Five Great Books about Barcelona

There’s something magical about a city where you can jump on the metro and travel down to the beach. Barcelona, the true capital of the Mediterranean, is one of those.

Today is my twelfth anniversary of living in and around the Catalan capital, and to celebrate, I have prepared a list of five books that will give you a taste of this proud, exuberant and inspirational metropolis.

Written back in 1992, Robert Hughes’ Barcelona is the essential English-language history of the city. Hughes could speak both Spanish and Catalan, and his linguistic knowledge gives the book a depth that few other histories of the city can do.

Hughes began his project by looking at Antoni Gaudí, whose iconic buildings are easily found on a stroll around the city centre. However, the more he researched, the more his project grew to become a whole history of the city starting from ancient times. Hughes remains at his best when focusing on the city’s crazy artists, especially Gaudí, who died after he was run over by the number 30 tram, no doubt lost in his plans for the (still unfinished) Sagrada Familia.

Hughes was originally inspired to come to Barcelona by Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s account of his time serving here with the international brigades during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). Once you’ve been to the city, this book becomes even more shocking. Suddenly, streets like the iconic Ramblas, which run through the heart of the old town, become a battleground where anyone could be caught in the crossfire strafing down from rooftop to rooftop.

Homage to Catalana can be hard to follow because there are so many competing factions fighting for control of the city. Then, as now, local politics was a perplexing mess of disunited groups, with new parties springing up all the time: merging, falling out, and then disappearing again.

A useful guide through this confusing territory is Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, which sets the Catalan situation in the context of the wider history of modern Spain, a country that was ruled by a fascist dictatorship until 1975.

Clearly, when most people think of Barcelona, it’s not civil war that they are thinking about – it’s football. FC Barcelona is the beating heart of the city, and the Nou Camp one of the world’s largest stadiums.

Many people wrongly use ‘Barça’ to refer to the city, when that nickname properly only belongs to the team itself. Funnily enough, Barça was actually founded by a Swiss émigré, Joan Gamper, along with his English and Catalan friends.

That is one reason why the city’s other team is called ‘Espanyol’. At the time of its founding, the name was a statement that the new boys on the block were the team of the local people. For the full tale of this essential part of Catalan life, check out Barça: A People’s Passion by Jimmy Burns.

Most blogs about my adopted hometown rave about the sun, the food, and the fun, yet before the 1992 Olympics, the Cuitat Comtal had a another face, as a rather run-down Mediterranean port. One part of the old town was known, for no reason that anyone can explain, as the Barri Xino, ‘The Chinese Quarter’. There is nothing Chinese about it. A wretched warren of anonymous alleyways and dingy squares, it is one of the best preserved medieval districts in Europe.

One book that captures this Gothic side of the city is the only novel on my list: The Shadow of the Wind. Among all the Catalans writing today, Barcelona-born Carlos Luis Zafón is far and away the most popular and famous.

The Shadow of the Wind tells the tale of a forgotten author, Julián Carax, who has disappeared after burning everything he has ever written. The novel recounts a quest to find out what became of him, passing through decaying mansions, grandiose squares and long-forgotten bookshops. It’s also the perfect beach read for your Spanish holiday because much of the action takes place in recognisable spots such as Plaça Reial, just off the Ramblas.

In coming to the end of this list, I feel rather guilty that all the authors mentioned are men. Does anyone have any other recommendations, particularly of women authors?

18 responses to “Five Great Books about Barcelona

  1. After having thoroughly enjoyed learning about the Russian Revolution through a mix of fact and fiction, I’ve been thinking about doing the same with the Spanish Civil War and Spanish mid-20th century history in general, so this post is very timely. (I might ignore the football one though). I can’t recommend it personally since I haven’t yet read it, but one by a female author that I’ve added to my own list is Stone in a Landslide by Catalan writer Maria Barbal, hailed as a modern classic apparently, and recently translated into English.

    • I see her most famous book is ‘La Plaça del Diamant’ translated twice into English, firstly as ‘The Time of the Doves’ and then (more accurately) as ‘In Diamond Square’. I feel a sequel to this blog post coming on!

  2. The ‘City of Marvels’ by Eduardo Mendoza is another possible book. The storytelling takes place in the the years between the world fairs in the city in 1888 and 1929. The text is a mix of fantasy and history. The main character wants to become rich in a city run by corruption. The book was a bestseller when published in Spanish in 1986 and it is considered one of the best books written by Mendoza. However, I found it tedious and confusing. It might not be my cup of tea.

  3. Good list, I have read the last two, dipped into Orwell and owned the Tremlett book but never got around to reading it. I can’t think of another book set in Barcelona but Padura’s The Man Who Loved Dogs has part of it set in Barcelona and is a great read to boot.

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