Febre de Carrer

Street fever is a collection of eight stories by the Catalan author Mercé Ibarz about individuals who observe their present lives though the prism of the past. From a childlike view of the world that belies a more sophisticated understanding of human nature to a history of the defiant working class construction of a city neighbourhood, she constructs an understanding of the present through a transverse vision of layers of history.

Each story portrays some kind of transformation of the character as they look back on their lives to find meaning. Each of them feels a distance between their selves (and in some cases within themselves) and the rest of the world. They feel they must show themselves in some way. All of them make some kind of journey (on foot, bus, car, train) that activates their memories.

Una modesta proposició (A modest proposal) is a story about three women, Catalan, Argentinean and Serbian, who decide to drive to the beach outside the city one day. They are forced to divert from the usual route because of roadworks, and while they drive around getting lost, the reminisces of each one takes them on a different journey into their pasts. They end the day by celebrating the common story they now share.

Ibarz’s characters are protective and defensive about their own internal spaces but at the same time yearn to be part of the city they inhabit. The weight of history bears heavily on them, and they sift through it in order to find their place in the present. Ibarz herself has spoken of that “…uncomfortable feeling that comes from the sensation that history moves so quickly that the past doesn’t exist”.

El Carrer (The street) brings us back to the Barcelona of the 1960s when newly arrived immigrants, most of them tradesmen, built their own houses from leftover materials. They created their own neighbourhood at the foot of the mountain, at the time outside the boundary of the city. The narrator in the story visits one of their descendants, still living on the same street of little houses, each one built in their own style over time. The woman decides it is her job to educate her visitor about the working class pride of the neighbourhood, and they leave the city on a day trip to visit another row of houses, built in the same manner on the beachfront in a little town in the south, where those same people would go to spend their weekends in the summer. These immigrants built their communities from nothing outside official city boundaries, but the neighbourhoods are now part of the city’s history. References to cinema, history and culture are all discussed, and the woman succeeds in highlighting the narrator’s narrow sense of about what it means to be Catalan.

Dinar a la boqueria (Lunch at la boqueria) is a glimpse of an intense relationship between mother and son that suddenly brings us back to the Catalan exiles at Roissy-en-Brie after the Spanish Civil War. The very personal story of a couple’s journey to deliver a print by Picasso moves from intimate details of their marriage (and her relationship with her son) to the wider setting of exiled artists at the time a fascist force controlled the country.

It is a book about a present that can only be known through the past, and how a small detail of ordinary life opens up a world of past lives and histories. The isolation of the individual and their place in the world is addressed by situating them somewhere: the sense of alienation is usually resolved through the stories of other people. Sharing our memories creates a space for common past, a reference from where to see the present. It is also a vivid portrait of Barcelona the city as it is today, and the tension between the past and present.

Barcelona as seen from Montjuïc, May 2020