An Englishman who as an adult decides to learn Catalan and reaches such proficiency that he can nowadays earn his living as a writer of his adopted language - that is quite a remarkable personality. However, not all interesting writers write good stories.
In literary theory there are many things which the experts disagree about, but in one aspect there is almost consensus; when analysing a text you are to work with it in its own right while leaving the author and his intentions to the side. If I apply this perspective to the two books which I have recently read by Matthew Tree, I feel that there is not much substance left. At the same time, since Mr Tree rarely describes anything without revealing a firm opinion about it, I believe to have learnt a lot about him as a person. Admittedly, I am not yet the right person to evaluate how well he makes use of the Catalan language, but neither do I feel comfortable with his story-telling technique, nor with is selection of topics and details to comment on. Therefore I am happy to have read the books in Catalan and thus, at least, had a chance to practise my new language.
In CAT – Un anglès viatja per Catalunya per veure si existeix, Mr Tree describes what he experiences during a 30-day roundtrip by public transport in the geographic region of Catalonia. To some places he goes for the first time, while to others he has already been and decides to come back. He meets quite a number of people, a few of them being old friends but the majority being random encounters.
Whether Catalonia exists as a cultural entity is indeed an intriguing question for anyone who arrives here as an immigrant and wants to be integrated into local society. I was hoping that this book would offer Mr Tree’s point of view on which places I ought to go to understand, let us say, the 'soul' of Catalonia. Unfortunately, it does not and I believe the reason for that to be all the time spent on explaining travel itineraries, the author’s mood or the background of his friends. There simply is not enough energy left for telling us about the places the author visits and even less how they contribute to the alleged objective of the book - i.e. to see whether Catalonia exists.
In La puta feina we are being presented examples from Barcelona on how deceitful, lazy or sexist bosses ruin the lives of their employees. Mr Tree repeatedly reinforces his message that we should liberate ourselves from the humiliating jobs where so many of us spend a big share of our time. Only in the very last pages of the book, where he outlines a soluciò final - a realistic alternative to paid work - did I finally find something which I recognized as fresh and original. Many a writer has been inspired by the problematic relationship which exists between employers and their staff. To me, Mr Tree’s stereotypical and superficial reflections on the matter would possibly be enjoyable in a blog, but I can not understand how someone could agree to publish them as a book.
Some people seem to think that Mr Tree would be able to earn more money if he would write in English, but I think that it is the other way around. Like any creative entrepreneur, he has built a niche for himself in being a foreigner but writing in Catalan and that is what makes his books sell. To use myself as an example, if I buy further books by Mr Tree, it will not be for their literary qualities, but only because I am interested in him as a phenomenon. And that special status, I judge, could only ever be achieved in a language like Catalan, with a strong craving for international recognition. I dare to bet that no Swedish publisher would ever treat a foreigner writing in Swedish in this benevolent way and I interpret the fact that Mr Tree’s books have not been translated to other languages as an indication that I am right.
A few days ago, Mr Tree launched a new book where, apparently, he proves that God does not exist – a topic which I am usually easily motivated to read about. However, I want for such delicate a matter to be treated with a level of seriousness that I have not seen in Mr Tree's aforementioned books and I am confident that that he has no intention to change his style. For his skills in Catalan and also for his success in making a living of something he likes to do, Matthew Tree is an inspiring example. Chapeau! Having said that, before I buy his new book I will remind myself to see it as a discussion on the life, needs and body functions of its author - and not at all about the existence of God.