PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
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.
This is a deeply moving and very engaging account of the clash between religion and rural society shifting from feudalism to modernity. Written in Catalan in 1901 and translated by Alan Yates in 2014, the story traces the ministry of Father Llàtzer. Llàtzer is a compromised figure who has been banished by the church authorities for exploring secular philosophy, but then seeks to impose traditional religion on a primitive rural society of shepherds, wood cutters and charcoal burners. They are depicted as surly and resentful. Grinding poverty extinguishes any potential for joy in their lives. The context of the ravine is dark and foreboding.
Father Llàtzer is driven by personal ambition and egocentric imagination to become their saviour, but swings pragmatically between administering religion’s concepts of love and judgment to achieve this, between personal relationship and the authority of church office. The church institution has forged and controlled the lives of Josep and Mariagna, Father Llàtzer’s servants.
Raimon Casellas paints the eternal struggle, dilemma and loneliness of the priest figure graphically. Meanwhile, the primitive human condition is strongly aware of its sexual drive, and in the end secularism wins, and religion, church and Father Llàtzer are defeated. Casellas doesn’t explore what secularism might have lost through this triumph.
This translation deserves high praise. Yates has managed to preserve the tone of the original Catalan without having recourse to potentially awkward English archaisms. He does this by combining contemporary vocabulary with words that were used two or three generations ago. By skilfully controlling the language in similar ways throughout the text, he has managed to render an early twentieth-century Catalan classic in a register as beguiling as that of the original.