Xavier Farré Vidal
A LABYRINTH OF OPEN ROOMS. JOSEP PEDRALS’ POETRY
Josep Pedrals is an unusual case in Catalan literature. He seems to have more in common with other European poets – of a rather specific trend – than with contemporary authors writing in his own language. He writes poetry that negotiates with traditions by employing formal elements and combinatorial possibilities in a manner reminiscent of the OuLiPo group and their descendants. The results constantly surprise the reader.
Delving into the poetry of Josep Pedrals means establishing a dialogue with the literature of the Renaissance and the Baroque (of its less gloomy kind, perhaps), as well as with the rich poetry of the first and second avant-garde. Each of these trends is perceived through the prism of two perspectives well known to the author, namely Catalan poetry and European poetry, with troubadour and Italian poetry playing an especially important role. These pillars support the formal layer of Pedrals’ poems with their main axis – continuous re-creation and re-forming of the sonnet. In this way, the reader has the impression that he has been sucked into a spiral to suddenly feel like in an office of mirrors of the literary tradition, from which at the same time a door opens leading to the anxieties of a more contemporary world.
“He sets me on fire and makes me love the old”, says one of the most famous lines of 20th-century Catalan poetry. These are the words of J.V Foix – the poet who, in the times of the first avant-garde, breathed the spirit of the most radical modern times into Catalan poetry, without for a moment giving up the legacy of the Catalan golden age – of the fully formal poetry which he himself restored for posterity. You could say that Josep Pedrals is the most Foixian of Catalan poets today, and at the same time a completely different one. One of the reasons is that Foix lays the foundations for the ludic and transgressive dimension of the language that Pedrals makes use of.
In the rich work of Josep Pedrals, his pinnacle achievement comes to the fore in the Quim Porta trilogy, which consists of the volumes: El Furgatori (2006), El Romanço d’Anna Tirant (2012) and Els límits del Quim Porta (2018). The titles show the willingness to play with language and to go beyond its limits. In the first book, it is a game with the verb furgar “to poke, look for” and the title of the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy – Purgatory (Purgatori in Catalan). The names of the characters are also based on word play – Anna Tirant (the homonymous phrase anar tirant means “somehow it flies”) and Quim Porta (a qui importa – “who cares”), who is the main character of the whole series, especially prominent in its last part. The game of transgression does not end with the titles; they are only a foretaste of it.
The reader will not know how to classify the books; narrative is intertwined with poetry, creating a hybrid between essay and literary fiction. Poems – with a well-defined structure, full of allusions, linguistic mystifications, could be a separate part. Pedrals constructs the context to resemble a structure full of intertwined stories that can be read in many ways – like in Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Paradoxically, the first two books are usually classified as poetry volumes (or poetic narratives), while the last one is labelled as an essay with elements of literary fiction. The difficulty in fitting the texts into a specific genre (as they belong to all of them at once) is crucial to understanding Pedrals oeuvre; this entire poetic structure appears to be a huge postmodern pastiche, in which a number of voices taken from the literary tradition are reworked and mocked in parodies characteristic of modernity. Sometimes you get the impression that we are attending one of Robert Coover’s parties (as in Gerald’s Party), where the sequences of plans create the illusion of simultaneity. In Pedrals’ case, the illusion has settled on the imperceptible border between different genres and different realities.
When we approach the architectural structures of Pedrals’ books – apart from the smooth transitions between poetry and prose, if such a transition does take place at all – we could begin to reflect on the poet’s affinity with other authors. We could think of a poem in the style of Pound’s Cantos or many other works written in a similar vein; we could focus on the epic aspect and recall Omeros by Derek Walcott, we could also think of the poetic novel or contemporary verse novels (such as Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate), which are an aesthetic update of classic works like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin or Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. And the truth is that Pedrals fits into all these models, and at the same time breaks them down. The pastiche convention. becomes the key again so that you can dig into the essence of the poetic-novelist-essayist trilogy of the Catalan poet.
The trilogy has a plot (a convoluted one!) a novelistic narrative; prose passages are by no means less poetic than the poems themselves. The fictional universe is reminiscent of eighteenth-century British novelists, especially of Lawrence Sterne. The model of the classic novel – of Don Quixote, for example – is treated in a liberal manner to allow the prose of Pedrals’ work to exceed itself, move into a completely new dimension, while being constantly filtered by humour, mockery and satire. The pastiche convention draws from such sources – employing various layers of humour, distortion, literary transformation, he manages to present the confrontation with contemporary reality, at the same time being one step ahead of the ways the lyrical poem was perceived until the beginning of the 21st century.
In the poems that make up the small anthology published with “Versopolis”, one more element comes to the fore, which is also a distinguishing feature of Pedrals’ poetry. At the outset, it should be noted that all selected pieces come from the last part of the trilogy, Els límits del Quim Porta. In addition to the enormous formal artistry and control over rhymes, which have been very well reflected in the [Polish] translation by Marta Pawłowska, one more element attracts attention. Another important component of the Pedrals’ world, reflection on literature itself, on poetry and the creative act is a key subject of his poems. What we deal with here is metaliterature, metapoetry. “I want a poem that may turn out to be a spell…”, “I want to hand over the word to the pen / and let it write, let it walk through the text…”, “And if we rub this poem / against its neighbouring pages…” – these are the opening lines of some of his works . In Pedrals, reflection on the poem is manifested both in its structure and in the subject, it is a kind of feedback, as if with mise en abyme, which also brings to mind direct relations with the OuLiPo group. And yet in Pedrals’ work nothing is accidental, everything is enumerated and closely intertwined, as in a dense web of forms and meanings. In spite of this entanglement, amid the overlapping of levels and forms, delving into Pedrals’ work is like crossing the gates of a labyrinth in which each room is open and leads to another door, thanks to which everything is well ventilated. A very Baroque image, and at the same time so contrary to the Baroque itself.
translated by Miłosz Wojtyna (www.languageextreme.pl)