Juan Marsé, who has died aged 87, was widely considered Spain’s finest contemporary novelist. His great subject was the defeated Barcelona of his 1940s childhood and many of his 16 novels chronicle the blighted lives of children growing up in the long shadow of the Spanish civil war.
In Si Te Dicen Que Caí (1973, translated as The Fallen), traumatised adolescents are obsessed by violence in a morally and socially degraded city. The children play at being detectives, following strangers and returning to their hide-out to tell what they have seen and then invent the rest. Banned in Spain by the Franco dictatorship, the book was first published in Mexico.
Five of his other novels – Ronda del Guinardó (Guinardó Boulevard, 1984); El Embrujo de Shanghai (Shanghai Nights, 1993); Rabos de Lagartija (Lizard Tails, 2000) and Caligrafía de Los Sueños (The Calligraphy of Dreams, 2011) return repeatedly to this postwar period. In them, children fantasise about an escape from poverty into glamorous worlds glimpsed in the cinema, while mothers are driven into prostitution and ex-anarchist fathers are absent, either in jail or in exile, unable to trust anyone and untrustworthy themselves.
In one of his best novels, Un Día Volveré (One Day I Will Return, 1982), Jan Julivert returns home after 12 years in jail. Broken by defeat, he just wants to find an ordinary job and live in peace, but the children revere the former anarchist, dreaming that he is going to dig up his buried pistol, settle old scores and put the world back on its axis.
Marsé’s best known novel and the one that made his name was Últimas Tardes Con Teresa (Final Afternoons with Teresa, 1965). In it he invented the iconic Manolo the Pijoaparte (something like the “Far-from-posh guy”), a petty thief living precariously in a slum in the Carmel district of Barcelona. The novel, with Marsé’s habitual mix of seriousness, sardonic humour and tragedy, deals with the clash of the Pijoaparte, a migrant from southern Spain, and the upper-class student Teresa, whom he meets after gatecrashing a midsummer night’s party. The rebellious Teresa is drawn to the “exotic” immigrant; while the Pijoaparte wants sex, money and a better life. Two parallel and irreconcilable worlds brush together without meeting.
His direct, realist style has few flashy metaphors or purple patches. His realism, though, is not narrow, for it includes his characters’ dreams and desires. His visual memory enabled him to accumulate layers of detail that create intensity. Memory is “the dead bee that stings” as he wrote, memorably, in Noticias Felices en Aviones de Papel (Happy News in Paper Planes, 2014).
Marsé was born in Barcelona and was adopted by Pep Marsé and Berta Carbó, small farmers from southern Catalonia, after the death postpartum of his biological mother. At the age of 13 Marsé was apprenticed to a jeweller in the Barcelona suburb of Gràcia. In the mid-50s he started to submit stories and articles to literary and film magazines and in 1960 his first published novel, Encerrados Con un Solo Juguete (Shut in With Just One Toy), brought him into contact with the upper-class anti-Franco circles known as the “Gauche divine”.
He had written much of the novel on military service in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave on the north coast of Morocco, after which he spent three years in Paris from 1959. Back in Barcelona, he belonged to the underground Communist party (1962-66). In the mid-70s he became one of the editors of the anti-Franco satirical magazine, Por Favor.
Combative against injustice and pretension, the quick-tongued Marsé was known for his lethally frank comments. In fact, he was a laconic man: when he said or wrote something, he meant it. His three main targets were the church (“this gang of shameless thieves”), social-climbing intellectuals, and nationalists of all stripes, whether Catalans or Spanish nationalists, which led to his later ostracism by the Catalan political-literary establishment (though not by readers and writers). His 1990 tragi-comic novel El Amante Bilingüe (The Bilingual Lover) mocks this Catalan ruling class.
A native Catalan speaker, Marsé wrote in Spanish, the language of his schooling, though his prose is spattered with Catalanisms, contributing to the dense, local taste of his books. He won multiple prizes, including the Planeta in 1978 for La Muchacha de Las Bragas de Oro (The Girl with Golden Knickers), about an old fascist who after Franco’s death pretends to have been a “life-long democrat”. In 2008 he was awarded the Cervantes, Spain’s annual prize for a lifetime’s body of work.
Six of his novels have been filmed. Several critics compare him with the American writer William Faulkner, and the juxtaposition is not entirely inflated, as it suggests not just literary quality, but profound investigation of a local area, in Marsé’s case the Barcelona neighbourhoods of Guinardó, Carmel and Gràcia, and the struggle for dignity after defeat in war.
Marsé is survived by Joaquina Hoyas, whom he married in 1966, and their son, Alejandro, and daughter, Berta, also a novelist.
• Juan Marsé Carbó, novelist, born 8 January 1933; died 18 July 2020
• This article was amended on 30 July 2020. The magazine Por Favor appeared in the mid-70s rather than the late 60s.