Monday, 28 July 2014
Under The Dust by Jordi Coca
So, wheel of fortune, count to 29, pin the tail, freebies off of peeps on Twitter etc. etc. Whatever the methods sometimes employed to pick the next book in my intertextual experience, the one that brought me to Jordi Coca brought me to a whopping great slice of nostalgia. Before I'd even opened it, it brought to mind Richard Gwyn, himself a published poet, author, biographer, translator and course director of the MA Creative Writing course at Cardiff University, who I recall for some odd reason gently encouraging me to read this novel, and by whose own work I was quietly impressed at the time. He was also an advocate of Roberto Bolaño, another writer in whose work I can immerse myself but from which I emerge drained, as mentioned previously. Before that, though, there is this sticker on the front, declaring 'Signed by the Author at Waterstone's'. It is indeed signed by Jordi Coca, not adding any particular intrinsic value to the book, not for me anyway, but more importantly, the sticker is in Times New Roman font, white on black, and Waterstones is still in the possession of its possessive apostrophe.
Oh happy days!
I worried, on hearing of the little fellow's demise at the hand of James Gaunt, its eradication from store fronts and point-of-sale material such as this, that this once great chain had finally succumbed to the lure of the high street homogeny, that standards and principles were no longer of principal concern. What next, I wondered, censorship of the books they sell? No subversive or controversial authors allowed*? Yeah, considering the volume of Dawkins that went through the chain's tills I was on a hiding to nothing with this anxiety. If it sells, they'll sell it. And in some cases, if the sales rep could sell it to an underling pushed into their way because us important booksellers were too busy** to sit still for their patter, it went on the shelves even if it had no chance in hell of selling***. Still, I pined a little while in contemplation of my time under its roofs and the many books I'd stocked as a favour to the nicer reps.
Thus I was back to Jordi Coca, in whose marketability to the particular demographic of Cardiff, at the time of publication, I had little faith, but which I bought in for the sake of the chaps at Parthian, probably via the Welsh Books Council. And somehow, I bought a copy. This was back in 2007 and it's been unread since.
Well it's unread no longer.
What I found was a genuinely interesting novel, a fictional memoir which wobbles closely to Coca's own revelation that he discovered writing at the age of 14. Set in Barcelona after the civil war, we discover a young boy, described through an oddly juvenile narrator seemingly drawn into his own childhood by the act of reminiscing, whose life is a precarious balance between fears - fear of his tyrannical father whose rages and violence blacken the book with an atavistic terror, fear of his past and its portents, fear of his future, fear of his friends and their own paths into adulthood, or otherwise. But through it all, despite his worries that his mother's pregnancy might end in the death of his sibling as it did before, there is a burgeoning sense of awakening. Of course, awakening to the dangers all around him doesn't make for any great release, neither to the tension of the story nor the dread of existence, but there is an incongruous family of exiles, a father, mother, son and lodger, whose existence provides shelter and the comfort of words and thoughts, who show him that disagreement needn't end in violence. There is the approaching birth of a brother or sister which inspires some forward thinking and planning, presaging hope. There is the promise of release from his tormentor with the arrest of his father for trafficking stolen goods, and there is the sweet temperament of his long suffering mother, whose faith in him never appears shaken. And all this is backdropped by a grim, grey, dusty city, under whose dust he imagines himself choking. Oppressive but not without hope, I can't think of a more engaging novel about life under fascism, especially as I am somewhat saddened to confess I know next to nothing about the Spanish Civil War*****. This is a really excellent novel and I am glad I was its vehicle to the shelves of the flagship bookshop in Wales.
*Points go to the first pedant to remind me of the Patrick Jones debacle of 2008 which, much to my chagrin, fell under my purview at the time (in so far as I invited him and his lovely publisher Jan Fortune-Wood to the store for a signing, only for the Big W put the kibosh on it at the last minute)
**Preferred not to spend an hour being bullshitted and bamboozled
***Although I know several erstwhile colleagues and a barrage of international bizarro devotees who appreciate my insistence on stocking the works of Carlton Mellick III despite initially disappointing**** sales
****Zero. In fact I bought the lot from a clearance bin over a year later after it all became dead stock after 'accidentally' being repeatedly missed during picks for publisher returns. Allegedly.
*****Something I began to address subsequently by watching the delightful film The Year and the Vineyard. I think that should be sufficient.