Jacobe & Fineta

Since 2019 Fum d’Estampa have not only brought us some of the best contemporary Catalan writing but also some of the most important Catalan writers of the past. Joaquim Ruyra falls into the latter category, a writer with only one previous appearance in English but famous enough to feature as a tourist attraction in Blanes, the town where he lived for most of his life. Although he wrote in numerous genres, he is particularly renowned for his short story collections such as Seascapes and Woodland Scenes published in 1903 where the two stories included presumably first appeared given that the introduction tells us they were written “around 1900”.

‘Jacobe’ is the longer of the two – three times as long as ‘Fineta’, though not long enough to be regarded as a novella. It is a love story, but a very unhappy one. It begins when Jacobe, still a child herself, is hired to look after the narrator, Minguet:

“She was the one who truly weaned me. She rocked me in the cradle, she washed me, she combed my hair…”

Although she is older, she is still young enough that they can play games together, but this changes when Minguit goes to school and “Jacobe became more tied to her housework.” This also highlights the class difference between them as Jacobe is from a poor family and Minguit is “heir to one of the biggest fortunes in this town: born with a silver spoon in his mouth; a real gentleman in the making who will tread more fine carpets than any marquis.” When Jacobe turns sixteen, Minguit notices how attractive she has become – “like a delicate winter flower” in the imagery that will be used to describe her throughout. Jacobe, however, still treats Minguit like a child:

“Nobody knows how to look after you like your Sissy does: that’s right, isn’t it, lovely one?”

As Minguit spends less time in the town, Jacobe’s behaviour becomes stranger. She falls out with the neighbours as “none of them have any manners or politeness” and shows no interest in getting married. This goes on until there is only “a Jacobe who was now nothing but skin and bones, trembling all the time, with a constantly distracted vacant look in those sunken eyes.” Her illness, which has led to alcohol addiction, is seen as hereditary, but the suggestion is that her love for Minguit, which can never be returned due to their very different social positions, has driven her mad. And so the story builds towards a final meeting on a clifftop path.

‘Fineta’ also uses the drama of nature to enhance the story it tells as the title character watches for her father’s boat from the shore. She is wary of a new arrival of the village, known as the Woodsman, but she cannot resist swimming in the sea – and, indeed, Ruyra makes it sound irresistible:

“The sea seems now to be gleaming with its own scales on its back, like those of some big golden fish.”

The story is one of sexual awakening as the girls sees her reflection “like a grown-up woman”:

“Her large dark pupils do truly radiate brightness beneath the silken canopy which her eyelashes provide. She opens her mouth only very slightly and her dazzling white teeth set of the vivid redness of her lips.”

It is at the very moment she is contemplating her beauty that the Woodsman reappears, and her new-found confidence is replaced by an awareness of powerlessness. As with ‘Jacobe’, Ruyra tackles the often-shocking treatment of women: just as the author can be identified with the kind but ineffectual Minguit, here he is the crew of the returning boat who witness the incident on the shore “dumb with indignation”.

Both stories are beautifully written – for which congratulations to Alan Yates on his excellent translation – and vivid not only in the landscape but in the characters as well. Perhaps the shortness of the volume is intended to leave the reader wanting more; if so, it is a plan that has succeeded as I found myself finishing this volume in exactly that position, hoping that more of Ruyra’s work will be translated in the near future.


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2 Responses to “Jacobe & Fineta”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Making a mental note of this as a possibility for Spanish Lit, assuming it happens again in July. The second story sounds particularly appealing, especially the coming of age/sexual awakening element – a favourite theme, as you probably know!

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