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Riveting Expat Reads: From Barcelona, Stories Behind the City

Time for another review of a book written by, about or for expats. Not only does Jeremy Holland’s From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City happen to be all three, it’s also a collection of short stories.

To non-literary types, they sound surprisingly simple: just rattle off a quick tale about someone who did something (or had something done to them) and you’re done. Our impatient, fast-paced world would have us believe that short always equates to easy, to child’s play.

Front Cover From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City by Jeremy HollandHa. Actually, double Ha.

(And by that I do not mean the laughing kind.)

The short story is one of my all-time favorite writing genres, but one that vexes me greatly.

Not only do you have to come up with plot, characterization, story-line, credible dialogue, tone, pace, flow and all other manner of aspects needed to construct a good story – just like a novel or novella – you also need to keep it spare and nimble enough to wrap up in a few thousand words.

Which means making every single word count, ditching anything superfluous, redundant or which simply doesn’t serve its intended purpose. All while spinning a good yarn that pulls in the reader and holds their attention until the very last word. As for the ending itself, you’ve got far less time and words with which to arrive at what the reader does (or doesn’t) realize will happen, leaving them with the just the right intended mixture of feelings.

Just as I have favorite novels, there are certain short stories that remain beautifully etched into my mind. Their construction is that seamless, invisible – indeed, approaching perfection – they linger on in my memory long after I’ve read them.

It’s the stuff that keeps me up at night, wondering how I’ll ever come close.

So let’s be clear: writing a book of short stories capturing one person’s perspective of the essence of a place is very difficult. That’s why Jeremy Holland’s collection about Barcelona is so enjoyable: through his choice of stories, he shows far more than he could possibly tell.

An Anglo-American adult Third Culture Kid who grew up in the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and England, Holland drafted the stories during the eight years he spent living in Spain – more specifically the enchantingly Catalan city of Barcelona – before relocating to the Netherlands where he currently resides. The book was originally published in 2009 by Native Spain, with the second, expanded edition issued last year by Summertime Publishing.

This bit from the Acknowledgements page provides insight into his feelings about the city and its people:

‘More than any one person, however, I would like to thank the people of Barcelona, past and present, who have made the city it is. Moltes gràcies / muchísimas gracias for providing the inspiration behind these stories. If I tease, it’s only with love, mixed with a bit of sadness. I will never forget my eight years there and hold Catalunya close to my heart.’

The dozen stories are set in different points in time, from modern day to a couple of historically-based ones (e.g., Gaudí’s Crypt, written from the famed late 19th/early 20th century Catalan architect’s point of view span). The characters include the wholly believable to the enjoyably eccentric, their actions plausible, their emotions understandable. Holland is unafraid of exposing the darker side of life in Barcelona, the rough edges and fraying nerves.

In Mónica and Juan, Holland makes personal the relentlessly soul-sucking, downward spiral brought on by the economic crisis of recent years that Spaniards are experiencing. By the time I reached this paragraph, I was already as exhausted as the young mother of two fighting to keep her much-needed job while every day the purchasing power of the meager salary it brings is further eroded:

Mónica wanted to cry from the sense of hopelessness, the feeling that time, money and patience were fast approaching zero before her body withered and it reached its expiration date. She sniffed. The ticking between her ears stopped her from acting on her bubbling emotions. She had to get ready for work and didn’t want to show up late or looking like a mess, becoming a topic of office gossip.

The story One Step Forward, Three Steps Back captures the sense of desperate irony felt by the main character, facing years of incarceration for assaulting a public servant in a moment of frustrated fury brought on by an unceasing, utterly inane series of bureaucratic requirements:

The man sighs in defeat. “What’s the next step?” he asks, wondering how he will stay alive long enough for his court date, once his wife learns of his probable jail time. The lawyer flashes a toothy smile and zips the bag.

“See my assistant this week, pay my retainer and pick up a form.” He explains that the man will then need to go to the judicial office in El Born before taking the form to his municipal office in L’Eixample, at which point they will begin legal proceedings.

Other stories feature love, relationships, nationalism, social mores and cultural values, religion. One particularly unsettling account is Running the Gauntlet, written from the perspective of a citizen driven to desperate measures to help rid the city of the bands of pickpockets who prey on simple folk with virtually nothing left to steal.

Whether you’ve encountered the magical mysticism that is Barcelona, hope to do so one day or simply enjoy well-written tales, Jeremy Holland’s From Barcelona: Stories Behind the City belongs on your reading list.

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You can follow Jeremy on Facebook at From Barcelona.

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