BEF2011/5 – Nela and the Virgins [Spain: Catalan]



Nela and the Virgins by Mercè Ibarz is a celebration.  It is a woman’s recollection of her teenage years spent in revolutionary 1970s Barcelona.  Valentina, Isi, Nela, and the unnamed narrator have all moved from provincial Spain to the capital of Catalonia, to an exciting but dangerous urban sprawl that offers the carnivalesque pleasures of a modern, progressive city and none of the stifling parochial conservatisms more generally associated with the rural population.  Most children chafe at the bit.  We  struggle to leave the nest as soon as we can, convinced we have what it takes to make it on our own.  The city, with its promise of freedoms, tumescent with the fantasies of youth, is a magnet.  Ibarz’s story is as much an ode to a time and place – 1970s Barcelona – as it is an ode to the new experiences of our young selves, when each day brings with it the loss – and here is introduced a small sadness – one of our many virginities.

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of revolution and self-emancipation, a time for protest against dominant political ideologies, but perhaps most notoriously, an epoch of imprudent sexual recklessness.  At least, so much is evident in American history and, while the soundtrack of the times – Joplin, Hendrix, et al. – was exported across the Atlantic, whether or not the sexual insouciance  followed the same path to Spain, it was there on the streets of Barcelona.  The pleasures of sex, however, couldn’t be enjoyed until a girl was “deflowered”.

Afterward could come the sex, the joy, the full moon…But it wasn’t good to get carried away with losing your virginity and ending up in a relationship…It was way more interesting to plan out a deflowering sans attraction, sans sexual hunger – like an operation, just to make you feel a bit better…When all is said and done, you don’t marry the surgeon who performs your appendectomy or the dentist who removes your wisdom teeth.

Virginity, then, was a stigma, “worse than being afraid of the police,” something that can “make you suffer.”  It was something to be removed, an obstacle that stood on the narrow defile between childhood and maturity.  Where once it was the assurance of honour and purity, the hymen has now become in Ibarz’s Barcelona as obsolete as the appendix and wisdom teeth.


I neither can nor want to resist the image of the still hours, those hours that resound both in and outside of me – those are the important hours.

The still hours are now, well after the narrated events.  Now, after the breathless novelty and promise of the city has subsided, is there time for reflection.  Young people live their lives on the crest of a wave, and the world, material and immaterial, foams about them.

For them, everything was new now: pop music, singles dances, advertising, plastics, the hair dryer, the transistor radio, the cassette tape, vinyl.

City of subterranean webs emitting corrosive acids, city of never-ending unfinished business, city of hurt pride, city of the hypersensitive, city of know-it-alls, city of superegos, city of gardener’s dogs that do nothing yet let nothing go; off-kilter capital, always a touch uncomfortable and always in the dark as to whether this discomfort is caused by the past, by its spot on the map, or simply because it’s exhausted itself with its own propaganda…But those girls, after all these years, still aren’t ready to to let go of the abundance and the dark beauty of their first introduction to Barcelona, this city by sea.  They’re still in love with a city that, as they put it, doesn’t worry about exaggerated realism.

But that wave has to break some time, and when it does, when they are wading in the shallows, it becomes time to reflect.  Nela and the Virgins reads as a celebration of Barcelona, but also as a longing for that life that barrels along on the crest.

Now middle-aged the narrator has entered the still hours and as Kafka said it would, the world – or Nela – reveals herself.  Or at least we expect her to.  Ibarz’s narrator is disembodied and spectral; she is curiously absent in her own recollection, yet possessive of an omniscient eye.  Nela was an enigma.  A young girl who saw herself as a radical libertarian.  She wielded her face-creams and make-up like a weapon to attract the attention of the boys around her, but she hid behind the mask it offered, too.  Nela is the focus of the story and the other characters, Isi and Valentina, obligingly step into the background.  Ibarz does well to convey the dual track of the narrator’s thoughts: the recollection of Nela’s opacity and the clarity – though not crystal – that comes with reflection at a later date.

When you stare for some time into a face, outer space, open sky, an interior patio, the street under your window, the lamppost at night or the traffic at day, you see in them more than  you ever had before, you see them in another way…

For all of her omniscience, the narrator gives truth to William James’ words, “There is always something in the living perception that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late.”  What matters is that we keep looking, keep searching for what people, books, times, places, the world, has to say.

‘Nela and the Virgins’ is translated from Catalan by Rowan Ricardo Philips.

This is a review of a story from Best European Fiction 2011, an anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  There will appear on this website each Friday just such a review until the entire book is done.  For another perspective see Damian Kelleher’s excellent and prolific website.


2 Responses to “BEF2011/5 – Nela and the Virgins [Spain: Catalan]”

  1. Mercè Ibarz Says:

    My original text is written in Catalan language, not Castilian. Translated by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Thanks for your review.

  2. David J Single Says:

    Noted and fixed. My apologies, Merce Ibarz.

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