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issue 17: march - april 2000 

short story: Summer of Love

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Matthew TreeLondon-born Matthew Tree (1958) first came to our attention when The Barcelona Review was launched in 1997 and we needed help with our Catalan site. Although he was unfortunately far too busy to take complete editorial control of the Catalan, he pointed us in the right direction and hooked us up with nearly all the writers and poets who appear in our Catalan pages while also translating some of them into English for us. He had already, in 1996, published his first novel written in Catalan, a language he taught himself before ‘emigrating’ to Barcelona in 1984, and in the years we have known him his star has been steadily rising. As a member of the ‘Germans Miranda’ (The Miranda Brothers) he enjoyed great success in 1998 with AAAaagh, a collection of erotic short stories where the author of each story is kept secret, the names only appearing collectively on the cover with the surname Miranda: Matthew Tree Miranda, etc.  Radio work on the satirical self-penned Guiri Guiri ('bloody tourist', as in the British English 'grockle') led to a TV version on La cosa nostra, Catalunya’s overlong but highly-rated answer to Letterman. In 1999 Matthew Tree won the Andromina Award for Ella ve quan vol, a collection of short stories in Catalan which has just gone into a second edition. For English speakers in Barcelona his name may ring a bell as the restaurant reviewer in Barcelona Metropolitan and many a guiri may have inadvertently read and been advised by him as he is heavily featured in the Barcelona Time Out City Guide. He has worked as a journalist for The Times, several London-based anarchist magazines and two Catalan newspapers. He has recently completed BYE BYE BYE BYE, a novel in English, extracts of which have been published in Scotland and Canada; he writes and presents a couple of short programmes for Catalan radio, and does translations, writing workshops, monthly satirical articles and voiceovers. On Friday nights and Saturdays he says he likes to get drunk - we guess the photo must have been taken mid-week.

Writing a first novel in one’s native language is quite a feat but to do so in another language seems almost insane. How and why did you arrive at this decision? Were you writing before you moved here? Any ulterior motives?
I've been writing since I was about fourteen. I stopped for a while at the age of 19-21 thinking the whole writing business was a con: an elitist, phoney art form, especially in England. Then I wrote a series of novels and short story collections, all unpublished. I started writing in Catalan some ten years after learning the language and after having lived in the country for about six years; so to me it seemed a perfectly natural process: as a writer I could now communicate with the people I lived among and not just the people I'd left behind. I never stopped writing in English. The only 'ulterior' motive for starting to work in Catalan was that I had some publishing contacts here – albeit modest ones - and without contacts, as 'evry fule kno', you can't get bugger all published.

What was the actual process? Was there a certain amount of mixing, i.e. ideas worked on in English then translated or by then were you thinking in Catalan?
In 1990, Barcelonan poetry publisher Antoni Clapés was producing a series of limited edition chapbooks and suggested I write something short for him. I wrote about a recent trip to Romania, straight into Catalan, without thinking in English. That was the first serious text I wrote in Catalan and the definitive proof, for me, that writing in this language was a real option.

You obviously have a healthy regard for the two languages but do limitations frustrate you where something just doesn’t work from one to the other? What, if any, are the strengths and weaknesses of the two languages? For years I have been trying to get around what I perceive to be the main obstacle of British English literature, namely, that it carries the tics of its class origins wherever it goes (unlike American English, say). It is full of built-in little pointers as to the class origin of the writer, as well as his or her regional origins etc. So what happens? You get a form of middle-class English trying to be tough, like Martin Amis, (which is just not credible stylistically, says me) or you have to be a Working-class Writer, which means – often - resorting to writing in dialect and saying 'cunt' all the time – which also has its limitations, not least of which is being dependent on literary fashions, which periodically champion and then ignore this kind of stuff. Alasdair Gray seems to me to be one of the very few British writers who has managed to get out of the trap. The Americans are so lucky – they just use their idiom, be they from Harvard or the local Post Office and it is recognisably the same.
         Catalan didn't have these problems for me, so writing in it became a liberation, a way out of the stuffy British English maze. Catalan certainly has other problems, paradoxically derived from the fact that (according to German linguist Georg Kremnitz) it has been the only suppressed language known to have maintained its literary prestige through the years of dictatorship and media ridicule. This was fine during that period but the price we are now paying for it is that Catalan literature is still seen by readers as something innately serious - high literature - so they have troubles developing a normal best-seller genre type literature. It's difficult to sell a good hard-boiled thriller in Catalan, or a shopping and fucking novel, for that matter, though both these genres exist in the language.

Then of course there are the academic/political pressures imposed on the Catalan language. After the country dramatically turning the fate of its language around, one would expect a certain amount of protectiveness but as a writer do you find that worrying/restricting? (E.g How do you feel about the politically incorrect word ‘Xat(s)’ used on some Catalan web sites for ‘Chat’?)
Things are not nearly as bad as they were in the 1980s, when there were those terrible arguments about 'light' Catalan and 'heavy' Catalan (that is, Catalan which allowed the incorporation of popular Spanish words and Catalan which only accepted the often very different and purely Catalan equivalents, often known as the 'barco/vaixell' battle, after the Spanish and the pure Catalan words for 'ship'). Now that knowledge of Catalan tends to be more widespread, it is being used more and more normally, so that ultra-correct Catalan – as is the case with ultra-correct forms of any language – is used to denote a certain linguistic register (posh people or pedantic people, for example) and a more flexible, open Catalan is used in usual daily life. The anglicism 'Xat' is an example of the latter.

Your thoughts and feelings about Quim Monzo’s TBR quote "Catalan is in the middle of a process which will make it like Irish or Occitan. It's in its death throes. Sometimes I think that the Yiddish writers, like Singer, must have felt something similar to what I feel: that the country is vanishing from under my feet."
When I learnt Catalan in 1979, many people believed it would be virtually extinct in about twenty years. That is, now. And as we all know, it's managed to maintain its position as one of the healthiest stateless languages on the planet. However, the feeble pussyfooting which has marked the policies of the Catalan government since the refounding of the Generalitat has meant that they asked for too little too late. As a result, when they now backtrack and try to introduce measures which are necessary for the survival of Catalan – such as a screen quota for movies dubbed into the language – they appear, as far as public opinion goes, to be extremely radical. People are always shocked when a rabbit stops nibbling and starts to try and bite.The Basques have a much tougher approach as regards the implantation of Euskera and no one says dick about them: because they've been tough right from the start, no rabbit image…
        As for the famous quote from Monzó, I don't have the sensation that the country is vanishing from under our feet exactly, but I can see what he means: Catalonia could be a kind of Holland on the Med and instead it seems frozen in a kind of permanent ambiguity, as if it can't decide to be a real country or just relapse into being the Spanish province Franco tried so hard to turn it into.

At the ‘poetry discussion’ last summer Monzo’s fear was echoed but the blame seemed to be aimed at the politicians who use the language as a weapon. With the current run up to elections one can see how the language ‘problem’ is used to avert voters attention from far more important issues. So how safe is Catalan? Does it still need to be a political tool? If so, what are the dangers of it all backfiring?
The language only appears to be used as a weapon because we are still living in the shadow of Francoism, in the sense that most of the conditions that have put Catalan into its current situation derive from the dictatorship. If they had been serious about democracy when the old sod died they would have given back Catalonia the autonomy it enjoyed during the civil war, with all that that entailed. If that had been the case, for example, all movies would be routinely dubbed into Catalan and we would now be negotiating with the movie people to see if we could have a 10 per cent screen quota in Spanish.
        In reality, anyone who travels on the metro, for example, knows that Catalan is the language in danger of disappearing – not Spanish - and therefore the language that needs positive discrimination. This positive discrimination is not a 'political tool': it is simply part of the necessary measures to be taken if we want to see Catalan develop as a normal language. Spanish, on the other hand, is indeed frequently used as a political tool (a right-wing Catalan politician recently exhorted a bunch of businessmen to use Spanish on their websites, for example, for purely political reasons) but no one seems to mind about that.
        Having said which, it should be stressed that for most people who write fiction and poetry in Catalan, their political opinions and their writing are two completely separate things. Meaning: they do not choose to write in Catalan for political but rather for entirely personal, cultural and creative reasons. Catalan is an extremely 'normal' language in that sense. An example of this would be the late novelist, poet and playwright Manuel de Pedrolo, who was ultrapopular in the 1970s and early 1980s. Politically, he was a convinced, almost dogmatic left-wing independentist. However, of the over 140 books he published in his lifetime, only a handful ever mention Catalan independence: the anthologies of his political articles.

On the other hand you have English seemingly out of control with new words created daily and hundreds getting lost, losing their power or changing their meaning. Is this worrying to you or does the anarchy of English make it a writer’s dream? How do you keep in touch with your ever-shifting native tongue?
English and other languages have always done this (I don't think English is more anarchic than most, by the way). The problem is to work out which is the slang that is going to survive. I notice, through reading magazines and listening to people and watching movies in English that every five years or so throw up a series of new buzzwords, most of which begin to putrefy almost before the next lot are in use. Which ones are going to work in the future and which are going to look like the equivalent of ageing hippy novels full of the word 'dig'? There's the rub, as they used to say in London half a millennium ago.
        As for words losing power, it would seem to me that it's up to the writer to charge his words with the power he needs or wants them to have. My most recent novel is a mix of old-fashioned pre-war English, contemporary English, and a kind of English I have invented for my own purposes. In all cases, I hope, the words carry their own specific charge irrespective of their 'status' nowadays.
        In general, by the by, I don't give a shit about linguistic fashions as they appear specifically in literature, what's new, what's old etc.

You give a lot of readings. How did you meet and break into the local circuit?  Was there a certain amount of suspicion of this Catalan-speaking guiri (foreigner or tourist) or were you accepted straight off?
I started doing live readings with an East End (London) writer's group called the Basement Writers, in the early 1980s. As we did what you might call potentially hostile circuits, such as funny farms, Hammersmith pubs on a Saturday night etc., I quickly learnt the importance of reading out material I believed in to the hilt. As soon as you stop believing in it enough to read it out in public, you should change, move on, develop – or die the death in front of a bunch of bored people.
        My first live readings in Catalan were at the presentations of the two chapbooks I published with Antoni Clapés in the early 1990s. Some friends of Antoni's, Carles Hac Mor and Esther Xargay (also contributors to this magazine) were just beginning to organise a whole series of live performance activities which included text readings, so for two or three years I read with them from my Catalan texts in Barcelona, Santa Coloma de Gramenet, Palma de Mallorca, and a host of small towns and villages. I read most of the novel in Catalan (Fora de lloc) on Carles and Esther's circuit before it was published. Since Ella ve quan vol  came out I have also been reading at schools, presentations etc. in Girona, Lleida, Barcelona and other places.
        I have never had any sense of either rebuttal or excessive hugging for being a guiri writing in Catalan. They liked what I did, so they included me on the readings: end of story. One thing I like about the Catalans is that while they appreciate people learning their language, they don't start drooling at the mouth just because a foreign writer or actor, say, happens to decide to use it. Unlike the French.

In your readings you do seem to like to stir up anti-‘expat’ sentiments, the short story ‘La ciutat triada’ being a prime example. Why the incitement? Are you being a traitor, a Lord Haw-Haw, to your own culture?
Obviously I have nothing against other foreigners who live here. Neither do I think they have any inevitable obligations, linguistically or culturally speaking, to their host culture (although if they don't integrate, they clearly put themselves at a disadvantage, in many respects). My beef is with those of them who do not integrate and then defend or justify this lack of integration by attacking all things Catalan. It's an attitude prevalent among the children of the wealthier whitey nations of the planet and it gets my goat no end. Or used to, rather: I used to argue myself blue in the face or until I fell over from excess of alcohol intake (whichever came first) with these people. For years now, I just simply don't run into them any more, or when I do, very occasonally, I just laugh, because it's like a whole new generation of Catalan-haters have just got off the Easyjet. The best one I heard was about a year ago: an English woman (Barcelona resident) who said: 'I've got nothing against the Catalans, but I wish they could just let us foreigners get on with living in Spain'.
        This kind of dementia, though, seems to be on the wane.

You wrote Guiri- Guiri first for radio then for TV (La cosa nostra). Can you explain what it is about?
Guiri-Guiri was a parody of a Catalan course for foreigners, called Digui-Digui. I presented myself as a foreigner explaining to Catalan-speaking foreigners details about the country they had come to live in. This way, it was possible to make a double-edged satirical programme which lampooned aspects of the resident guiris as well as the Catalans themselves (and even the Valencians and Majorcans, on occasion).

One criticism I heard was that your Catalan was too good for a guiri. Did you or the producers ever consider Anglifying your delivery?
No, the whole idea was that I spoke an extraordinarily correct Catalan – learnt from a book – of the type which no real Catalan would use on the street. As my own Catalan is sometimes overly correct, I was also taking the piss out of myself, to some extent.
        My accent was 'foreign' though, and people who came up to me in the street afterwards were often to suprised to find I really was English and not a Catalan actor putting on a foreign voice.

You seemed quite relaxed in the studio and even more on your outside shoots – quite a natural actor in fact. Is there more TV work in the pipeline/would you like more TV work?
I am definitely not a natural actor and I was scared shitless during all the time on camera – I always get nervous before reading in public but TV is something else – hence that still, serious expression: fear. I never tried to do anything except play part of myself: the pompous, pedantic part, which came out quite naturally.
Matthew Tree        I would never do anything for TV again unless I had full control over the text and the mood of the programme. I liked the people I worked for and with, but wasn't on their wavelength altogether as far as the material was concerned. I've got nothing against slightly-rude-word type humour but got a bit pissed off when even very mild political satire was cut out of my scripts. (As you may know, both Catalan and Spanish public television is controlled fairly tightly by the respective governments, so that you can't really say anything that might upset anybody at all in case the opposition stand up and make some nit-picking complaint in parliament the next day). I also prefer deadpan humour to the kind where everyone is laughing all over the place. I also prefer obscenity to innuendo. It's odd in this country, where, at any newspaper stand, you can buy videos of people frenetically fucking each other in every possible orifice, and yet on the TV it's still considered a bit risqué to say 'bollocks'.
        The scriptwriting and the pressure of doing a weekly appearance on a popular TV programme also gave me my first huge dose of writer's block from which I have not yet recovered, almost a year on.

You recently won the prestigious Premi Andròmina Award for a short story collection, Ella ve quan vol. Can you tell us a little about the content, the settings, the style? Will it appear in English?
Sure. She Turns Up When She Wants To is a collection of mainly longish short stories. The first three are told by people in the early twenties and thirties of the current century looking back on things that took place in their lives in the 1980s and 1990s. The central block consists mainly of stories involving England and this place in one way or another (even the one about aliens), and the last piece is a monologue, a rant.
        Given that the book is out in Catalan my agent will surely do what she did with the first book in Catalan: try and get it done into Spanish first, and then, if we're very lucky, into English. A second edition in Catalan has just come out only a month and a half after the first appeared in the bookstores, and that's always useful when promoting it to a Spanish language publisher.

In your new novel you needed to know how a character would function after drinking Tequila. This is a drink that doctors have personally warned you against drinking on medical grounds but you felt you had to experience it to write about it. Did you ever continue with the experiment? What happened? Do you normally try and experience everything a character does, short of murder?
How did you know I experimented with Tequila behind the shrink's back???? No, I normally don't look for experiences, it seems false, somehow, or journalistic (false!). Like D.H Lawrence going into pubs explaining he was a writer and would people please tell him about themselves? All the experiences in the book – and others – are 'real', sometimes in the cut-and- dried autobiographical sense and sometimes in the sense that they have happened so vividly in the imagination that they are as close to real as can be (including the Tequila story). I have an average of one or two nightmares every night, for example, and these nightmares provide plenty of source material.

The novel was written in English and translated into Catalan. Did you do the translation? If so what are the dangers of totally reworking and rewriting? Does the temptation arise to change the English original? Or are you one of those lucky people who know when to stop?
The Catalan version of the new novel is becoming something of a nightmare in itself. Yes, the book was written straight into English, and I am happy with the English version, in part because I felt I stretched my English to the limits to get it written. Which is what made it so hard translating it into Catalan. I am currently in the middle of the second Catalan rewrite and have the Catalan publishers breathing down my neck – quite rightly: they've paid me an advance and I am holding back on the thing. I hope that this second rewrite will be enough to come up with a presentable draft.
        There comes a point with every text when the process of rewriting starts turning into a writing process again, changing the basis of the text altogether instead of improving the original. That's when to stop, I would say.

As part of the Germans Miranda (The Miranda Brothers) you all had incredible success with AAAAHHH, a collection of erotic short stories. It’s authored by a strange mix of people – TV personalities, etc. How did you get involved?
The main organiser of the Mirandas (scriptwriter Piti Español) had met me at a radio interview and liked my first novel in Catalan. So he thought of me when they were drawing up a list of possible names: maybe the one occasion in which it helped to be an English writer in Catalan, in that he wanted someone 'odd'.

Your influences? What you are reading now? The book you would love to receive on Sant Jordi’s?
The main influences are: Henry Miller, William Burroughs, Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, Quim Monzó and Alasdair Gray. Other writers whose work I try to read in its entirety are Manuel de Pedrolo, António Lobo Antunes, Primo Levi, Jaroslav Hasek, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Miquel Bauçà, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Tadeusz Borowski, Joe Orton, Malcolm Lowry, Bram Stoker, Wilkie Collins, Christopher Marlowe and Hubert Selby.
        I am currently reading The Odyssey in the version by Carles Riba (one of the best verse translations of the poem ever, so the Hellenists say) and Monzó's latest collection of articles, just out: Tot és mentida..
        For Sant Jordi, if someone can find it, I would like to get El mar by a Majorcan writer called Blai Bonet. A movie has just been made of this book which caused a postive fuss at the Berlinale this year and I am told it is a wonderful, wonderful novel: a buried masterpiece.

Would you like to survive purely on writing or is doing another type of work as well a necessary evil?
I used to dream of living off my writing, without realising that it meant doing radio scripts, articles, bits and pieces, creative writing workshops, and just about anything except, well, writing. I don't know what the solution is: maybe to write that famous best-seller or win some outrageously generous award or just buy some more time. In the past I've always tried to live in ways which allowed free time for writing. Now that I officially 'live off my writing' I have the feeling I should have solved the problem but clearly haven't.

What flavour is your iMac?

© 2000 The Barcelona Review

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navigation:                         barcelona review #17                     March - April 2000
-Fiction Rachel Resnick The Meat-Eaters of Marrakesh
Josh Wardrip Death in the Third Person
Alden Jones Shelter
Matthew Tree
Summer of Love
Marjorie Kanter Delgado The Skirt
-Interview Matthew Tree
-Article March and April in Barcelona
-Quiz Jorge Luis Borges
Answers to Federico García Lorca quiz
-Regular Features Book Reviews
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