Despite its thousand-year history, there is still argument over what constitutes Catalan literature. Stephen Burgen asks why
YOU ARE WHAT YOU SPEAK, or at least that’s the case if you are a Catalan. Tomorrow is International Book and Copyright Day, established ten years ago by Unesco and inspired by the Catalan tradition of exchanging gifts of books and red roses on this day, which is both St George’s Day — he is patron saint of Catalunya as well as England — and the day on which Cervantes and Shakespeare died.
Catalan culture is also the “guest of honour” at next year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, following on from India this year. This straightforward and indeed flattering invitation has provoked rows about how the nation should be represented at Frankfurt and has exposed the frailties of the national psyche. It has also raised some interesting questions about language and identity.
It is Catalan culture that has been invited, but Frankfurt is a book fair and so the argument has centred on what is and is not Catalan literature.
To the chagrin of many, the Catalan parliament took it upon itself to debate the issue and ruled that the Catalan language is “the only identifier” of Catalan literature.
You would expect that a people who suffered cultural oppression under the Franco dictatorship would grasp that it is not for politicians to issue diktats on cultural matters.
What the ruling means is that almost none of the best known Catalan writers will be officially represented — because they write in Spanish.
So out goes Carlos Ruiz Zafón (The Shadow of the Wind), the best selling “Spanish” author since Cervantes, out too, Javier Cercas (Soldiers of Salamis), Eduardo Mendoza (City of Marvels), Maruja Torres, Terenci Moix, Juan Goytisolo, Juan Marsé and Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, all of them Catalans, but all of whom write or wrote in Spanish.
Jordi Pujol, for 23 years president of Catalunya, defined a Catalan as anyone who lives here and speaks the language, and now parliament has added to this the absurdity that anyone who writes in Catalan is a Catalan writer.
Emilio Manzano, director of the Institut Ramon Llull (IRL), the organisation set up by the Catalan government to represent Catalan culture abroad, and therefore at Frankfurt, insists that it is not as absurd as it sounds.
“The IRL was set up to promote the Catalan language and for that reason at Frankfurt we shall be promoting writers who write in Catalan. It is not our job to promote authors who write in Spanish. They will be well represented at Frankfurt by their publishers. Our job is firstly to present both the singularity of Catalan culture and also to show that there is a 1,000-year tradition of literature written in Catalan.”
Between them, the “excluded” authors, most of whom have wisely kept their counsel on the issue, represent probably the best known writers in Spanish outside Latin America, something one might expect the Catalans to boast about.
However, one well-known writer who will be officially represented as he writes in Catalan, is Albert Sánchez-Piñol, whose Pell Freda (Cold Skin) was an international bestseller. To him it is quite simple. “The French are clear about it: it’s French literature if it’s written in French. If someone lives in your country for 30 years but writes in Arabic, then it’s Arabic literature. There’s nothing to argue about, except that here we are still arguing about these things.”
But is it really that clear? No one would dispute that Joyce and Beckett are Irish writers, although they wrote in English (and French, in Beckett’s case). “But what about Kazuo Ishiguro?” Manzano says. “You wouldn’t call him a Japanese writer.”
Well, no. On the other hand no one would claim that Arundhati Roy or Chinua Achebe are English writers because they write in English. And yet Matthew Tree, who has lived in Catalunya for 20 years and writes in Catalan, is acclaimed as a Catalan author although he himself insists that he is and always will be English. Were he a painter, he would be regarded as an English artist resident in Catalunya.
And that’s the nub of it. For a Catalan, the language is the identity; take that away and you are left with little whereas, say, Scottish or Irish identity is barely bound up with the language at all. After 40 years of suppression under Franco, Catalan has made a comeback that is the envy of minority speakers everywhere.
Education, from kindergarten to postgrad, is in Catalan, so is all official business. More than 95 per cent of the population (half of whom are Spanish immigrants or their offspring) speak it. As a Latin-based tongue, it is a lot easier to learn than, say, Welsh or Euskera, the Basque language.
Catalan publishing is heavily subsidised by the state, and yet one of the ironies of this policy is that it has actually debased the literature.
“The business of subsidising Catalan literature has not only distorted the market by printing more books than are ever going to be read, it has harmed the image of the literature itself, by promoting second and even third-rate work simply because it is in Catalan,” Manzano says. “And then people here wonder why Catalan literature doesn’t have the world reputation they think it deserves.”
The final irony, of course, is that no one here reads anyway. Surveys regularly put Spaniards (and Catalans) at the back of the European reading class. On average, most buy one book a year, and here that book is usually bought on April 23, a windfall day for Catalan publishing. Pity no one reads the stuff.