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‘Life from the margins can be perfectly fruitful’ [book review]

A review of The Intimate Resistance by Josep Maria Esquirol, translated from the Catalan by Douglas Suttle, and Wilder Winds by Bel Olid, translated from the Catalan by Laura McLoughlin

The world can be pretty exhausting sometimes. In this age of information and global connection, it can seem as though we are being urged from all sides to do more, be better, go further – to put ourselves constantly out there. Thanks to the internet and social media, not even a pandemic has really been able to stop that. How refreshing it is, then, to read a book about staying quiet, being at home, about the pleasure we must take in ordinary moments, and the importance of celebrating the everyday. In The Intimate Resistance, a book-length essay by Catalan philosopher Josep Maria Esquirol, translated into English by Douglas Suttle and published by Fum d’Estampa, we are encouraged to do exactly this: to slow down, think smaller, look at the little details of life, and only then, in doing so, appreciate the bigger picture.

Cover image The Intimate Resistance

Refreshing the subject matter certainly is, but this is perhaps not quite the right word to apply to The Intimate Resistance when it comes to matters of style. A serious philosophical text that draws heavily on the work of Nietzsche, Arendt, Heidegger and others, it requires close reading and a good deal of concentration – the kind of book best approached in a silent room. Once engaged with Esquirol’s particular style, however, the prose takes on a flowing cadence, studded with moments of poetic brilliance that underline its author’s key points. In Douglas Suttle’s nuanced translation, this complex book is a pleasure to read, an intellectual challenge that offers plenty of rewards.

Structured around a trio of ‘moments’, which begin with an evocative description of a laden table, Esquirol’s ‘philosophy of proximity’ includes elements as varied as cultivating vegetables, the basic care of oneself (‘without becoming Narcissus’), spending time at home, and ‘the essence of language as shelter’. Here, he asks us to think of ‘the desert and the ocean [as] the two great irreconcilable metaphors of the human condition’, writing about space and loneliness, the importance of shelter and how we must welcome others in order to experience meaningful connection. As he puts it elsewhere, ‘Life from the margins can be perfectly fruitful because what counts is the possibility of being a beginning; of each and every person being a beginning.’ Intimacy, not grandeur, is the foundation of a good life, he tells us – and reading this wise, calm, often supremely lyrical essay, it’s a philosophy to which it is difficult not to subscribe.

As much as the media and cult of celebrity would have us believe otherwise, life for most of us does happen in the margins. Another recently published translation from Catalan, Bel Olid’s Wilder Winds is a slight but beautiful collection of short stories that zoom in on life’s most minute details. Laura McGloughlin’s sharp, supple translation breathes vitality into narratives that are often only a page or two long, yet filled with memorable characters and life-changing moments that range from the obvious to the subtle.

Cover image - Wilder Winds

From a grandmother who ignites a protest movement in Kyiv’s Independence Square, to a former cabaret performer struggling to come to terms with her new body after a weight-loss operation, the figures who move through the eighty pages of Wilder Winds are nearly all women. While not exactly feminist, this is very much a female collection – about women’s bodies, women’s struggles, women’s ambitions and aspirations, what is expected of them by society and how they are perceived. Olid shifts seamlessly between external and internal viewpoints, affording us moments of breath-taking intimacy but ensuring that we keep an eye on the wider social picture. As in the very best short stories, so much of what matters here isn’t actually written – entire narratives hinge on an unsaid word, an implied course of action, the emotions rather than events conjured up on the page. In rendering Olid’s sparing prose into English, McLoughlin has chosen her words judiciously. The resulting series of stories is jewel-bright, a treasure trove, to be dipped in and out of or taken together as a kind of collective social portrait.

Though Olid tackles big topics – motherhood, social inequality, armed conflict, violence against women – some of her most striking stories are those that describe everyday moments. Take ‘Sibylle’, a story about shoemaking, in which the path of a life is changed entirely by a small act of kindness from a stranger. Suffused with the ‘warm glow’ felt by the narrator, it is among the shorter but more hopeful stories in the collection. In some ways equally optimistic, drenched as it is in the beauty of the natural world and a woman’s journey of self-discovery in solitude, the joy in ‘Wild Flowers’ is carefully balanced by a sense of threat, an underlying violence that risks spilling over at any moment into the gently calibrated life of its main character, Gabriela. Perhaps the most unforgettable of all, though, is ‘Baba Luba’, the tale of the aforementioned Ukrainian grandmother who spends her days ‘obstinately going over the map of her small homeland formed of attainable habits’. A stirring exploration of how politics and everyday life intersect, this is also a deeply moving story centred on strong female agency that shows how doing the right thing is often a matter not of thinking, but of feeling. Again, in her characteristic way, Olid upends what appears to be a classical narrative arc – with its interplay of unexpected achievement and loneliness, the resolution of Baba Luba’s story is nothing if not haunting.

Though very different in subject matter and tone, both Wilder Winds and The Intimate Resistance look at life through a magnifying lens, using language as a powerful tool to convey their philosophies on what it is to be alive today. Thoughtful additions to what is already a strong, eclectic list, we are fortunate to have Fum d’Estampa bringing Catalan literature of this calibre into English.

The Intimate Resistance by Josep Maria Esquirol, translated by Douglas Suttle, and Wilder Winds by Bel Olid, translated by Laura McGloughlin, are both published by Fum d’Estampa Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing review copies.


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