Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth (Catalan Literature)



Translated by Rrowan Rricardo Phillips

Salvador Espriu continued to add stories

six more in all

to the various editions of
Ariadna al laberint grotesc
that saw the light of day between the book

s first appearance in 1935 and the author

s death in 1985, a period which spanned the rise, fall, and aftermath of Franco

s dictatorship. The last of these stories, the statement-of-purpose tinged

The Young Man and the Old Man,

was inserted by Espriu at the beginning of the book: the last becoming first. Both in form and function the prefatory

The Young Man and the Old Man

is a far more faithful introduction to the temperament of this masterpiece of Catalan literature than my prosaic intrusion into your enjoyment of it could ever be. An introduction to
Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth
could occupy four times the pages of this slender text; and you, reader, will feel at times as though you could use one; but Espriu is interested in your being

or at least feeling

lost, and in the threads that lead you toward feeling less so.

Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth
lifts the specious reality of the surfaces of Espriu

s world to reveal the awkward, kaleidoscopic reality that exists beneath it. Among modern writers, Espriu is the one who most abides by the inner logic of his own world-making. Hence, many of the lusciously-named characters who will appear in these stories (and subsequently re-appear, interrupting narratives seemingly at whim with a syncopated nonchalance) also appear in numerous other stories and poems within Espriu

s oeuvre. Similarly, the invented names of the locations in these stories will be unfamiliar to those new to Espriu

s work. They are as follows:


, which is



Espriu is from Arenys de Mar, a coastal town about an hour north of Barcelona;


for Barcelona;


for Catalunya; and Konil
sia for Spain. This last place-name plays on the Catalan word for rabbit,


and the name given to Spain by the arriving Carthaginians around 300 B.C.:


land of the rabbits.

What is a grotesque labyrinth? The adjective evokes Valle-Incl

s theater of the grotesque. As both style and ontology, the grotesque offers torment and tragedy to its audience within a torqued, feral sense of reality. An admixture, at its best, of pathos and irony, this grotesque work of art is a daedal refraction of what had once been assumed real; and in this sense it offers the possibility of hope to those willing to read through its reflection, its refraction, its torqued and necessary otherness.

However, Espriu

s labyrinth is not only grotesque, it is also allegorical, a place and structure conceived of as both condition and cure. Class lines are constantly crossed; every form of betrayal

even the betrayal of genre

looms; quietly, a bestiary builds; anachronistic slang and the Cal
language of the Iberian gypsies perforate the text. There is much betwixt and between, harshness and smoothness, crudeness and elegance, nonsense and sense, a sense of feeling found and of feeling quite lost all at once in this wonderful book. There is a strong baroque tinge to Espriu

s prose, the pulse of which in particular rises and falls in such a way as to evoke a style both fashionable and unfashionable, historical and ahistorical, stern and yet welcoming to purple patches. I have tried to remain faithful to that pulse by producing something in English that is close to the tone and temperament of Espriu

s Catalan (and Castillian Spanish and gypsy Cal
). For readers who find themselves lost as they read, I ask that you consider it part of the process of winding through the labyrinth; or blame the translator.

Two final notes.

I maintained the symbols [
] and [
] as they were prevalent throughout the text but for the most part distinguished in their use from quotation marks.

And finally, I would like to dedicate this translation to Jordi Royo Seubas.

This little book was begun by a twenty-one-year-old who didn

t get along well with himself and was pretty hard on everyone else. A sixty-one-year-old who fails to get along well with himself and attempts

from a distance

to understand everyone else has finished it, perhaps. Perhaps. Quite a few things, and not all of them adverse, have happened during the intervening forty years. Things that are, or should be, understood and remembered.

During that time this little book was remolded again and again, without end. Perhaps this effort wasn

t worth the trouble. No doubt the extremely tedious labor was in vain. But both the young man and the old man coincide in their affirmation that this, and all of the other works brought to life by the two of them

as well as those works (who knows?) that the old man may still have time to realize

are merely ephemeral tokens of a strange and difficult apprenticeship set within the perplex coherence of a labyrinth. And in this affirmation one would like to see, with a benevolent irony

an irony that seems rather grateful, from this vantage

a sarcastic skillfulness, the lightning rod of false modesty, when it merely reflects an uncomfortable, obsessive, and literal truth.

All the echoes of
that this little book contained, that could have been pointed out here and there, have been extinguished, bit by bit, in systematic order. If some trace of them remains within the diction and syntax, it

s been kept expressly for its grotesque clink.


s the same book, and yet, at the same time, another. The young man didn

t err completely; and it

s out of bounds to claim that all of the old man

s suggestions were right. Which is why the old man has maintained in his mind, and so often returned to, that first distant draft of the text. He preserves from it a certain ingenuousness more apparent than real; and he has eliminated whatever imprecise or coarse expressions it contained. The young man suspected, and the old man firmly believes, that anything can and should be said without falling head first into the sort of dull and jejune shoddiness that industriously seduces so many talented pens

the most indigestible leftovers from rhetoric

s waste bin.

Nothing in this book has been invented. Everything told in it happened, one way or another. The young man possessed, and the old man preserves, a precise memory, an ear and vision diligent and acute. But neither of the two has benefited, not even on the rebound, from the brilliant, utterly enviable subtleties of the imagination.

This little book forms an essential unity. Thus, the hypothetical curious reader should read these prose pieces according to the very deliberate order in which they appear. Some short stories here serve to round off and stress the meanings of others, as well as functioning as links. They also present clear situations and characters that will be the objects of other stories.

The young man has vanished, of course. His heir, the old man, is still here. But the only award he

s attained is a glacial serenity. His profits are such that he

ll never complain.


s leave him cold, if not lukewarm,
Senyora Magdalena Blasi said, toning things down.
And let

s not waste time trying to figure him out, because we

d immediately raise his temperature, with a consequent alteration of the costly product.

The old man desires no distinction, doesn

t want to belong to any institution, to any organization or faction,
Salom the ventriloquist intervened.

Either of them now opposed to the genuine interests of a country that cannot allow itself the foolish luxury of any type of dispute,
lectured the acknowledged patriot Carranza i Brofegat.

The old man,
continued the ventriloquist,
does not want to figure on any list, nor in any ambiguous, sentimentalizing document. He wants neither to collaborate nor to go anywhere. He doesn

t want to be manipulated any longer by alleged

and more often than not indelicate

affections, those pressures to which he was forced to yield himself with mild but always lucid contempt.


s played it off long enough,
Senyora Magdalena Blasi responded.

The game, if indeed there has been a game,
Salom started up again,
is forever over. Before the old man lies the rough slope of his duty

either uphill or down. And he

s taken on tasks that he

ll seek to complete, whether or not they

re to his liking.

If the old man tends to swell up, I can

t deny that he cares,
added Senyora Magdalena Blasi.

The old man no longer wishes to present to the public,
said Salom,
even a single commodity that is someone else


be it more or less intelligent, inspired, sophisticated, or authentic. He does not want to judge anyone, or respond to polls, or suffer through any more absent-minded, reiterative, inelegant, monotonous interrogations
unless they are, for example, a matter for the authorities or for a judge. He is in neither the physical nor the moral condition to maintain any type of regular correspondence. If he does not love very much and does not hate at all, then he profoundly respects everyone. In exchange he requests that his solitude be respected, without exception. He supposes that is not too much to ask.

Yes, it

s definitely too much to ask!
murmured Senyora Magdalena Blasi, between yawns.
And he

ll have to readjust

by force, if you please

his plans. On the other hand, this gloomy old man would willingly thumb, in his premature niche, through newspapers and magazines.


s see if these brief paragraphs,
psalmed the ventriloquist,
excluding all kinds of haughtiness without, however, excluding the opportunity for it, end up being intelligible. For this skeptical man, whom neither gold nor terror nor any flattery could buy or soften, was taught according to norms of rigid courtesy no longer incumbent. And he has been quite vulnerable, thanks to this gross defect in his education. He has liberally given away his time, but can no longer afford to lose even a mere morsel of it. He owes only that to his conscience

which, if it didn

t seem pretentious, would at least qualify as strict, though also independent and free.


s a scaredy-cat and a softy!
Senyora Magdalena Blasi yellowed.
Everything, leaving aside the eternal mysteries of inflation, has a price,
she smiled, with good reason.
If the old man exalts himself it

s a trick of age. But he

s not so old. He exaggerates. I

m older than he is,
Senyora Magdalena Blasi impartially confirmed.

Along the curve of the biological and the essential, nothing is fixed,
stated Doctor Robuster i Tramusset, with blanched eyes.

The feedback from my naked words,
concluded Salom,
does not by any means have to affect this tired man incapable of deception and self-pity. If he wanted, he would pray for those who are his friends, and those who are not his friends alike, to be saved.

These precautions won

t stop them from skinning him,
said Senyora Magdalena Blasi scornfully, as she receded.

In the little book discussed above, along with a number of dialogues and monologues, oddities and extravagances, there is some gipsyism and a very few neologisms and semantic leaps, and the vocabulary and discourse are subject, not without restrained rebellion, to the dictated and codified laws and lists of the Institute of Catalan Studies, some of whose pressing rules will have to be modified and revised bit by bit. We find ourselves today between two fires: on the one hand a rigid and paralytic purism; on the other an irresponsible and inadmissible patois. Perhaps one will have to insist on searching, between extreme and extreme, for the equilibrium of a middle ground. The man who writes these lines ought not to instruct anyone, does not want to instruct anyone, nor can he instruct anyone. Because he has no authority. Because

if by some tactical miscalculation a speck of it is attributed to him

as everything has been sung, recited, or told, and everyone has forgotten everything, nothing should have to be repeated. Because the old man has learned that
many words that have been lost will be born again, and many more now honored will be lost.
Because he understood, through his dangerously intimate contradictions, that
the language of art

s future is always an unknown language.

S. E.

Barcelona, 25 July 1974

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