Barcelona and The Colour of a Dog Running Away

Here are some thoughts about the way the city helped shape the book ...

The seeds of this novel germinated during the late 1980s, when I lived in Barcelona, and over the many visits I paid the city in the years that followed. In 1997 I wrote what is now Chapter One of the book and left it in a drawer. Five years later I settled down and wrote the book in very much the same way as I have always written poems, doing a quick first draft and then continuously re-writing and editing. During this period (2002-3) I lived with my family in a small village some distance to the north of the city, near the French border, and my children went to the local school.

Barcelona has always been a source of inspiration to me, since my first visit in 1984, when I decided that one day I would live there. It was an exciting place to be, and an exhilarating time to be there. As Lucas, the narrator of the novel describes it – “There was an edge of muted excitement in the air. Barcelona often seemed like that: a city on the brink, infatuated with its own improbability.” The narrow streets and alleyways of the Gothic Quarter, with their evocative names and suspect drainage systems; the deep shadowy drinking-dens with huge wooden barrels stacked against the walls; the endless parade of street-life with its beggars, musicians, fire-eaters, jugglers and assorted lunatics; all of these contributed to a sense of dislocation and mutability which I tried to incorporate in the telling of Lucas’ story. Although the city was tidied up before hosting the 1992 Olympics and places like the Plaça Reial (where, Lucas tells us, “sleepwalkers and ghosts are invariably drawn”) are now, if not exactly anodyne, certainly considerably more sanitized than in days gone by, no amount of civic interference could dislodge the seedy, bohemian, cosmopolitan soul of the place, and even now, when certain streets of the barrio are attempting to achieve a more contemporary trendiness and affluence, you will find shops selling designer clothes or organic wholefoods next door to dodgy bars and suspect hostels, while the street-life continues undeterred. The buildings of Gaudí and the famous eateries celebrated in guide-books are peripheral to this rougher, nocturnal, and sometimes delinquent aspect of the city, and there is a noticeable change in the quality of the air when emerging from the Gothic quarter’s clammy breathlessness and crossing the Plaça Catalunya into the broad and elegant avenues of the Eixample district.

I always wanted Barcelona to be central to the telling of my story, and in the Roof People I found the representatives of what I considered to be the city’s essential diversity and anarchic sense of liberation. Delusional, of course, since this kind of liberation always comes at a price. But the Roof People, at least, had some basis in reality: while visiting in 1999 an American painter I met told me how the flat rooftops near his own studio had been squatted by groups of North African kids, and from that brief conversation the idea of a community of acrobat-vagrants began to formulate itself. I had also lived in an apartment that bore a close resemblance to Lucas’, and yes, my neighbor kept rabbits in a shack on the roof patio. So in a sense there are two Barcelonas in the novel, a ‘real’ one, visited in practice and in memory at the time of writing, and a phantasmagorical Barcelona, inhabited by people I did not know, but might easily have done, if only a particular perceptual doorway were left ajar. One night, in front of my laptop, I opened that door a fraction, and the Roof People tumbled out, just as Igbar Zoff had done on an earlier occasion.

The stories that we tell ourselves in order to explain our lives are not necessarily ‘true’ but serve the purpose of establishing and perpetuating a certain kind of sustaining fiction or identity. When that identity begins to break down, the need arises for new stories. We are never certain whether Lucas, in the book, is writing his own story or is merely confabulating in order to pass the time in his isolated tower. In this way, I suppose, the book is also about writing, why people write, and how fictions (in both senses of the word) are made. Lucas does not know what he wants – cannot know what to want - (hence the Kundera quote at the beginning of the novel) – but by meeting Nuria, the Roof People, and then Pontneuf, he is thrown into a new confusion: what if he were someone else, had always been someone else? That he had been living his life under a basic misapprehension and now had a second self: it makes it that much easier to comprehend how he is tempted by the proposition that this second self was part of a group of heretics that lived 750 years ago. So when he returns to Barcelona (did he ever leave?) in the latter part of the book, we are again introduced to the characters of the Fire-eater, of María del Mar (one of the Roof People), and the Baron, but this time around the phantasmagorical aspect of the city is more emphatic, and this correlates with Lucas’ own descent into alcoholism and despair and his forays into the city’s (and his own) unconscious.

Many visitors to Barcelona have been seduced by its strident and subversive charms. I am not claiming to have done anything new in this regard. And there are other novels which penetrate deeper into the clandestine lives of the city: Eduardo Mendoza’s ‘City of Marvels,’ set one hundred years before mine, stands out among them. But I hope to have captured, at least, a subjective and necessarily blurred image of the city’s essential characteristics as viewed by an outsider at a time of life when possibilities were unlimited and horizons constantly shifted, when the gentle flapping of a sheet overhanging the Carrer de la Palma de Sant Just concealed not only a row of geraniums but the prospect of intimacy and eventual nostalgia, and when the dawn was not a pretext for rest or slumber but an invitation to begin again. Barcelona never sleeps, she just turns over, takes a deep breath and puts on a new face.

© Richard Gwyn, 2005

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