Chris Lloyd is the author of City of Good Death, the first in a planned series, the Elisenda Domènech Investigations, set in Girona.He studied Spanish and French at university, and straight after graduating, he hopped on a bus from Cardiff to Catalonia where he stayed for the next twenty-odd years, aside from brief spells in Madrid and the Basque Country. He’s worked at teaching English as a foreign language, travel writing for Rough Guides, and he now lives with his wife in South Wales, where he works as a freelance Catalan and Spanish translator.He loves red wine, crosswords, rock music, city walks and Barcelona football club. City of Good Death is his first novel, and is published by new imprint Canelo.
Catalonia: history, legend and story
‘I bet she could tell a story or two.’ The man who spoke, a porter in the old law courts opposite the cathedral steps, came out into the sun and stood next to me to stare up at the medieval arch. I could only agree.
"She" was a statue. A small one. And she was called the Virgin of Good Death. We were in the Catalan city of Girona and she had stood over the gate out of the city for centuries, forgotten now among the pigeons. But she had once drawn the fearful eye of people leaving the city for the last time. Prisoners being led out beyond the city walls to their execution. She was their final blessing.
The porter and I went our way. He to the courts and a new generation of prisoners. Me to find another statue high up on a wall. I’d discovered the story of the Virgin when I was supposed to be researching for a guide book and I couldn’t get the image of her watching over centuries of the condemned out of my head. I know that looking up at her impassive face half-hidden in the shade from a sharp sun was the moment the germ of the idea for my first novel, City of Good Death, took seed.
When you set stories in Girona, you quickly realise that the past is never far away. Walk through narrow canyons of medieval buildings, where the windows are five hundred years younger than the walls because it was once the Jewish quarter and the residents weren’t allowed a view over the rest of the city. Go into designer shoe shops in nineteenth-century streets, or watch tourists texting while they sit on stones where Roman legionaries once rested, and you’ll see that the past and its stories are inextricably interwoven with today’s city.
Since then, Girona has experienced a new era of storytelling. Its legends have become more widely known in the city. They’re seen as an expression of identity, not just of Girona but of Catalonia as a whole. Popular stories that unite people in a common history. But bizarrely, not all of the stories are as ancient as they appear. Some are less than thirty years old, but in a new age of legends they exist to serve the same purpose: to give a sense of identity, of a shared past, and to explain the present, and that is arguably the role of all storytelling.
I found my other statue that first day, a stone carving. A small and grotesque face set high up a wall. A medieval usurer, the legend I’d discovered told me, so heartless and cruel he was turned to stone. Popular tradition had it that if you rubbed noses with it, all your debts would be forgiven, but it was so far up the side of a building as to be impossible. I went back to the carving another time, in the middle of the financial crisis, men in faded suits asking for work and banks closing their doors, in more ways than one, and I saw again how the past resonated in the present. And I saw how all it would take would be for one person to react to those changes for Girona to tell a new story. If the Virgin of Good Death was the seed, the face on the wall was the rain and the sunlight that would nurture it. Just as there are so many stories written into the history and the buildings of Girona, so I realised that there were so many more that I wanted to tell. At a time when policing was being devolved to a Catalan police force, I knew I wanted to join in with the Girona storytellers to create my own series of books, the Elisenda Domènech Investigations, featuring a police officer in the new force and drawing on the character of a beautiful city in a fascinating region at a time of constant contrasts between change and tradition.