Juan Marsé, who wrote of Spain's dark years, is dead at 87

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Juan Marsé, who wrote of Spain's dark years, is dead at 87
by Raphael Minder

MADRID (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Juan Marsé, a Spanish writer whose novels mostly chronicled the dark years that followed the civil war in his home city, Barcelona, died there on Saturday. He was 87.

His death, in a hospital, was confirmed by the Carmen Balcells literary agency. His biographer, Josep Maria Cuenca, said the cause was heart failure.

Marsé wrote more than a dozen novels, several of them based on his experiences in La Salut and Guinardó, working-class neighborhoods of Barcelona. Those neighborhoods were home to many families who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, which was defeated by Gen. Francisco Franco.

The characters in some of his books are petty criminals or anarchists operating in the most oppressive years of the Franco regime, when Spain was being purged of his political enemies and struggling to recover economically from the war.

Marsé also loosely based some of his writing on events in Barcelona’s history, like the 1949 assassination of Carmen Broto, a prostitute. There was speculation at the time that the official version of her murder, for which a man was sentenced, had in fact helped shield some of her powerful clients from scandal. Marsé turned the story of her murder into the novel “Si Te Dicen Que Caí” (“If They Tell You I Fell”), published in 1973 in Mexico to circumvent the Franco censorship that targeted many of his works.

“I believe Marsé can be considered the reference writer of the anti-Franco movement, who also inspired a lot of writers who came from the working class,” said Cuenca, whose authorized biography of Marsé was published in 2015. Marsé, he added, “overhauled the literature of social realism in Spain.”

Juan Marsé Carbó was born Juan Faneca Roca in Barcelona on Jan. 8, 1933, and adopted as a baby. When he was growing up, his adoptive parents, Pep Marsé and Berta Carbó, told him that they had lost a child at birth but were then unexpectedly offered the chance to adopt him by the taxi driver who was driving the grieving couple home from the hospital. The driver’s wife, they said, had died just after giving birth.

But when Marsé was in his 70s, Cuenca told him that he had found flaws in that story while researching his biography.

As it turned out, his adoptive mother had not lost a child at birth, and the taxi story was also invented. His adoption was actually agreed upon between his birth father and his adoptive father, who knew each other because they were both Catalan nationalist militants.

Upon hearing the truth, Marsé said that he preferred his mother’s fabricated story, and that he understood she had made it up so that he could feel more protected, “the same way as good literature does with us.”

Marsé’s biological father, a chauffeur, and his biological mother, a cleaning lady, worked for a wealthy Barcelona household. His adoptive father held odd jobs, and his adoptive mother was an auxiliary worker in nursing homes and hospitals.

As a teenager, Marsé became an apprentice in a jewelry workshop, a job that he kept until the start of the 1960s. At the same time, he began writing for a cinema publication because he loved Hollywood. He later began writing short stories, which were published in various magazines starting in the late 1950s. While completing his obligatory military service in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa, he worked on his first novel, “Encerrados con un Solo Juguete” (“Locked Up With a Single Toy”), which was published in 1960.

In 1959 he won his first Spanish literary award, the Sesame prize, for a short story. He then left Barcelona for Paris, where he worked as a translator, a Spanish-language teacher and a clerk at the Pasteur Institute, France’s prestigious medical research center.

In 1966, after returning to Barcelona, Marsé published “Últimas Tardes con Teresa” (“Last Afternoons With Teresa”), a novel about class divisions, which propelled him to fame and is considered his masterpiece. It chronicles the struggles of Manolo, a working-class petty criminal nicknamed El Pijoaparte, who tries to seduce Teresa, a girl from Barcelona’s bourgeois society. (The word “Pijoaparte” does not officially exist in the Spanish language. But, Cuenca said, it “will have to get added into the dictionary sooner or later,” because it is now commonly used in Spain to describe an ambitious and unscrupulous person who comes from a humble social background.)

Among the awards Marsé won was the Cervantes Prize, the Spanish-speaking world’s most important literary honor, which he was given in 2009.

In a 1979 New York Times review of an English translation of “The Fallen,” another of Marsé’s works that had been banned by Franco’s regime, Ronald Fraser described Marsé as “one of the finest Spanish novelists of the postwar generation” and called the novel “a vivid recreation of corruption, brutality and repression” in the years that followed the civil war.

In his youth, Marsé was briefly a member of the Spanish Communist Party, but he soon fell out with the party leadership. Although he grew up speaking Catalan, he wrote only in Castilian Spanish; this disappointed a Catalan nationalist movement that was hoping to gain support from Barcelona’s most famous writers, but that found in Marsé an ardent critic of Catalonia’s separatist politics.

In addition to writing novels, Marsé collaborated on some movie scripts, while several of his novels were turned into movies. But he was never happy with those adaptations, and he publicly clashed with some of the directors responsible for them.

“All the movies have been very faithful to the literary text, too faithful,” he once said. “I think they should have been turned upside down like a sock. There are other ways to say the same as in the book.”

Marsé is survived by his wife, Joaquina Hoyas, whom he married in 1966, and their children, Alejandro and Berta.

In September, Marsé’s publishing house, Lumen, plans to release one more of his books: “Viaje al Sur” (“Travel South”), a travelogue he wrote while visiting Spain’s Andalusia region in 1962. The manuscript of that book had long been missing and was only recently found.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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