By Rupert Thomson
It should come as no surprise that David Bowie was a Rupert Thomson fan: In 2013 Bowie named Thomson’s “The Insult” as one of his 100 favorite novels. There’s something of the Thin White Duke about Thomson — his author photo is rakish and epicene — but it’s more than that. Like Bowie, Thomson seems almost pathologically unable to maintain a single identity, reinventing himself in each of his 13 novels to date. He has written thrillers and satires, historical novels and sci-fi dystopias. The only element that appears to connect his books is their lack of commercial success. While Thomson’s fiction is admired by his peers and often strikingly well reviewed, it has never troubled the best-seller charts.
His latest, “Barcelona Dreaming,” is a trilogy of loosely linked short stories. This composite form, somewhere between a story collection and a novel, has a proud history — think Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” or, going back further, Jean Toomer’s “Cane.” More recently, David Szalay’s “All That Man Is” (2015) threaded together nine different short stories about masculinity, desire and, crucially, the relationship between Britain and Europe.
“Barcelona Dreaming” can be situated in a growing tradition of fine British novels that have emerged in the wake of Brexit (see also: Sebastian Faulks’s “Paris Echo” and Polly Samson’s “A Theatre for Dreamers”). Thomson himself lived in Barcelona, and his book celebrates the Anglo-Catalan life of the city. Each of the stories is set in the early 2000s, and there’s a palpable sense of nostalgia suffusing the tales, looking back on a time when such cross-cultural narratives felt like part of a broader story about an open and progressive Europe of which Britain was a part.
The first story is about Amy, an Englishwoman who married and then divorced a Spaniard but stays on in Barcelona. She begins an affair with a young Moroccan immigrant but their relationship is threatened by the bigotry of a neighbor. Then comes the tale of Nacho Cabrera, a musician-turned-entrepreneur-turned-alcoholic whose drinking leads him to lose his Brazilian girlfriend and finally his sanity. The third story — the best in the collection — is about a translator, Jordi Ferrer, who falls in with a shadowy Englishman, Vic Drago, then escapes to London.
Characters reappear in each of the stories, playing major or minor roles, showing the smallness of the world, the place of chance and coincidence in defining the shape of a life. One of these characters is, dazzlingly, the Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho, who played for Barcelona from 2003 to 2008 and who flits across the pages of the novel like a benevolent angel: “I was struck by the way he seemed to vibrate or shimmer as he ran, as if electricity was flowing through his veins instead of blood.” He stands here as a kind of emblem for the city and the optimism of this time in its history.
The stories are also connected by their style, which is airily suggestive, the long, ethereal sentences recalling the work of another author whose presence was powerfully felt in Barcelona in the early years of the millennium: Roberto Bolaño. Blanes, the town in which Bolaño was a campground caretaker, is mentioned several times, and at the level of subject and sentence Bolaño feels like a model for Thomson. These numinous stories, where reality is just the launchpad for flights of extravagant, erotically charged fancy, recall much of Bolaño’s early work, which was in correspondence with both South American and European magic realists. Thomson gives us a shadowy world in which, as one of the characters says, “everything was connected, but not in a good way.” It feels unlikely that this novel will prove Thomson’s breakout success — it is perhaps too elusive, too darkling for that — but “Barcelona Dreaming” is a wonderful book, a phantasmal hymn to a city and a lost way of life.