The Madness by Narcís Oller

Reviewed by Paul Burke

Catalan man of letters Narcís Oller is little known here but perhaps the publication of The Madness in a new translation by Douglas Suttle will address that. First published as La bogeria in Spain in 1899 this brief novel is a minor classic of European literature deserving of a modern audience. Oller wrote The Madness at the height of his fame, eschewing the romanticism of earlier works for a new realism that stylistically and intellectually connected with the great European writers of the day. This is a distinctly Catalan work but at the same time it’s very much in the vein of naturalism and realism of French literature, Zola was a fan of Oller’s work.

Put simply The Madness is a portrait of a young man’s descent into mental illness. It’s a slim volume, a psychological study that reflects the social attitudes and scientific thinking of the day, which make it intriguing for the modern reader. That’s not to say that Oller’s insight into character is dated there’s plenty that still resonates. There’s another layer to this novel, the political background which is fascinating. I often write about context in my reviews but with The Madness this is much more than setting or embellishment to the story, it’s integral to understanding the character at the heart of he novel, Daniel Serrallonga, it affects his illness.

This is not an historical novel, just as War and Peace isn’t. The Madness is a reflection on nineteenth century Catalonia by a contemporary barceloní, Oller is writing about his own life and times. Though this is not auto-fiction Oller puts a lot of himself into the novel, he was a liberal thinker who by the time of writing had become a little jaded, a little more conservative but was clearly still alive to the huge shifts in society and culture over the years and the difference between Spanish and Catalonian values. Of course, for us it has an historical context. It wasn’t written with a view to explaining the origins of the yet to come, therefore unforeseen, Spanish Civil War and yet the signposts are evident in the text. The insightful introduction by Andrew Dowling, essential for a richer reading experience, explains the political context of the novel superbly, although he cautions linking it to later events too closely. Oller was a proud Barceloní, but also a European, his vision of his city attuned with Paris and London, with progressive thinking, the acceptance of new scientific ideas, cultural change, a liberal bastion against the conservatism of Madrid, the royalist government and religious influences, (the Carlists). You can enjoy this novel for its simple account of a mental disorder taking root but The Madness is also a significant political novel.

The Madness is a journey into the mind of a man losing his grip on reality, it’s a psychological portrait that reflects on the lack of understanding of mental health by his contemporaries but it’s also an exploration of new ideas of psycho-analysis and positivism. While others around him judge Daniel, Dr. Giberta analyses him, conclusion – he is ill not bad. In that The Madness is very relevant, people still act as if mental illness is funny, or even, catching and mental health is grudgingly being taken seriously. Of course, the science has been superseded, the desire to understand a man in pain and torment hasn’t, this is a powerful and thought provoking read.

A few years ago Daniel Serrallonga came to Barcelona from rural Vilaniu to study agricultural auditing, a young man with an ambition to be a better landowner. Now Daniel’s illness is evident, each encounter revealing a little more about his disturbed state. The narrator meets Daniel through a mutual friend, Armengol. He witnesses Armengol accost Daniel at the cafè de les Delícies, striking a newspaper from his hand. A row ensues but the tension soon diffuses, then it’s apparent these are old friends. Daniel says:

“I wasn’t expecting you. I thought it was some rude reactionary, perhaps some neo who was mortified to see me reading Gil Blas.”

This scene of boys being boys is a keen observation but there’s an edge to it. Daniel is loud, abrupt and volatile, an otherwise normal encounter is fraught:

‘Serrallonga, according Armengol, was quite the lunatic, shy and prone to the most inexplicable inconsistencies of character. Over the course of the last three years, Armengol had seen Serrallonga go from being a devoted intolerant to a furious rationalist, from insatiable libertine to holier than a saint; from a hardworking, distrustful miser to the archetypal gambler; from a bookish, first class student to someone who has not read a single book or stepped foot in any classroom throughout the whole course.’

Daniel dropped out of college when he became political. The persecution, imprisonment and summary banishment of liberals filled Daniel with a spirit of revolution but also hate. He became obsessed with General Prim, a radical standing against the reactionary state, an idol of Catalan youth.

When the commander of Mossos, the oppressive ally of the Guardia Civil, enters the cafè the youthful crowd shouts: murderer, snake, traitor. Daniel is most vocal, he won’t be silenced, he is arrested, a proud martyr, but the prison conditions are poor, he suffers. His friends play a cruel trick on him, something they have to hide while he convalesces at his family home in Vilaniu. They lack real empathy but do feel guilt. Then Daniels father dies, suicide, a sign of madness in the family. Daniels condition declines, gradually at first, then more rapidly he loses his grip and descends into incoherence and sickness, a sad bitter tale.

Translated by Douglas Suttle. Oller’s other significant novels in English are The Butterfly and Gold Fever.

FUM D’ESTAMPA PRESS, paperback, ISBN 9781916293939, 15/9/20