Jacobé & Fineta – Joaquim Ruyra (tr. Alan Yates)

Nature is complaining as it goes into decline.

“AUTUMN”, the opening word of Joaquim Ruyra’s short story ‘Jacobé’, a period of shedding, dying back before hibernation and then (later) rejuvenation. Immediately you are transported to the season where the natural world is shedding its vibrancy.

…it is something death-like which moves through the land in accordance with an annual rhythm.

As the author biography tells us:

Joaquim Ruyra was a short story writer, poet and translator, considered a key figure in modern Catalan literature and one of the great narrators of the 20th century. He was in the vanguard of the Catalan Modernist generation as they constructed a new literary model after 1860, when the Catalan language became the vehicle of cultural nationalism. Although he did not produce a large body of work, his short stories set a stylistic benchmark for Catalan literature, including the shaping of a ‘landscape canon’.

‘Jacobé’ is deeply set in the natural world, yes it opens with “autumn”, however it is littered with natural images of rejuvenation, springtime, beauty. Here are a few examples:

Broom flowers…I can see her now through the blue aloe flowers…everything about her was like a delicate winter flower…skin the warm colour of a peach tree…that attractive young lily who graced the seafront, the very image of wholesomeness, is now like a delicate plant that has been trampled on the roadside.

However, this isn’t a short story about the natural world, it is a mediative piece about a man, Minguet, who returns to the seaside village of his youth and crosses paths with Jacobé, a girl from the village who looked after Minguet when he was a youngster. She has now contracted an inherited illness, most likely from her father and grandfather who were both alcoholics, and she is now in decay.

Jacobé’s decline is couched in natural terms,

Thins purple veins show on her eyelids like the slenderest reddish lines which adorn a mallow flower.

…she’s withering away like a dead vine shoot…

Even Minguet’s memories of her are related in natural terms:

Everything here still reminds me of her, especially that group of scattered rocks standing out just offshore in the cover, adorned with clusters of plants that shine like antique gold. The rocks themselves look to me now like a pedestal without its statue: the right setting for the figure of that long-legged girl with her angular features, her clothing and hair flapping in the wind.

This is a tragic short story, capturing Jacobé’s mental and physical decline, as the story moves to its conclusion the plants become harsher:

…sitting on a rock by a large cactus.

A strong gust of wind carries away her headscarf, which ends up snagged on some brambles close to where I stand.

The scrub around us is being flattened like ripe corn under a great downpour. Clumps of broom are forced against rocks, their sharp twigs waving tremulously.

I never worried at the time about where I grasped with my hands for security, whether on a thorn bush or on a spiky aloe branch.

[SPOILER ALERT]

And as the story draws to its tragic conclusion:

She crashes though some pine saplings, which quickly wave goodbye to her with their pliant thin branches, and she plunges through emptiness, down and down. Like a flower in the wind… He skirt and petticoat spread and spin in a large whorl, against whose colours the faint pinkness of her thin legs, like lily stamens, is displayed.

A beautifully engaging and vivid short story, light and heartbreaking, one that is a wonderful example from a “landscape canon”.

The second short story in this collection, ‘Fineta’, uses similar imagery, however this time it is the sea:

The sea is calm. The waves are rolling in gently and, on the sloping beach, they stretch themselves languidly upon the sand, leaving behind as they recede a surface as smooth as burnished copper. Some dark pebble banks basking here and there in the cover are briefly covered and then revealed again by the lapping movement of the shallow water, with drips running from every strand of the green moss that clothes them and smooths their shapes. It is just as though they are indulging in some gentle bathing. The cove is empty, concealed between lofty cliffs where patches of bright sunlight and purplish shadows form patterns.

Although a very slight book (a mere 53 pages including an introduction by Julià Guillamon) it is a beautifully presented book, slight and charming, the innocence of nature sitting uncomfortably alongside dark tales of suffering. Well worth seeking out.

My copy was provided as part of my Fum d’estampa subscription.

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2 thoughts on “Jacobé & Fineta – Joaquim Ruyra (tr. Alan Yates)

  1. I loved these two stories as well – the first in particular which distils the story to its essence without losing any power. I can see why you’ve subscribed as they have published some great titles so far.

    Liked by 1 person

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