Review: “The South” by Colm Tóibín (Barcelona)

"The South"A novel of the artistic community in Barcelona, The South charts the psychological fragmentation created by emigration and war.

Seeking a divisive break from her family in Enniscorthy, Katherine Proctor flees across the Celtic Sea to Spain, where she slowly creates a new place for herself as a painter.  Her romantic entanglements force her to navigate the personal trauma of the Spanish Civil War, as well as the greater political landscape of a country rent by bloody conflict.

No one in this book is psychologically whole, least of all Katherine herself.  Each character is the product of a self-imposed exile of one kind or another – the sense of not belonging in the place you’re meant to call home. Much as Katherine’s early wanderings allow her to examine the winding carrers of Barcelona, this first novel by Colm Tóibín permits the opportunity to examine his homeland from abroad.

I was drawn to this book because I guessed that my experience in Spain might be similar to Katherine’s in many ways.  Like Katherine, I am exploring Barcelona very much from the standpoint of an outsider.  My brief foray into working in Barcelona as an artist (of sorts!) has revealed a particularly vibrant community of expatriates, digital nomads, and freelancers.

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Coworking at Transforma BCN. Photo cred: CODINO.

As in The South, Barcelona is still deeply divided.  The second largest city in Spain, it is ironic that Barcelona is home to some of the most recognizably “Spanish” landmarks, as this city is in fact quite culturally distinct from the rest of country.  At home with my host family, I’m reminded of this constantly.  Take for example, a recent discussion about a tapas restaurant I wanted to visit.  My host dad described this staple of the southern Spanish diet quite dismissively.  If I want to eat authentic tapas, it sounds like a visit to Sevilla is in order.

Barcelona is the heart of Catalunya, a region currently embroiled in internal disagreement over its destiny.  If Catalunya ever achieves the independence craved by roughly half the population, it will be well worth the visa requirements to make a visit.  I’m stoked to be spending the next two months immersed in the cultural environment of The South.

Caravel Books

Related: The Blue Fox by Sjón (Reykjavík)

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