Salt Water

Josep Pla

translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
Archipelago Books 2020
A book review by Danny Yee © 2021
Many are set decades earlier, but the stories in Salt Water were mostly written in the 1940s, when Pla was in a kind of internal exile on the north coast of Catalonia. Told in the first person and broadly autobiographical, his stories are deeply embedded in the life and landscape of that coast, to the point that some of them are more travel writing or ethnography than fiction.

There is not much drama: the stories have at best skeletal plots, and what tension there is in them is always downplayed. And they are not psychological studies, even if the portraits of a few central characters are sharply etched. I found Pla's prose strangely engrossing, however, lured into an appreciation of landscapes and weather and towns and people and the ocean.

In "A Frustrated Voyage" the narrator and a friend sail a small dinghy to France, only to immediately turn back; the interest is in the stops along the way, the different places and their people. And "Smuggling" is an account of another futile trip to France, this time with the narrator providing camouflage for a smuggling trip.

In "Bread and Grapes" the narrator gets involved in a conflict between two smugglers, but the conclusion is signalled and there's never any tension. The central figures are vividly if briefly sketched, but what lingers in the memory are the coastal tracks from Cadaqués, north to El Jonquet or south to Jònculs, the small settlements, the changing weather, the views, and so forth.

"Out to Sea" is an account of another unsuccessful voyage, an attempt to sail from Majorca to Barcelona that is frustrated by a storm. This is less successful, to my mind, with the descriptions of landscapes replaced by observations on the different kinds of gulls and musings on first encounters with the sea in literature, touching on Goethe, Maupassant, Pliny, and others. And "One from Begur" is told to the narrator, by a man who secretly worked as a pilot for a German submarine during the First World War.

"Still Life with Fish" is a description of the hamlet of Fornells and of the fishing there and elsewhere along the coast, with details of which fish taste best and how to prepare them, and of fishing techniques and customs. "Coral and Coral Divers" is another ethnographic account documenting the historical coral collecting industry of the coast (where the red coral is now endangered).

In "Shipwrecks: A Reportage", the French skipper who has just survived the wreck of his yacht tells his story, in counterpoint to a critique by a retired local mariner; this is accompanied by the story of two galleons wrecked in 1654, and the salvage/looting of a wreck in 1730. This is followed in "On the Rocks" by more stories of shipwrecks and salvage. And the final piece, "The Sinking of the Cala Galiota: Conversations with Dalí the painter's father", an addition to what is otherwise a 1966 collection, is about a ship that vanished and the delays getting certifications of death for the crew; it ventures a little into politics, something the other stories eschew (perhaps because Pla was in enough trouble with the Franco regime for writing in Catalan).

Salt Water had me looking at maps of the area and thinking about visiting — though of course since Pla wrote these pieces this coast has become the Costa Brava, and the sleepy coastal towns he describes are now bustling tourist centres.

March 2021

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%T Salt Water
%A Pla, Josep
%M Catalan
%F Bush, Peter
%I Archipelago Books
%D 2020
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781939810724
%P 454pp