………..I won’t share the punchline of that bad joke with you – you can probably work it out anyway! But there is a similar slapstick-comedy style dirty joke running through Quim Monzo’s intriguing book ‘The Enormity of The Tragedy”.
Ramon-Maria, a trumpeter, finally hits lucky with Maria-Eugenia, sex-goddess star of the theatre show where he works. Alas on the first night a combination of over-thinking and booze mean he can’t perform. He stares at his limp penis wishing it were different. And next morning it is. Ramon-Maria is erect and ready to make love. He performs faultlessly. He performs again immediately. And again and again. In the bedroom, the hallway, the streets, theatres, and even in the hallowed Camp Nou, Ramon-Maria embarks on a marathon tour-cum-orgy around every nook and cranny of Barcelona – they do it so often it is Maria-Eugenia who has to beg for him to stop. But he can’t, for like Priapus the Greek fertility god, Ramon-Maria’s erection is permanent. In contrast to the first flaccid beginnings of his sex life with Maria-Eugenia, Ramon-Maria can’t get his erection to fall – no matter what he thinks, no matter what he does. And in the midst of
the joke, the detail about the challenges of getting his erect member to allow him to pee or simply walk the streets without scandalising the populace, Quim Monzo begins to shift the novel firmly into ‘be careful what you wish for’ territory! For while permanent erection might be nothing unusual among Greek gods, here it is the portent of tragedy to come for Ramon-Maria.
Alongside the story of coming to terms with an indefatigably erect penis, Ramon-Maria is also in the sights of his 15 year-old step-daughter Anna-Francesca for very different reasons. Embittered and bewildered by her late mothers choice of Ramon-Maria as a husband, Anna-Francesca cannot tolerate how she has been fated by her mothers death to live in the crumbling mansion her mother left with a man she detests so completely. And she decides to do something about it by resolving to kill him first chance she gets.
What starts as a crude joke in this novel suddenly becomes very dark. Ramon-Maria is a man living on borrowed time in so many senses. For as well as unknowingly having stepped into the cross-hairs of his step-daughter’s aim, he soon learns that he’s also stepped into the cross-hairs of fates aim too – or to put it another way because of Newton’s law of ‘what goes up must come down’, Ramon-Maria soon learns that his permanent erect penis isn’t just a ticket to have sex all over the city, it also means the curtain is coming down on his life too!
Through this Monzo transforms the book from ribaldry to a deep, intense look at people, relationships and our motives for just about anything. Ramon-Maria moves from grappling with one fate to the next, and while it does change some aspects of his personality, others remain frustratingly to the fore. And of course the sick crude joke shifts from a sexual one to the cruelties of fate and life itself – as Ramon-Maria plans how to use life’s last few remaining hours his step-daughter plans how to make sure he ONLY HAS a last few remaining hours. This shift in the black humour in the book is a touch of real genius – it takes you as reader from wondering where and with who he will get it next to wondering which fate will get him in the end.
Of course beyond the black humour in the story, this book says much about the way we live our lives. The whole cast of characters are seriously messed-up and everybody seems to have an “angle”. There is a wonderful contrast in the way in which the early death of Rosa-Margarida has driven her husband Ramon-Maria and her daughter Anna-Francesca to opposite corners – one bewilderingly detached from his step-daughter while the other is consumed by loathing and lust for revenge. And that contrasting aspect of the two main characters is kept up brilliantly throughout the book.
What I took most from the book though was the feeling of emptiness Quim Monzo created and for me that was the real enormous tragedy. There is a superficial feel to every relationship, be it personal or professional, long-term or fleeting. The role of sex in the novel is a substitute for a relationship rather than an integral part of it. And the city, busy and bustling, feels empty, devoid of color and purpose. In several places in the book Monzo describes his characters moods and thoughts through the most intense monologues and it not only gives the book its power, it also gives it that feel of everyone living in a detached, almost bubble-like, world.
The language of the book is rich, and while at times there was the odd typo here and there, it reads to me like it’s been brilliantly translated from Catalan because there is such a flow to it. That’s especially true of the passages where Monzo uses long, long lists, going on for pages sometimes, describing aspects of his characters. The section where he records what Anna-Francesca has learned from her research into the ways to kill a man is funny and gut-wrenching, shocking and eye-watering all at the same time.
She learned that any stab to the neck leads to a massive loss of blood that can splatter the attacker. From the front you should plunge the blade in flat between the ribs. Or under the ribs, and in a single movement lever the blade up to do maximum damage to the heart. You only have to sink it in five centimetres to reach it; five to eight centimetres more and you make sure.
The Enormity Of The Tragedy is a bleak novel and yet it will make you laugh in places. It will also present you with fairly morally corrupt characters who will shock you, partly by their actions and partly by your reaction to their actions for I found myself identifying with both of the main characters! It’s a quirky and unsettling book which has its impact more by how disturbing it feels in some ways.
I read this as part of my Everything Espana Reading Challenge which you can find at caffeinatedlife.net blog. I did some research of Spanish novels, compiled a list and then purchased several. This was the most difficult to track down and I’ve not seen any other Monzo’s translated into English. But I hope there are because Enormity of the Tragedy was so good it has definitely got me wanting more of Monzo’s black humour and eye for both the banal and the bizarre.