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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The Australian author, Robert Hughes, is an eminent art critic; with his monumental history of Australia, THE FATAL SHORE (1987), he also earned his stripes as a first-rate historical writer. THE FATAL SHORE was not only an important study but also a timely one, since it was published on the eve of Australia’s bicentennial. With BARCELONA, Hughes has again completed a project that is both painstakingly researched and compellingly readable. The city of Barcelona is also a timely topic since it will play host to the 1992 Summer Olympic Games. Hughes has taken this opportunity to tell the dramatic story of a fascinating Mediterranean port city that is little known to the general reading public.

The opening chapter, “The Color of a Dog Running Away,” introduces the reader to contemporary Barcelona, and to the time—in 1966—when Hughes first set foot on the streets of the city. Until he began to delve deeply into what has made Barcelona tick, Hughes was not well acquainted with the Catalonian character and the crown jewel of Catalonian culture. Since Barcelona was awarded the 1992 Summer Games in 1986, the city has no longer been the best kept secret in Europe. Hughes sets out to paint a nearly complete portrait of Barcelona, and in the second chapter he starts with its ancient origins.

Because of its length, BARCELONA may look intimidating to the reader who is merely hoping for a travel-guide sketch. But for anyone willing to stay the course, the rewards are many. Hughes is never a dry or lazy writer. He brims over with enthusiasm for his subject, and is not above inserting bizarre anecdotes to carry the study forward.

During the city’s long and illustrious history, it has been dominated by many invading forces, including the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors, and the Franks. It is one of Hughes’s many strengths as a writer that he knows how to connect social, cultural, political, and commercial trends in order to put the pieces of the city together. The author’s paramount strength lies in his description and analysis of Barcelona’s architecture. The last chapter,...

(The entire section is 513 words.)