it is a little bit longer, I believe it is also worth transcribing the following extract: 'Convert the bay', wow! What was sister Florentina telling me now, after I hadn't seen her for eight or nine years! Let each person convert himself, I said, pugnaciously... The hell with that bothersome sister Florentina, who used to be forever making me kneel."

Antònia Vicens is one of the most outstanding figures of the Majorcan Generation of the 1970s, and 39º a l'ombra, despite being an early work in her by now extensive bibliography, is a novel which hit the nail on the head and made a decisive contribution to the author's reputation and to the creation of her readership, which remains loyal to her.

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