Precarious Generation: Women Writers and Reproduction in Catalonia

By Nichols, Geraldine C. | Romance Notes, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Precarious Generation: Women Writers and Reproduction in Catalonia


Nichols, Geraldine C., Romance Notes


A number of years ago I undertook the analysis of Montserrat Julio's Memories d'un futur barbar (1975), a novel so powerful that it changed the direction of my research on women's fiction in Spain and in Catalonia. (1) From that point on, I have concentrated my attention on reproduction and its representation, in literature and film. Julio's dystopia depicts the world of 2023 as seen by an elderly man eking out his last days at the family home in Sarria. Most of the rest of humanity has predeceased him, and he is writing the history of this debacle, starting with the day in 1973 when it was confirmed that mammalian reproduction had ceased all over the world. He acknowledges the senselessness of his endeavor, for there will be no one to read the work: "els mots, en la meva historia, guardaran un sentit indesxifrable, no podran anar mes enlla d'una representacio grafica, compondran un mosaic de jeroglifics siderals i abstractes" (17).

Imagining the cessation of human generation is the stuff of science fiction, but if Julio's novel is considered within its cultural and linguistic context, its premise takes on a far more realistic cast: it is not beyond the pale to think that a language as threatened as Catalan might one day cease to be spoken and taught, its written texts turned ipso facto into abstract hieroglyphics. The region's historically low birth rate has been palliated by intensive immigration, (2) but today's newcomers tend to use Castilian far more than Catalan--in spite of years of "normalization" of Catalan in the schools--and this preference bodes ill for the future of the autochthonous language. (3) Joan Perucho morosely declared as much in 1997: "Tinc una visio molt pessimista pel que fa al futur de la literatura catalana, ja que l'index demografic d'aquesta cultura es tan baix.... Crec que la literatura catalana dins de deu anys desapareixera ja que no neixen catalans.... [S]i no hi ha catalans, no hi ha lectors" (70). While Perucho's prediction has not come true, there is little doubt that globalization and severe economic disruptions cast an ominous shadow on minority languages and literatures worldwide.

Memories d'un futur barbar should thus not be read as a simple flight of fantasy, but as a serious reflection on the future--or reproduction--of Julio's nation and language. Indeed, the novel can be seen to hypostasize Catalonia's chronically low fecundity, carrying it to its logical extreme and showing the catastrophe that would ensue if the birth rate fell to zero. (4) Intrigued by this concern with procreation, I began to wonder if other women writers had dealt with it over the years. Had their works problematized aspects of reproduction? Were there any commonalities in their treatment which might be ascribed to their gender or nationality?

Thus began an extensive project to read reproduction in works by Catalan women. I looked for noteworthy similarities in their depiction of this realm of activity, which patriarchal societies have linked so closely (and cannily) to the female gender. It is largely through the regulation of reproductive functions that cultures control women and define them as inferior to men: less spiritual, less capable of abstract thinking, less suited to public activity. Given the salience of procreation in the construction of femininity, I hypothesized that women writers in Catalonia would engage the topic, irrespective of their own interest in perpetuating the species. (5) I also thought that they might be interested in the issue as Catalans; perhaps they used literary mises en scene to ponder a demographic situation which had long been considered problematic in their culture.

This project led me read or re-read 19 works by women writers; as something of a control, I also considered three novels by men. The texts cover a bit more than a century, from Caterina Albert's La infanticida of 1898 to Najat El Hachmi's Jo tambe soc catalana, published in 2004. …

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