Society & Culture
A Paradise of Words
By Tabitha Potts
Nov 4, 2003, 05:37

First bus line between La Drova and Gandia. Photo courtesy of Josep Piera.

La Drova, near the ancient village of Barx in La Safor, has existed since medieval times and was given to the monks of Santa Maria de la Valldigna in 1300 as a place for invalids to recover in the clean, cool mountain air. It is a tranquil and beautiful valley, surrounded by mountains, and is popular with summer visitors from Gandia and Barcelona as well as various European people who have moved here permanently and the many old Valencian families from Gandia and Barx who live here. It is also the home of the internationally famous poet Josep Piera, whose many poems, travel books and essays have won him prizes including the "Andromina" for novels in 1977, the "Carles Riba" for poetry in 1979 and the "Josep Pla" for literary prose in 1981. He lives in a spacious villa overlooking the mountains which feature so prominently in his writing. I went to meet him in his study, lined with books and striking modern art, to talk about his work and the landscape and language which inspire him so much.

Josep Piera was born in Beniopa in 1947, once a separate village but now a suburb of Gandia. He has property and family there still. However, his family used to come to La Drova for summers from the 1950's onwards. Often children with post-war problems would be brought here to benefit from the clean water, air and fresh and good food. Most of these children were from middle-class backgrounds, but in La Drova they were able to run wild. Their families created a little community, a "paradise" in Piera's words, and frequently held house parties ("guateques") - with dancing and music. It was a very happy period for him, which he has written about in the autobiographical "Temps Felics" ("Happy Times"), and his childhood is a constant motif in his work. Growing up under Franco, Piera was not taught Valenciana (the variant of Catalan spoken in Valencia) and was taught in Castilian, like all Spanish children. The proud literary heritage of Valenciana and Catalan, which dates back to the 13th Century, was suppressed, belittled or forgotten, but Valenciana was still the language spoken at home - a "language of freedom" in Piera's words.

In the late 1960's, the years of the Paris student rebellion and the American protests against Vietnam, Piera went to university in Valencia. His studies (teaching) were the least important part of his time there: the city was a hot-bed of radical ideas, theatre and cultural activity which had a profound influence on the young Piera. These were the last few years of Franco's dictatorship, which was to end in 1975 with Franco's death. The route to understanding and learning about the literary heritage of Catalan and Valenciana was a circuitious one for Piera. Raimon, a Valencian protest singer, rediscovered the work of Ausias March, the most important poet of the 13th Century in Catalan (and a globally important literary figure) and used it in his songs: the "Nova Canco", and Piera remembers this as his first encounter with the literature of his mother-tongue.

It was not dangerous, exactly, to read and write in Catalan in the 1970's as by that point Franco's regime had lost much of its power. But the young poets were more hampered by the lack of a reading public, suitable publishers and censorship of their work. Older generations, who had suffered so much under Franco and his persecution of the Left, were often silent about the atrocities committed during the Civil War and as a result the late 60's and early 70's generation rebelled against the dictatorship without understanding the reasons for their parents' fears.

Piera had been writing poetry in Castilian for several years and at the time of his move to Valencia had more relationships with Andalucian writers and poets. One novelist, Vicente Alexandre, whom he met in Madrid and with whom he corresponded frequently, was highly influential as a writer and as a friend. Another was a young poet from Oliva, Paco Brines. He admired these people, who wrote in Castilian, for their work, their lives and their characters. In the Catalan language, he had other important influences. Juan Gil-Albert, a Catalan writer who returned from exile in Mexico, was one of the first people to encourage him to publish his poems in 1971. Other mentors were Maria Manent, a brillant translator, and Joan Fuster, a famous poet from the older generation.

However, it was the shift from writing in Castilian to writing in Valenciana which made Piera the poet he is today. He remembers the shock of discovering that he could write in the language that he spoke. Valenciana is less syllabic than Castilian, and as a poet he benefited from this compression of language, similar to that of English, which made his work more intense and more rhythmic. In 1976, after Franco's death, a group of young poets from Barcelona organised a poetry association and asked him to join. This was the moment when he became part of a wider community of writers in Catalan and Valenciana.

His first book published in Valenciana was "Renou: La Pluja ascla els estels: Renou" in 1976. His poems from that date reflect the excitement of the young poet discovering his voice: in "Bruticia" ("Filth"), for example, he writes:

"Like a desert that sprouts palm trees,
or a tablecloth after an intense meal,
always the amazing page of the poem,
an ancient gesture of combat, the ultimate summary"
(From "At Close Quarters" 1996, the bilingual anthology of Piera's work translated by D. Sam Adams)

Piera's verse is intensely sensual and visual, reflecting his love of good food (he is the author of a memoir and recipe book describing the traditional dishes of La Safor), his photographer's eye and his passionate love of the landscape that has surrounded him since his birth. "The language of the mind", he says, "is created through the senses". Even the language he uses to describe what poetry means to him uses a metaphor drawn from the sensual world: "Poetry is what is left when after you have had the good times. You eat the apple and are left with the core: that is poetry".

Piera has travelled widely. A journalist, essayist and travel writer as well as a poet, he has spent a great deal of his time, especially during the 1980's, rediscovering his Mediterranean heritage. Various travel and poetry books of his have expressed this preoccupation: "Estiu Grec", which explores the culture of Greece, "Un Bellisim cadaver Barroc", which is about Italy (he spent a year in Naples), and "Seduccions de Marraqueix", which is about Morocco. Piera is very interested in Arabic culture and has written an essay about the Arabic-Valencian poets of the 13th Century, looking at the Islamic heritage of Valencia (the area around La Drova, for example, was predominantly Moorish until the 13th Century). His encounter with Greece was inspired by the Romantic poets, such as Byron: he wanted to explore Greece, the "mother of all culture", as they had done, not simply as a literary tourist viewing "sights" but as a person exploring the everyday world of the Mediterreanean. In "Bodies at Kos", for example, he responds to the pagan, physical beauty of the young holiday-makers on the beach:

"Temple of health, colonnade of joy,
island of the very happy, green song of dreams.
All the children of the earth are like gods here on Kos".

Girl in La Drova, summer 1954. Photo courtesy Ferrando family.
However, La Drova is his Greece, a greece "without temples, but with olive trees and cypresses". He has collected plants from all his travels which grow in his garden, an apt metaphor for a poet who has enriched his native language by bringing the benefits of other languages and cultures to his work. He wants to rediscover and reclaim his own heritage, and in La Drova, he finds a fertile soil for his imagination and is able to assert the pride and strength of his native language and culture. Piera has been living here for the last 25 years. He feels more alive here and more inspired to write as he is surrounded by "the living language of the people". He came back here in order to return to his roots, where the language is so familiar, and feels like his own. He has time to meditate here, and time to experience life. "It is an ancient place, with many resonances". He can read and think very clearly here. It inspires him to write, and provides him "with friends, with memories - everything".

What about the 'foreigners', like myself, who come to La Drova in increasing numbers to live and work? Piera feels that the discovery for foreigners is to realise that there is something to discover. One shouldn't live here superficially, but should accept the guidance of the people who live here to help one understand the language, history and culture of Valencia. "I always say that anyone can come to La Drova - it's good to learn to love it here. People of all types and nationalities come here and so do artists, like my friend the painter Margaret Barry; singers, writers, dancers - they are welcome here. But the people who learn to know and respect the culture here are perhaps the most welcome. The young children should go to school with the locals, that way they can help their parents learn to understand the culture and language". He feels strongly that people should be aware that the local language is Valenciana, not Castilian, and invited to learn it: "This landscape speaks this language, and there is a history behind it". As an ideal, it is good for anyone to learn to speak more than one language: it widens the vision and your ability to communicate. Valenciana also helps you to learn other languages more easily: French, Italian and Portuguese, for example. The future for Valenciana is strong, he feels, as the language is a survivor, like the people: "If it didn't die under Franco, it will never die".

Piera also pointed out the wealth of links between the province of Valencia and British history. Catherine of Aragon, for example, the ill-fated wife of Henry VIII, was a Catalan queen, heir to the Aragonese throne, not the Castilian one. There were many trade links between the two countries: the raisin trade, for example, as Valencia exported raisins to Britain for their Christmas puddings, or the railways - the British built the railways here. These links are even celebrated in the language: the Catalan "basquet" is a twin of the English "basket"!

Piera's final words to visitors who have come to share his paradise are best expressed in the final words of his most recent poem about La Drova, written in response to a controversial plan to erect a high-tension electricity cable in La Drova: "Oh don't touch it, I beg you, don't touch it... unless it is with love".

La Drova
This old valley which now I see green,
summer melon golden moon,
It is more than a home between the mountains,
Much more than a childhood at a picture window,
Much more than a paradise filled with pines.

This old valley made of dreams,
So full of love and words,
That has a million and one perfumes and fresh fountains,
that has winters of icy tears,
That has voices that play and silence;
this old valley which I want to stay forever green.

This place which runs with laughing streams
After the storms and the rain.
This place I make mine every day,
That I carry alive in my memory,
Oh don't touch it, I beg you, don't touch it.
Don't touch it, unless it is with love.

Translation from the original Valenciana made with the poet's permission by Tabitha Potts and Angeles Blasco Brines.

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