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Hard clerical life in Catalonia

08 August 2014

Alexander Lucie-Smith reads a dark tale of an isolated and rejected priest

Dark Vales
Raimon Casellas
Alan Yates, translator
Dedalus European Classics £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9 (Use code CT217 )

CATALAN literature barely features on the radar of most British readers. Indeed, most of us would be hard-pressed to name a single author from Catalonia. Until the death of General Franco, the language was subjected to state-sponsored harassment. Hence, this book, published at the end of the 19th century, was really rediscovered only in 1980, and is only now appearing in English.

The dark vales of the novel are a real place, located about 20 miles from Barcelona, but at the end of the 19th century remote, rural, and backward. It was a place that the author knew well, and the book is filled with portraits of the various characters who make their miserable livings in these isolated spots. The plot, which really gets into gear only about halfway through the book, after numerous episodes and vignettes, concerns the new priest, who has arrived to find the church in ruins.

This man, Fr Llàtzer, has been exiled to the back of beyond for some theological fault, which is never properly explained. He is accompanied by a very pious old couple. The priest is well-meaning, but the peasantry are hostile, and very soon things go badly wrongfor him, and he is rejected by his parishioners.

It is a grim tale, and I wonder why it should be so terrible. The introduction tells us that the author committed suicide, and that this fact has its impact on the way we read the book. It is, at first sight, a novel about the hardness of the clerical life, especially in places where the priest may be the only educated member of the community, and share little of their background; but it is much more than just that: it is a parable about the impossibility of progress, and how the well-meaning often end up in despair.

Does the novel give the reader a flavour of Catalan culture? It certainly alerts him or her to the anti-clericalism that we read of in George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, but, apart from that, this tragic story has little to do with the place some of us know today.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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