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Novel set in 1982 Barcelona – guest review by Isobel Blackthorn

17th January 2020

The Snares of Memory by Juan Marsé, novel set in in 1982 Barcelona. Translated by Nick Caistor.

Novel set in 1982 Barcelona

Set in 1982 in Barcelona, The Snares of Memory is primarily a retrospective novel that takes us back to the very different Barcelona of post-war Spain under Franco’s dictatorship, through the lens of a writer who has been urged to compose a script for a film covering the murder of a prostitute in a cinema’s projection room in 1949.

There are two main settings in the novel, the writer’s home and the cinema where the crime took place and its surrounds. Marsé evokes the streets of Barcelona in black and white twilight. The constant lighting of cigarettes and ensuing swirls of smoke adding to the noir feel. This moody narrative is at times intensely introspective and even when the narrator-writer interviews in his home the perpetrator of the crime – released from his prison term – there is ever-present the narrator’s inquiry, his frustrations in the face of the limitations of his evasive interviewee and his corrupted memory.

An elegantly conceived novel carrying a weighty theme, The Snares of Memory is lightened by the inclusion of the maid Felisa, a sly, sharp, cantankerous and funny character forever interrupting the men, undermining the interviews and at times adding crucial insights. Peppered through the novel are short drafts of the writer’s script and ironic exchanges with film directors and producers. The whole made complete with the inclusion of an old woman lap swimming with finesse in a public swimming pool.

The spotlight is on Sicart the murderer, who can recall his terrible deed but he has no idea why he did it and it is this question of motive that provides the necessary tension and drives the plot. Sicart’s testimony is unreliable and it is up to the reader to decide what parts to believe. Brimming with doubt, the reader confronts other realities including the Ciempozuelos Centre, the psychiatric asylum where in The Snares of Memory Dr Tejero-Cámara  – no doubt Marsé points to Vallejo-Nágera, the Mengele of Spain – a military doctor, conducted horrific abusive therapies on ‘Reds’ – Marxists, Anarcho-syndicalists, Catalans.

The juxtaposition of Sicart’s apparent attempts at recovering the truth with the workings of the 1980s Spanish film industry and the distortions involved in constructing entertainment out of real events, along with other distortions the result of repression, oppression and the need to lead covert lives makes for fascinating and rich reading. When citizens are not allowed freedom of thought and expression, how can their memories by relied on?

This beautifully written literary work reminds us of the enduring scars on Spanish and particularly Catalan cultural and social identities, the result of forty years of oppression endorsed through oversight by the West. Marsé and authors like him wish to reveal, expose, lay bare, and also critique, not only the papering over of the all too recent past with cinematic frippery, but the human tendency to avoid, forget, bury deep the unconscionable.

Guest review by Isobel Blackthorn for the TripFiction Team

Isobel is a prolific Australian novelist. She writes both contemporary/literary, thrillers and dark fiction. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter and via her website. 

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  1. User: Judith Works

    Posted on: 17/01/2020 at 5:00 pm

    This looks like a great read, especially I’ll be in Barcelona briefly this summer.