23rd Sep 2023


What a Spanish novelist can teach us about communality

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"I don't remember the first book I ever read in my life. I do remember the first film I saw. In the village pub: The Sons of Katie Elder by Henry Hathaway, with John Wayne. This is the best thing that ever happened to me. You would go to that café to see a film and bring your own chair."

Radical climate activists glue themselves to the pavement in major European cities. Farmers from the Netherlands to Slovenia fight for their 'survival' by blocking motorways and threatening politicians. But in a world where cultural clashes and sectarianism seems to be on the increase, Spanish novelist Javier Cercas (b.1962) takes the opposite approach.

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  • Spain's challenge is also Europe's challenge: 'To combine political unity with diversity of cultures, languages and identities. Let all be who they want to be, but make them respect the same rules and laws. This is how you create the common good'

He cherishes both life in the big city and in the countryside. In his view, they are not antipodes but complimentary.

The anecdote about his first movie in the village café comes from a long interview he gave to Le Grand Continent about his native village Ibahernando, in Extremadura, one of Spain's poorest rural regions.

Cercas, whose 'non-fiction novels' Soldiers of Salamis and Outlaws became international bestsellers, thinks that he would never have become so successful if he would not have been born in that tiny village.

To Ibahernando standards, Cercas' family was better off than most. "I felt protected. We were the rich ones." Then, when he was four, his parents moved to Gerona, in Catalonia.

This was a completely new world, a different culture even — in Spain, regional identities are very diverse. In Gerona, his family was considered poor. To this day, the novelist's mother, still homesick for her old village, does not speak Catalan.

Cercas says he would never have become a writer had he stayed in Ibahernando which, after the civil war, had 3,500 inhabitants; now, there are just 500 left. Because of the constant collision of multiple worlds and the fact that he has several overlapping geographical and psychological identities, he says he sees things he probably would not have seen otherwise.

This intensifies his good and ugly moments and sharpens experiences, like for third-culture kids growing up in several countries or whose parents have different nationalities. "Migration has been beneficial to me. It uprooted me, put pressure on me and made me discover all sorts of things."

Such observations are refreshing in a world where cultural and identity battles seem to be fought with growing intensity. Diehard Tory voters blame Brexit misfortunes like long delays in Dover squarely on the French. In Switzerland, a concert was cancelled because the white musicians wore dreadlocks, apparently a sign of "cultural mis-appropriation".

A Dutch Booker Prize winning novelist pulled out of translating the work of a black American poet, after the publisher was criticised for selecting a translator who was not black.

In such times, reading Javier Cercas is a real relief.

The novelist spends half the year in Barcelona and half in Ibahernando, where he has renovated an old house. He is both a city man and a villager, speaking regional dialects and languages like French and English. As an intellectual, he writes about prostitutes, drug dealers and factory workers.

The main character of his new book El Castillo del Barbazul, part of the Terra Alta trilogy, is a former policeman. The novel is a stinging attack on the Catalan elite narrow-mindedly pushing their independence agenda just in order to stay in power.

"The real Catalonia," Cercas observes, "was created by people like me, from Andalusia, Extremadura and other poor regions, who literally built it into one of the richest regions in Spain. (...) These people are my wealth, my heritage. A kind of homeland. Still, the word homeland makes me nervous. Samuel Johnson once said the homeland is the last refuge of villains."

In his books, Cercas captures one of the big pains of our time: people locking themselves into narrow, exclusive identities while dealing with big topics like climate change, security, or values. This way, the small, private takes on enormous significance — with people thinking 'my view is the global view'.

Near and far

Chinese anthropologist Biao Xiang, who works for the German Max Planck Institute, has similar experiences.

According to him, people see everything that is both very close by and far away with razor-sharp clarity. What lies in between, he says, all that connects the private world with the bigger picture and therefore gives it meaning, is disappearing.

Xiang calls this "the nearby". When he was a child in south-east communist China, his extended family shared a house with people from many (former) social classes and backgrounds. Most came from the countryside. Some were educated, doing hard physical labor. Others, who had hardly gone to school, were rising in the party ranks. There were prostitutes, factory workers and fishermen.

Everything was constantly changing, and everyone's survival strategy was to find out how exactly. By meeting neighbours at the only running water tap in the neighbourhood, by exchanging news and experiences, people could see new developments coming. This helped them to adjust their social antennas, protect themselves against more turbulence and give their lives meaning. People expressed different opinions, even on sensitive topics like the cultural revolution. Their conversations were informative, full of humour and rarely conflictual.

The local will always be there, Xiang argues. But the nearby, which connects the local with the bigger picture, is disappearing. People are homeowners now. They sit in their own houses, where everything is safe, clean and orderly, minding their own business. Political discussions, once crucial for everyone's survival, are hardly taking place anymore. This "breaks down social relations and isolates individuals from one another".

Xiang currently studies domestic migrant communities: what happens to them could be crucial for China's development. In the same manner, Javier Cercas lives between Ibahernando and Barcelona — to keep seeing things that small, homogeneous communities, locked up in endless cultural battles, can't see anymore.

Spain's challenge, he says, is also Europe's challenge: "To combine political unity with diversity of cultures, languages and identities. Let all be who they want to be, but make them respect the same rules and laws. This is how you create the common good."

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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