The Enormity of the Tragedy, By Quim Monzó, trans Peter Bush
Under the Dust, By Jordi Coca, trans Richard Thomson

A taste of the Catalan cream

Catalonia is this year's featured country at the Frankfurt Book Fair, an invitation that shines welcome light on a little-known European literature with a pedigree dating back to the Middle Ages. These two novels show the health of contemporary Catalan writing by being as different from each other as novels can be. Catalan language and literature are dynamic and healthy, bouncing back after being banned for nearly 40 years under the Franco dictatorship.

The terrain of Jordi Coca (born 1947) is that dictatorship. A sad, half-crushed adolescent boy is trying to grow up in the stultifying atmosphere of post-civil war Barcelona. Quim Monzó's novel, in total contrast, is a modern, urban tragedy. It describes with crackling wit and pace the doubts, loneliness and sexual confusions of an amoral 16-year-old and her stepfather, forced to share a house.

Quim Monzó (born 1952) is today's best-known writer in Catalan. He is also, no exaggeration, one of the world's great short-story writers. This 1989 novel, his first book published in the UK (after translation to over 20 other languages), shows all his idiosyncrasy (comic lists, names and juxtapositions; maniacal explanations of how household gadgets work; an eye for the surreal) and his originality.

The first reaction to reading Monzó is uproarious laughter. He is colloquial, sarcastic and outrageous. He examines with X-ray precision his disoriented urban characters. Without settled ties or families, these spin in a maelstrom of emotions and instincts. The plot hangs on the plight of a man who suddenly finds he has a permanent erection. The consequences are both hilarious and tragic.

Monzó revels in the absurd details of everyday life. His characters' conversations are lacerating and fast; their internal monologues include all the irrelevances and doubts that pop into the mind, often at the most serious moments. His technique is to follow these thoughts with such strict, yet surreal logic that his characters seem both completely normal and verging on dementia.

With enormous skill he moves from the inconsequential to the profound. On one occasion, the stepfather is going down in a lift. He has received terrible news about his health in a doctor's surgery, yet feels alright. He notes the behaviour of a man coming out of the lift; he reflects on lifts in general.

Then suddenly he feels sick. He puts his hand over his mouth, but this only serves to spurt the vomit over the packed lift's occupants, who push away with looks of shock and pity. Monzó's ferocious satire of day-to-day trivia suddenly bursts into anguish. You laugh, then you cry all the more. His characters are left alone and empty, and the sex that fills their minds and impels their bodies is little compensation. In this bleak novel, people's cruelty to each other is their sole connection.

Under the Dust is no less bleak and tragic, but set in another age and composed in another key. Coca's investigation into the frightened postwar years probes a wound in Spanish society still not fully healed. Coca describes the effect of defeat on a poor family in an outlying suburb of Barcelona. He shows with slow, calm accumulation of detail their freezing flat without running water, the shadow of a grandfather executed by the fascists, a baby brother dead in his first year, a too-mild, defeated mother, a frustrated, cruel father and, above all, the atmosphere of sapping fear. His flat, "styleless" style is very different from the sparkling prose of Monzó.

What makes the mind-numbing world of Coca readable and at times enthralling is the fineness of his writing. He is very precise, not at all scared to take a long time over small events. The father slowly destroys himself and the brief flash of youth of the neighbourhood's gang of kids is snuffed out by dead-end jobs.

Let's hope that the Frankfurt showcase will stimulate translation of other Catalan novelists as good as these. In the case of Quim Monzó, we have at last gained the opportunity to read one of the most original writers of our time.

Michael Eaude's 'Catalonia: history and culture' is published by Signal Books

The Enormity of the Tragedy, - Peter Owen £9.95 (222pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Under the Dust - Parthian £9.99 (202pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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