COME ON UP
by Jordi Nopca
translated by Mara Faye Lethem
Bellevue Literary Press, 224 pages
reviewed by Michael McCarthy
At first, it’s a promise. Come on up!
It’s a pledge made to every up-and-comer in Barcelona. The city provides a backdrop for Jordi Nopca’s short story collection Come On Up, translated from Catalan to English by Mara Faye Lethem. His stories skillfully traverse decadence and depravity, splendor and squalor, the tragic and the comic, the boring and the absurd. They will resonate with anyone who has a decent job, a decent home, and decent career prospects but is still somehow broke.
Take it from Nopca. The city and its denizens are in rough shape:
Barcelona is a tourist favorite, but it’s going through a delicate moment. Some of the most expensive boutiques in the world have opened up shop on the Passeig de Gràcia. The Old Quarter gleams with the urine of British, Swedish, Italian, and Russian visitors, which unabashedly blends in with the indigenous liquid evacuations. In Sarrià-Sant Gervasi and Les Corts, there are some neighbors whose only activity is walking their little dogs and holding on to their family inheritances. […] The Eixample is full of old people and the odd young heir who still can’t decide whether to continue his education, try his luck abroad, or hang himself from the chandelier in the dining room. The district of Gràcia hopes to remain a neighborhood of designers, artists, and students obsessed with watching subtitled films and TV shows. They were lucky folks until they started to lose their jobs; soon they won’t have enough to pay their rents, which are too high, and they’ll have to settle for some shabby corner of Sants, Not Barris, or Sant Antoni, where one can still live for a more or less affordable price.
Nopca deftly evokes the city’s wealth, luxury, and romance and points out that its gravest ills emerge from the allocation of these three resources. College graduates can’t pay rent. Jobless parents move in with their children. Relationships, newly sprung or decades-old, collapse under the stress. By all measures, Nopca’s characters are trapped, and there doesn’t seem to be a way out of the economic purgatory that is modern-day Barcelona.
Then, it becomes a taunt. Come on up!
Nopca’s breezy prose disguises his characters’ despair. The never-ending job search becomes just another part of growing up, not the product of a deeply dysfunctional economic order. If his characters don’t believe this, they go insane, which many do. Nopca’s stories portray this progression—ambitious job-seeker to unemployed bum to raving lunatic—as just as much a part of Barcelona’s culture as paella or Gaudi’s architecture. The question overshadowing the book is one the characters can’t bear to answer: Is financial desperation part and parcel of life in modern Spain?
Such misfortune afflicts the titular characters of “Angels Quintana and Felix Palme Have Problems.” The title perfectly captures Nopca’s understated, bone-dry wit. When Felix loses his job as a bartender, he gets drunk all day and stuffs fruit in the exhaust pipes of parked cars and motorbikes. For him, it’s a desperate attack against boredom; for others, it’s “another silent way of saying ‘We’ve had enough,’ from a highly qualified generation of those who still haven’t found their place in a job market that’s turned its back on them.” If it was an act of protest, Felix Palme didn’t know it, but that hardly seems to matter. The “banana battalion” as it is termed in the media represented another outburst against an intolerable economy. If that isn’t a protest, what is?
Even those with gainful employment suffer the casual cruelty of global capitalism. In “An Intersectional Conversationist at Heart,” Victoria, a promising journalist, witnesses an author she hardly knows ruin her career on a whim. Everyone who’s worked with Biel Auzina, the titular “Intersectional Conversationist,” attests to his hellish personality and literary ineptitude, but still, he reached a status in the Spanish literati that Victoria dared not dream of. The story would be Kafkaesque if it didn’t feel so true. In detached yet engaging prose, Nopca shows that the recipe for success is part industry, part luck, and mostly pure chance. Even that might not be enough.
By turns, however, it becomes an invitation. Come on up . . .
To a lover’s flat, that is. In “Don’t Leave,” Nopca follows romance’s sinuous course through shopping mall courtship to foiled late-night intimacy. Miriam is an art history major, but any ambition she has beyond working at a clothing outlet is left unspoken. A man, whom she dubs Robin Hood rather than learning his name, begins chatting her up on his way home from work, their longing for intimacy hidden behind their stunted small talk and “funny” stories. Soon, Robin Hood becomes her only hope for moving forward with her life.
But Nopca never allows his characters a happy ending. Rarely, though, does he subject them to undue suffering. His characters begin and end at the same point. The break-ups, job losses, arguments, demotions, financial sacrifices, and romantic humiliations sum up to zero. In a society that prides itself on upward mobility, stagnation is more frustrating than outright failure. This is Nopca’s most piercing insight.
Robin Hood washes up drunk at a bar by the story’s end, feeling worthless. “Every once in a while, one of the men glanced at him to make sure he still hadn’t collapsed,” Nopca writes. “It was as if he were a silent, invisible ghost. The visitor’s presence didn’t affect them in the slightest. They didn’t even seem to think he had a soul.” Barcelona will do that to a young man looking for love.
All that’s left is a sigh. Come on up.
Francoist Spain rarely comes up in this book. Some older characters briefly recall their lives in those decades, but Nopca never expounds on it at length. “Candles and Robes” discusses it most openly. Once a week, the teenage narrator visits his grandparents for lunch and hears stories of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. To his disappointment, they “increasingly focused on seemingly unimportant details. The day Franco’s troops entered Barcelona was remembered for the textbooks that were left in the empty closets by the classroom.” The dramatic mixes with the dull, and the two become inexorably conjoined, a theme in Nopca’s work.
Simultaneously, the narrator’s dad tries to learn the saxophone. He watches countless YouTube videos of virtuoso players but can hardly eke out a note. Nopca finds a surprising parallel between futile saxophone lessons and Catalonia’s economic plight. In his nuanced telling, the dad’s efforts come to embody the struggle of a generation of Catalans, for they have the same chance at escaping Franco’s baneful legacy as the dad does at learning the saxophone. The fight for economic well-being is waged in every apartment in the city, but day by day, it becomes a lost cause.
An entire nation was promised there would be nowhere to go but up. When moving up becomes impossible, what is there left to do but try?
Michael McCarthy is an aspiring writer of prose, poetry, and nonfiction from Braintree, Massachusetts who attends Haverford College, where he intends to major in English. His work has been published in Prairie Schooner.