Barbara Burns interviews Guillem Colom-Montero, whose new book Quim Monzó and Contemporary Catalan Culture (1975–2018): Cultural Normalization, Postmodernism and National Politics is just out as volume 45 in Legenda's Studies in Hispanic and Lusophone Cultures series.
BB. Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing and your experience of working in the UK?
GCM. I was born in Palma, Majorca. My mother loves reading and my father used to buy several newspapers and magazines of all kinds, so I grew up in a household surrounded by books and newspapers and loved reading from a young age. I was unsure whether I wanted to go to university, so after high-school I spent a year in London, working as a waiter and enjoying the cultural atmosphere of the city. When I returned to Majorca I did a BA in English Studies at the University of the Balearic Islands. I’m a first-generation graduate and my parents were very proud when I got my degree.
After graduating I worked for a couple of years as a Catalan language promoter for Palma’s City Council. But I was eager to go abroad again and was delighted to get a Comenius Grant that enabled me to teach Spanish in a high school in Edinburgh. This was followed, to my absolute surprise, by a successful application for a GTA post at Bangor University, where I was also able to study for a PhD in Hispanic Studies. I completed my PhD in 2016, and this book is partly based on my doctoral work at Bangor.
After that I taught for a couple of years at Bangor and Birmingham, and then moved to a post in Exeter, in the beautiful South East of England, as Lecturer in Hispanic Studies. In September 2019 I joined the University of Glasgow. I love the city and its people, and it’s great to be back in Scotland, where my British adventure started! As someone very sensitive to place and community, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to live in Wales, England and Scotland.
BB. What prompted you to study Catalan culture, and Quim Monzó in particular?
GCM. Although my first degree was in English Studies, I always felt strongly connected to my native Catalan culture and its debates, tensions and anxieties. So when I was putting together my PhD proposal this felt like a natural path for me. Quim Monzó is one of Catalonia’s most celebrated authors, and I had been reading his texts and following his media participation since I was a teenager. I profoundly admired his work, but at the same time I felt a bit apprehensive, since Monzó is a nonconformist who delves into complex topics such as feminism, class politics, Catalan and Spanish nationalisms, political correctness and the relation between art and ethics. Some colleagues suggested that I should limit my study to one aspect of his output, but I was eager to understand the intellectual breadth of his work, so I opted for a holistic perspective analyzing Monzó’s oeuvre as whole – his multifaceted artistic, literary and cultural creations from the early 1970s up until the 2010s.
Photos by kind permission of the University of Glasgow (left) and Quim Monzó (right)
BB. I believe you made a conscious decision not to meet Quim Monzó: what was the reason for that?
GCM. That’s right. I wanted to keep a distance from the human being whose work was my object of study. Since I started my PhD friends and colleagues have often asked me about this, not least because Monzó is a media celebrity in Catalonia and, while he is a canonical author, he seems a particularly interesting, witty and down-to-earth person, in short, the type of guy everyone would want to grab a beer with! Having said that, I’ve been in contact with Monzó via email to ask him questions and request reproduction rights, and he has been extremely kind and helpful. In fact, he chose the cover image for the book!
BB. How different were the two processes of writing your PhD and then revising it for publication in book form?
GCM. Although there is a large literature on Monzó’s work, until my study there wasn’t any monograph fully dedicated to him. My holistic approach was quite new and Quim Monzó’s trajectory is multifaceted and at times contradictory, so as a research student it took me quite a while to develop a coherent argument. I had to familiarise myself with an array of critical fields, from postmodernism, celebrity authorship, gender and sexuality studies and political ideologies such as American libertarianism to experimentalist literature, comic art, translation studies and theories of nationalism. I know this is what a PhD is about, but it certainly felt challenging at the time!
Turning the thesis into a book, by contrast, has been much more pleasant, as I felt that the argument was there and I needed to polish it, make it more readable, be bolder and develop an idea I had found particularly complex and thus decided to leave out of the PhD… I especially enjoyed writing the Afterword, where I analyse Monzó’s response to the Catalan pro-independence push and anti-austerity protests in the 2010s, a very tumultuous period in Catalonia. Sometimes I feel I still have a lot of questions and could write another book on Monzó! But not just yet, as I’m now working on other projects…
BB. You dedicate a full chapter to analysing Quim Monzó’s celebrity status. What are the pros and cons of being a writer with a high public profile?
GCM. Quim Monzó has been a regular presence on Catalan radio and television shows since the early 1980s, so ordinary people in Catalonia are familiar with his provocative opinions, his unpretentiousness, his hilarious irony, his conscious detachment from the tacit rules of the literary field, his vocal and physical tics (Monzó has Tourette’s syndrome and he has been an advocate to promote awareness of the disorder), his deadpan tone and fake seriousness… In this regard, my monograph considers Monzó’s public authorial profile as a key element of his trajectory. I really enjoyed writing the chapter on his celebrity status in Catalonia, which explores his participation in mass-media and also his Twitter profile.
Celebrity authors, however, may be disliked by other writers because they encapsulate the tensions between literature and the marketplace, and between high and low culture. These tensions have been present in Western literary systems since the late 1970s and Catalonia is no exception: some commentators have criticised Monzó for his alleged lack of seriousness and excessive mass-media participation, and described his work as ‘banal’ and ‘non-authentic’. I suppose such reactions could be seen as the downside of being a celebrity author, though I suspect that the public’s interest in one’s work may neutralize it.
BB. Is it true that Quim Monzó’s belongs to that illustrious group of authors with an adjective formed from their name (like ‘Orwellian’, ‘Kafkaesque’)?
GCM. Yes, Quim Monzó is considered to be the creator of a literary style that modernized Catalan fiction after the end of the Francoist period in 1975. He is a hugely popular and influential public intellectual, to the point that the adjective monzonià has been coined in Catalan to refer to something either iconoclastic and provocative or bizarre and surrealist, these four adjectives being some of the main characteristics of Monzó’s interdisciplinary work and public persona.
BB. Is there an English translation of a particular book by Quim Monzó which you would recommend to someone new to his work?
GCM. Monzó’s work has been translated into 28 languages and some of his best fictional texts are available in English. My favourite volume is the short-story compilation Why, why, why, originally published in Catalan in 1993 and in English translation in 2019. After that, I’m torn between his novel Gasoline and the fantastic and surreal short-story compilation Guadalajara.