In Britain and elsewhere, Barcelona has acquired a reputation as a city of Gothic and art nouveau architecture, of beaches and of cool urban living. As someone who lives there, I can testify that there is some truth in this. It is also, though, a polluted, noisy city where most people live in small, sticky-with-heat flats and work in insecure jobs. In his enjoyable new book, Rupert Thomson handles this duality with panache. The three linked long stories that make up Barcelona Dreaming show both a beautiful city and the cracks in the surface. They also speak of longing for a better life, visible but just out of reach.
In the first, ‘The Giant of Sarrià’, Amy, a middle-aged Englishwoman, narrates the evolution of her relationship with Abdel, a paperless Moroccan migrant. She moves between the upmarket, tree-lined neighbourhood of Sarrià and the outskirts, where Abdel and his family live among rubbish, rubble and uncompleted buildings. The second, ‘The King of Castelldefels’, is the cleverest story, as its narrator, Nacho, the self-styled ‘King’, is gradually revealed as an unreliable fantasist. Convinced of his own bonhomie, though he is in reality a violent alcoholic and serial adulterer, he inhabits the edges of a seedy world of pimps and nightclubs in a coastal town just south of Barcelona.
The third story, ‘The Carpenter of Montjuïc’, has a supernatural touch – or is it just that its central character, Vic, consumes so many drugs that he imagines the red-eyed giant boar charging at his penthouse window and the chest of drawers that moves on its own? Thomson is