Book Review

Josep Pla’s Salt Water is quite the tome of Catalonian literature. At 450 pages, the work may be intimidating, but within is a detailed look at life along the coast of Catalonia before the Spanish Civil War. What this writing is, exactly, is not entirely clear. In Pla’s own words, the book is “evidence of my potential”—what may have been had Pla been able “to devote myself systematically to narrative literature,” and what he calls “a succession of reflections of my insignificant but actual existence.” Is it fiction, autofiction, nonfiction? The answer to all three is yes.

There are ten pieces of writing in the book: five longer narratives that read like traditional stories, and five pieces that record and observe the Catalonian coast. Pla’s narrator disappears more and more as the stories progress. Of those ten, the first three are the most successful narratives. From there the writing tends to skew towards reportage and pure documentary. Pla is already what one might call a “long” writer, and the translator does little to accommodate this—through use of contractions for example—so the later narratives tend to languish, similar to the sailboats on their pages, going nearly nowhere.

Pla is most successful as a pure documentarian, as in the pieces “Still Life With Fish” and “Coral and Coral Divers.” The first is a catalogue of the fish and their uses in the area around Fornells, and the second an overview of the coral trade and its history in Catalonia. The writing is reminiscent of the documentaries of Jean Painlevé and contain the stray narrative flourishes of Agnès Varda. Both pieces rely heavily on descriptions. In “Still Life With Fish” Pla organizes the piece by giving a brief narrative followed by the listing of each important fish in the area, how those fish live, what their history is and how they are used. In “Coral and Coral Divers” Pla reports from a coral diver’s boat, gives a history of the practice of coral diving, and describes everything from the equipment the coral divers use, to the underwater terrain they encounter, to what they eat for dinner. Through these descriptions Pla truly shines as a writer, and reveals his gift to finely render the world around him.

As a Catalonian writer, Pla offers a priceless contribution to Catalan literature and culture. His writing demonstrates the ability to feel a sense of Catalonian heritage while seeing the land through the eyes of an outsider. Through this lens he shows the world a time and place that has largely been lost to record. When Pla expresses his desire to retire to a farmhouse on an olive grove, it’s as if he hasn’t been surrounded by these landscapes his entire life, romanticizing the region the way a tourist like myself does. He sees the beauty, and voices the inherent spirits of the place. He is building a legacy of a region he loves, and he wants the world to love it too. The work also provides a unique and detailed record of the coast of Catalonia in the time before the Spanish Civil War—a record that was assaulted along with all of Catalan culture during Franco’s regime. In the years following the war, Pla would even be forced to abandon his native language when speaking and writing in public like all other Catalonians.

Though Pla asserts his pieces are “narrative experiments” written during his youth, in the translator notes Peter Bush speculates that Pla may have lied about when the work was written to avoid censorship by the Spanish government. This highlights a problem that is still relevant in Spain today where a tweet criticizing the government can land a person in jail—sparking protests in response. Whenever the work was written, having a chronicle of Pla’s impressions of the era and place in which he lived published in English is truly a treasure.

About the Reviewer

Scott Mashlan is a writer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He works as a senior editor for New American Press and teaches at a local technical college. His writing has been nominated for Best American Short Stories and shortlisted for Dzanc Book's Disquiet literary prize. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in F(r)iction, Litro, Rejection Letters, Necessary Fiction, XRAY, and Whitefish Review.