Al llac is a very good fluffy novel, the first published by Maria Barbal (Tremp, 1949) since the Premi d'Honor de les Lletres Catalanes in 2021. It has the nuanced and soft cinematographic light of childhood summers. And a plot that plays with two times. The action itself takes place on an unspecified day, an uncertain number of years ago, in a reservoir in the Pyrenees where people go to take baths: the Sant Antoni reservoir, near Tremp.
The place and the time are less important than the atmosphere and the interaction between the characters: a couple without children who take a cousin's daughter to spend Sunday, and a couple with a son and a grandmother. The man of the couple with children –Joaquim– works in the shoe store of the other man, named Toni.
Around this excursion to bathe and have lunch in the open air, Barbal pulls all the strings of the relationships between the characters. Lídia, beautiful and dissatisfied, married to Toni. Marieta, married to Joaquim, obese, disappointed and abandoned. And the two kids.
The girl, Nora, is twelve years old. Joaquim and Marieta's son, Quim, is the typical unbearable child. There is erotic tension (Joaquim likes Lídia, Toni goes to a seedy bar to see another woman whom he may have gotten pregnant). We also have a social conflict because it seems that Joaquim has taken money from the box. Toni regrets getting involved with the shoe store and would like to go back to work in the fields. On this bright day an accident occurs.
It is an argument that can make one think of El Jarama (1956), by Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio: a classic. But, if you have read Barbal, you already know that there is hardly ever any meanness or acidity, criticism or resentment. A bit of guilt, and a resigned fatality. Marieta, for example, drinks: she means that she has had two glasses of wine. Barbal is a sweet writer.
They ask Nora how she did at school. The girl answers: "Good". And Barbal writes a great sentence: "And, slipping like an isolated drop, the word had sounded in the vessel of the conversation in a very short, cut, ridiculous way." He knows how to reproduce a lost, or almost lost, world of white pearl sweaters and bee-stitched swimsuits, in which parents don't beat children but "stick them with a whip". "Nora sees an ant through a tear".
The leaves of the hurdles lick the windows of the cars. The banner of the French bar is “una mitja virtut”. It is evocative and beautiful. In addition, on this occasion, the structure accompanies, with a staggering of themes and intentional repetitions that skeins and unravels the story. And with a second voice – the voice of adult Nora – who, years later, comments on what happened at the lake, she searches for the moral implications of it and the human truth of it. Everyone lives an unwanted life and thinks that they can be happy with what others have.
I, who am not an unconditional admirer of Maria Barbal (it often seems to me that what she writes is shy and a little unreal, passed through the stained glass of good intentions), I think that this novel is one of her most mature books. . A novel with good locations and a great cinematographer, well balanced, with rhythm and a sense of time.