In English Voices From Spain

Missing the Party

Originally published in Spanish. Santiago Roncagliolo. El País

A couple of months ago, I went from Barcelona to Madrid to attend the presentation of Carlos Germán Belli, the Peruvian poet. I did it because of my admiration of him, but also in solidarity, because I thought that a foreign, demanding poet would not be an audience success. Every attendant would count. Fortunately, I was wrong.

The event, held in the Casa de América, was attended by nearly 150 people. The rumour about the Cervantes Prize hovered over Belli, so there were representatives from cultural institutions as the Royal Academy or the Cervantes Institute itself. But other Peruvian and Latin American writers also attended, so they found a meeting point. And a general public with interest in Peru or poetry. Mario Vargas Llosa recited a text by Belli. José Manuel Caballero Bonald drew a map of the relationship between his own poetry and the honouree’s.

For me, was exciting. And at the same time it was sad. Because I realized that, in Catalonia, such a party would be impossible.

Yes. This year, a beautiful tribute to Gabriel García Márquez was held in Barcelona. But any writer lacking a Nobel Prize, is dead and, above all, has resided in Catalonia, has little chance. Spanish language does not receive support from the state, and the cultural world is focused in its own history. There is a Catalan Casa de América that does what it can, but its resources are minimal. It is very graphic that this Casa does not even have its own individual venue —it is on a mezzanine. And for years, it could not even have a sign visible from the street (nor the one they have now, to tell the truth).

But in the event with the poet Belli I discovered something much more alarming: The Latin Americans on my field —authors, publishers, journalists— are leaving Barcelona. For some time, I thought they were leaving Spain because of the crisis. But there I found that many of them had moved to the capital. By contrast, no one is taking the opposite route now, which I myself took, which used to be the normal.

None of these friends and acquaintances left because of an anti Catalan or anti nationalism sentiment. None of them would tell that politics had any relation with their decision. They have simply found job there. But this is precisely the consequence of what is happening in the Catalan politics: Today, if you write in Spanish, your life is someplace else.

When I make any comment on these things in Catalonia, the most nationalists reply that this is because Madrid is the capital city: there is more money, more movement, more everything. But this argument ignores its own history. For writers in Spanish language, Barcelona was always much more important that any capital. As Xavi Ayén recalls in its monumental book, Aquellos años del boom, the Latin American literature’s big moment was forged in Catalonia. Far from Franco and close to France, this city became the gateway of Spanish to Europe. When I arrived here, ten years ago, it still was. The intellectuals that today are leaving Barcelona are indeed the proof that they were here before. Madrid never had been able to take them. Now Barcelona is giving them away, giving up its own privileged position with conviction.

The critic and publisher Andreu Jaume alerted in these same pages last June 19th that Barcelona’s status as publishing capital “is now endangered due to a political indolence that is starting to prompt a cultural diaspora”. And blindness, I might add. Because this rupture arises from the conflict of some Catalan politicians with Spain, but the Spanish is not just Spain’s language: is the language of 500 million people and the second language most spoken in the world. The Spanish community is not even the largest community of Spanish speakers, nor the most important. If the Hispanics in US were a country, they would be a G-20 member. In this gigantic universe, full of creative energy, Barcelona always was like our New York. Now is determined to become our Latvia.

I am afraid that this is not a mistake, or a collateral effect, but a voluntary deliberate act. Like all nationalisms, the Catalan nationalism is based on the conviction of its own superiority over all those around it. The Catalan nationalist thinks that its people is more efficient, modern and cultured than an Andalusian or a Galician, and summarizes all those qualities in the concept “more European”. Many Europeans are in general convinced of be better than others, and they do not longer notice the xenophobic whiff of considering their origin as a quality. That is what I became accustomed to. But, with people who consider themselves more European that other Europeans, what can we Latin Americans can expect? Everything a Catalan nationalist despises of Spain is what we represent.

That said, regardless of any sensitivity matter: Is it really viable to disdain all this people? All these countries? Spanish is the second language in US. Is the gateway to Japan and China trough the relationship between Pacific countries. The cultural effect of this phenomenon is not restricted to books, but also to all spheres of communication. A Hispanic country, Mexico, hosts in the city of Guadalajara the second most important book fair in the world. Spanish is the second language on Twitter. Latin American fiction is broadcasted through Croatia, Russia and Australia television screens. Is it really possible to disparage the entire planet?

The answer is: no. What it is possible is to be left alone. Insofar as Catalonia defends its identity as distinct from everyone else’s, it loses references to make itself heard in the world. There is a party out there. And we who live here, are missing it.

Catalonia was never the province closed in on itself that nationalists want to build. What made the Hispanic world to admire it was precisely its cosmopolitan spirit and openness. For decades, its perfect bilingualism was the sign of a cultured society, proud of itself and dialoguing at the same time. The protection of Catalan language in the education system was an example to follow by native American languages, before it became exactly the opposite: an effort to erase the other.

The paradox is disheartening: based in an elevated concept of their own cosmpolitism, nationalists are building a more parochial society. No matter how big are their flags in public squares and stadiums; how loud they shout in Catalan and English; how many embassies they open. Their only cultural project is to proudly hasten Catalonia to irrelevance.


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