Josafat by Prudenci Bertrana (Francis Boutle Publishers, £8.99)
WHEN Josafat was first published in 1906, it caused outrage in Catalonia. A tale of lust and lunacy, it was Prudenci Bertrana’s response to accusations that he had penned a morally dubious novella.
Bertrana (1867-1941) was born into a family with land and property in Girona and Esparra and affiliated to the right-wing Carlist variant of the Catholic church.
From the 19th century onwards, however, the city and province of Girona played an important part in the development of anti-cleric republicanism and anarchism and a renaissance of Catalan literature, in which direction Bertrana’s sympathies would gravitate.
On the death of his father, Bertrana found himself burdened with debts. He tried to make a living as an artist, signwriter and art teacher before turning to journalism and for a time was editor of a republican newspaper in Girona.
The success of Josafat ensured he had enemies within the Establishment but he consolidated his reputation in republican circles.
With the advent of the Second Republic in 1931, Bertrana enjoyed a brief period of security which came to an end with the civil war and, when the fascists entered Barcelona, he lost his job as a journalist and art teacher.
He avoided imprisonment but he and his family suffered great poverty. He was devastated by the closure of Catalan newspapers and the way Catalan was being silenced.
Josafat is a retelling of The Beauty and The Beast, with the beauty being the nymphomaniac prostitute Fineta and the beast the illiterate peasant Josafat, bell-ringer and caretaker of Girona cathedral.
The protagonist’s brutish strength and enthusiasm, however, are much appreciated by the cathedral authorities in what were anti-clerical times.
After his extremely savage attack on a man who fails to remove his beret before the figure of Christ in a religious procession, the church authorities deem it wise to move him from front-line duties to the more suitable post of bell-ringer and sundry responsibilities such as preparing hosts.
His lustful urges had been kept in control until a chance encounter with the young prostitute Fineta. Bored with her ageing clientele, and eager for more virile and dangerous partners, she becomes enamoured of him and the consequences are appalling and catastrophic for both.
Bertrana implies that Josafat is driven by irrational beliefs and the repression of these frenzied urges are used to advantage by the authoritarian church, which may explain the popularity of the novella in the post-Franco era. It is now a curriculum book for study by secondary school students.
Peter Bush’s translation of the descriptive passages conveying the shadowy and ominous atmosphere of Girona cathedral are to be specially commended in this first novel in the Francis Boutle series of short fiction written in European regional and lesser-used languages.