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Obituary: Pere Calders

Pere Calders, writer: born Barcelona 29 September 1912; died Barcelona 21 July 1994.

IN THE MID-Seventies I was teaching myself to read Catalan. I came across an unusual short story by an author new to me, Pere Calders. It was called 'Coses de la providentia' ('The Workings of Providence') and came from his collection Croniques de la veritat oculta ('Chronicles of Occult Truth', 1955).

I was encouraged by the easy colloquial style, perfect for a beginner in the study of the language. This fantastic tale tells of a man who comes home to lunch and finds he has lost his front-door keys. He rings the doorbell, expecting it to be opened by his old servant Irene. Instead, he is confronted by a total stranger, a typical family man in shirt-sleeves and braces, who confirms that this is indeed the third floor, apartment no 1, and declares that he has always resided there with his family. The hapless anti-hero of this tale looks past the man and sees all his own furniture and personal possessions just as he had left them. But the strange intruder into his domain is a good-natured Catalan who invites him in to lunch, where our hero is immediately attracted by Clara, the man's daughter. He is introduced to the man's wife as Clara's prospective suitor, Ernesto. After nightmarish complications of a wildly humorous nature, the guest is inveigled into marriage with Clara: wonderful indeed are the workings of providence]

This story formed part of a dramatised sequence of such stories which I saw performed in Barcelona by the Dagoll Dagom company in 1978. It was a huge success with critics and audiences, and marked the real beginning of Calders' fame and his immense popularity in Catalonia and the rest of Spain, in Castilian translations. In the euphoria after the demise of Franco, the public wanted fantasy and humour and irreverence, and Calders was one of those whose success depended upon those elements. The poet Joan Brossa described him as 'the Borges of the Mediterranean' and he was frequently compared with Massimo Bontempelli and his satirical, witty stories about Milanese society and politics. But to my mind, Calders is even closer to Dino Buzzati and Italo Calvino, with a touch of the Swiss Robert Walser and of the Japanese Kobo Abe, whose stories began to be translated into Catalan in the Seventies.

Like his friend Brossa, Calders was also a painter. He studied at the Escola Superior de Belles Artes in Barcelona. But he had already started writing at school, and his first stories appeared in 1936. During the Civil War, he joined the Republicans, drawing maps and posters. He loved to make jokes against himself, and in later life would say that the Republicans lost the war because of his too-fanciful maps. With the triumph of Fascism, like so many other intellectuals and artists he went into exile in France, then in Mexico. His books about his war experiences, Unitats de xoc ('Shock Units', 1938) is true to real life, unlike his later work, that sees reality through the distorting mirror of an original mind with a playfully pedestrian view of existence. A more typical work from this period was La Gloria del doctor Laren (1936) which has just been reissued. It is both a mystery story and a moral fable about good and evil.

In Mexico, Calders refused to write in anything but Catalan - 'not through any rejection of Castilian, but out of sheer love for my native tongue'. Franco had banned the use of Catalan, a crime against humanity like that of the Japanese against the Koreans, and it was natural that Calders should take pride in speaking his own musical, poetic and witty language in defiance of Franco. Among the Catalan writers exiled in Mexico were the fine poets Josep Carner and Agusti Bartra. Calders was employed as an illustrator, and confessed that after depicting innumerable parrots in an encyclopaedia he never wanted to paint again. With Carner and Bartra he founded the Catalan literary revue Lletres. In 1955 he wrote his Chronicles of Occult Truth followed in 1957 by two other collections of short stories some of them little more than a page in length.

In 1963 Calders returned to Barcelona, and published a psychological satire, L'ombra de l'atzavara ('Shadow of the Agave') which won the Sant Jordi prize. But in 1966 his Ronda naval soto la boira ('Naval Patrol in the Mist') sold only 300 copies. Nevertheless his literary reputation kept growing, and his later works won many prizes and a large public. In 1985, Editions 62 began publishing his collected works, and in 1986 he was awarded the Premio d'Honor de les Lletres Catalanes. In December 1989, he was one of the signatories of a significant document presented to the President of the Generalitat, Jordi Pujol, in which it was stated that the great aim of Catalonia was 'to become a sovereign nation with all other such nations on earth'. Calders had become even more widely known through his contributions to La Vangardia and Avui ('Today' in Catalan), so his signature on such a document carried great weight.

But he is remembered and revered today as the great master of the Catalan short story - an ornament to the culture and the language of Catalonia.

(Photograph omitted)