Cataluña en la mejor novela de la Guerra Civil española

Por supuesto, estoy hablando de “Madrid, de Corte a Checa”, la obra maestra de Agustín de Foxá, aristócrata fascista, gordo y sentimental, madrileño de raíces catalanas. En la página 122, Foxá se refiere al debate en 1932, recién empezada la Segunda República española, del Estatuto de Cataluña, el enésimo intento fallido de decentralización:

“Se discutía aquella tarde el Estatuto de Cataluña. Se enajenaba un trozo de España, con sus montañas, sus mares y sus fábricas, en aquella gran tertulia nacional, en aquel ingenioso café de sobremesa.”

El desprecio rezuma de cada palabra de este párrafo. Pero lo más significativo es lo que sigue a continuación: Foxá súbitamente se olvida del Estatuto (dejando entrever que, para los de su calaña, era meramente un síntoma más de cierta enfermedad) y cuenta cómo dos diputados discuten la recientemente aprobada ley del divorcio; y como uno, Vicentito Arellano, oye quejarse al otro, llamado Ossorio.

“¿Qué hacemos con nuestros hijos?” dice el tal Ossorio, en referencia a los efectos de la ley sobre la unidad familiar.  Llega la respuesta rápida de Arellano: “Al de su señoría ya le hemos hecho subsecretario”.


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How Zizek’s Theory of Belief Explains Catalonia’s Conflict

I’m a Spanish citizen smack in the middle of the Catalan conflict (my father is from Barcelona, my mother from Madrid) and I’ve found that a Zizekian reading of the current conflict over the possible independence of this Spanish region may work very well to shine a light through the confusion about this issue.

On Tuesday, the Catalan regional president, a self-proclaimed separatist who has driven the separatist movement for the last couple of years, stood in parliament and declared Catalonia an independent republic: for all of eight seconds, apparently, since he said next that he would propose that the parliament suspends such a declaration while additional rounds of dialogue are conducted with the Spanish government.

If you read either the Spanish or the international press today, it’s clear nobody can make any sense of this almost-independence declaration: since the Catalan parliament didn’t vote on anything and later separatist MPs signed the declaration, is the declaration suspended or not? Is Catalonia independent or not? Half-independent maybe?

To make sense of this, I’ve found that Slavoj Zizek’s theory of belief is extremely illuminating. Just this morning, I was listening to an old radio interview that Zizek conducted when he was promoting his movie “A pervert’s guide to ideology.” At one point, the British radio host asks Zizek to explain this theory of belief and Zizek, as he often does, goes back to his years as Yugoslav citizen: he tells the host how in the dying years of Communism nobody really believed in the ideology sustaining the regime, but many were comforted and sustained by the idea that others believed, that true Communist believers were out there somewhere. As Zizek fans will know, he often uses the same analytic framework to explain how an ethno-religious state like Israel can flourish when much of the population is in practice Atheist.

This, Zizek tells the host, allows the “fake” believer, the one who desperately wants to believe, to convince himself that he or she is a real believer; the trick will even allow you to make fun of your own ideology, a common occurrence among Catalan nationalists (see this famous Catalan-language show here). As Zizek put it:

”Even if you make fun of it, the ideology still functions. For a certain ideology to function, to be operative, to structure your life, you don’t need to believe, you just need to act as if you believe.”

Zizek’s notion is very similar to that espoused by some Christian theologians: that religious belief often flows from the act of worship. That the physical routine of adhering to a religion or ideology (going to church on Sundays, not eating pork for Muslims and Jews, meeting for mass separatist rallies in Barcelona or Marxist discussion groups for Communists) is a fundamental method to make belief take root at the most basic level.

This strikes a chord with me because I’ve met many separatists in person. I wrote for the Wall Street Journal about the pro-independence movement, and went to the very core of the propaganda machine around the movement, the TV3 network, about which I did a long story.

I often confronted separatists with the obvious in-built contradictions within their ideology: how can you support a separatist movement within the European Union while desperately clinging to EU membership as a marker of modernity? Why would the EU allow this to happen, as it would undermine its central message of promoting European unity against 20th century nationalism? How can you believe that half of the population can force the other half to give up the country to which they belonged for 500 years and this will not create a huge internal divide within Catalonia? How can you believe such a forced breakup won’t create a centuries-long conflict with the rest of Spain and insist that a friendly separation is possible? How can you support an ideology that explicitly sees Catalan independence as the first step towards the creation of a Greater Catalonia that will seek to take parts of Spain and France, and not see this as a clear Balkanization of the Iberian peninsula? In summary: how can you be so freaking naive? (I go into more detail about this stuff here)

The responses are almost always vague, evasive, of the “God will provide” kind. They think they will muddle through the filth and emerge unscathed at the end, like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, and an independent Catalonia will be just like the Mexican beach in the last scene of that movie.

Just yesterday, I spoke with one of these separatists, via private message. He will remain unnamed, but this is not a stupid or a non-educated person; actually, this is a person who boasts of not watching TV: so you know that kind of person we’re talking about.

I gave this person my arguments against Catalan independence, mostly focusing on the key point about Balkanization: if you’re so upset about the very mild police violence during the independence vote on October 1, we both will be horrified by what may happen if Spain turns against itself like Yugoslavia did and the crazies take control. His response was illuminatingly succint:

“I won’t be a coward. I will continue defending fundamental rights (2000/C 364/01) together with others.”

The reference to 2000/C 364/01 is, a quick Google search shows, to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. One would be tempted to think: are you so stupid as to, not only believe on that, but to make it a central ideological tenet to promote what you fully understand (you said you won’t be a “coward”) is a position that may lead to horrifying violence and destruction?

One would be wrong. The reference to the Charter simply shows this person is not personally prepared to justify or defend his own ideology. But this person is convinced that “others,” like he put it in his message, are. His belief is sustained by a piece of paper that has no relevance to the case, because others believe it too.

This person is like the Atheist Israeli who is 100% convinced that a non-existent God gave the Jews all property rights to Palestine. This person is comforted by the fact that many believe in something he very much would like to believe: and so he does, in a way, believe. My impression is that many Catalan separatists believe the same way.

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El caso de las traducciones nórdicas de Drácula

El mundo de la traducción es mucho más interesante de lo que uno pensaría, pero este caso es particularmente curioso: resulta que el traductor de la novela Drácula al islandés decidió crear una novela prácticamente nueva en lugar de simplemente traducir lo que ponía.

La explicación de cómo ocurrió todo esto está aquí (en inglés). Valdimar Ásmundsson, editor de un periódico local, aparentemente concurrió con la opinión de numerosos críticos e innumerables lectores, de que el autor de Drácula, un tipo llamado Bram Stoker cuyo principal empleo fue como asistente personal de un prominente actor de la era victoriana, era un mal escritor que se topó con una gran historia.

Lo cierto es que el propio Stoker nunca pareció tener mucha confianza en su capacidad literaria, así que igual habría estado de acuerdo con los cambios de Ásmundsson, que son cuando menos significativos: en la primera parte de la novela, casi duplicó el número de páginas con numerosos detalles explicativos que siguieron bastante fielmente las notas que había hecho Stoker sobre la novela. En la segunda parte, recortó el texto en un 93%, acelerando la acción hasta un punto que parece bastante exagerado, incluso para una novela tan pastosa y llena de lo que en inglés describen elegantemente como purple patches y en español llamamos relleno.

Ásmundsson no respeta ni el nombre del héroe, que pasa de Jonathan Harker a Thomas Harker, en la mejor tradición hollywoodense (y de ciertos editores) de hacer cambios porque sí, porque uno puede y punto. También al estilo californiano, añade todo tipo de personajes incluyendo una limpiadora sordomuda y dos policías que persiguen al vampiro, y condensa otros en uno solo. Como guinda, Ásmundsson decide que a la novela le faltaba un explícito toque nietzcheano (era la época, hay que entenderlo) y le pone uno: Drácula abiertamente explica que su plan es hacer que el mundo se incline ante la voluntad de poder.

Creo que hay buenas moralejas en este tema: que hay muchos que prefieren editar el trabajo ajeno a hacer el propio es obvio (aunque esto a veces es puramente por admiración: yo empecé a hacer mi propia versión de Ultimas Tardes con Teresa hace años, no porque odiara el original de Juan Marsé, sino porque me parecía que sería aún mejor con un buen podado); que hay escritores que no saben escribir muy bien pero, visitados por las musas, han creado obras de repercusión mundial es otro. Quizá podrían nombrarse otros ejemplos como Frankenstein.

También podría alegarse lo contrario: que en toda la obra de Joyce hay mucha escritura de calidad pero sólo una historia interesante, la de Los Muertos. En 100 años, no me extrañaría mucho si Joyce fuera un autor casi olvidado, consignado a los estudios de literatura comparada, pero me parecería chocante que Drácula no fuera un personaje y una historia del dominio público, como lo es ahora.

Hay que tener en cuenta que el caso de Ásmundsson no es único: desde que se publicó una traducción al inglés del Drácula de Ásmundsson en febrero del año pasado, un editor sueco ha descubierto que el primer traductor al sueco de la novela original cometió libertades similares en 1899, un año antes de la versión islandesa.


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I’m sorry we spoiled your Catalan vacation

Events Sunday in Barcelona filled me with sadness. Hundreds of foreign correspondents, who had been looking forward to a long day of calmly strolling down one of the nicest cities in Europe, had to endure the sad spectacle of police beating people in schools: hundreds reported bruises and inconveniences of various kinds, an old lady may have fallen down the stairs, a younger lady is telling everyone that some evil policeman twisted her fingers just for the fun of it and at least two people were sent to hospital in serious condition. Luckily, they are almost certainly out of it by now.

It’s all the sadder since it actually was a pretty nice day with warm weather, and God knows correspondents based in northern European cities like Brussels and London appreciate the chance to seeing the sun and having some time to enjoy the deservedly-well-known Catalan cuisine. The same goes for the over 50 million foreigners who visit Spain annually, many if not most passing through Barcelona, to take their mind off the worries and technocratic blandness of the places where they make their money, cities like Singapore, Beijing or New York. These people want to see a true European experience like the ones they have in Woody Allen movies, with picturesque sights, the right amount of diversity on the streets, good-looking Spanish girls with an accent; they want to relax on terrazas to ponder on the Mediterranean lifestyle and how nice of Europeans is to preserve their continent as a gigantic open-air museum of civilization for everyone else to enjoy. To all those inconvenienced foreigners, I say: I’m sorry we spoiled your vacation.

Nobody wants to see locals arguing in their confusing tongues about issues everyone else doesn’t really understand and totally doesn’t care about. That’s actually one of the reasons why the 5-year Catalan push for independence got pretty mediocre press overseas before: as far as foreigners were concerned, those people with their funny-looking flags, polite as they were (hey, it’s Europe, right?) were a bit bothersome, as they added an element of randomness and reality one doesn’t really appreciate during a short vacation with just enough time to see Gaudi’s masterpieces and spend an afternoon in the Nou Camp.

Now, it’s Spanish police getting the worst rap. See those pictures: people calmly, determinedly looking to vote in a referendum, using their grandmas and their 10-year old kids as human shields, and police actually responded. Police actually followed the orders set by Spanish courts, which were: stop this vote which has been deemed illegal, as it was convened under false pretences, with blatantly illegal steps, violating not only Spanish law but also specific Catalan regulations that set the parliament majority for changing the board of the local TV network at two thirds of the vote: more than the separatists had to go ahead and declare independence.

I know foreigners don’t really give a shit about all these technicalities. I mean, you may give a shit today and maybe tomorrow, as long as the pictures are still in your social media feeds, but you foreign friends will forget about these disputes on legality and regulation next week. It will become vague and complicated and not worth your time soon, that’s the way it is no matter how dedicated and concerned a global citizen you are. I mean, there’s always tomorrow’s news and the Islamic state murdered two people in Marseilles, up the coast from Barcelona, Sunday (did you know that? That’s two more killed than in Barcelona, despite all the pictures, and the provocations and the Belgian prime minister whining on Twitter); as I write this, there are reports of over 50 killed in Vegas, which will surely put the media focus where it rightly belongs 24/7: Donald Trump.

You see, I’ve known a correspondent for a major US newspaper who wrote for years about Catalonia’s push for independence, without knowing about the concept of Paisos Catalans, which is much the same as having a correspondent writing about the US South without knowing about the existence of the Mason-Dixon line, or the Confederacy. Just mind-boggling. And these are the guys actually based in Spain. There’s nothing I can say about the byline parachute guys, like Paul Mason, who don’t even know shit about their own country.

Listen: this is not a diss on correspondents. I myself am one. And I’m one of the dedicated ones. You know, I’m one of those who actually read books to inform myself about the countries where I’ve reported. And I can boast of having written about Malaysian politics even though I just read like three books about Malaysia in my whole life. But worse: I’ve written extensively about Indonesia, and I don’t think I ever read a book about Indonesia apart from Beyond Belief of VS Naipaul, which is a quirky travelogue written by a chap who doesn’t really like Indonesia much. I’m as guilty of this stuff as anyone else.

Now, you got lucky today and you got an actual Spaniard who has read tons of books about his country and spoken to tons of experts. You got here a guy who actually grew up in Barcelona, whose father is from there, and whose mother is from Madrid. What are the odds of that? I’m actually right in the middle of this divide, you see, and this is my very short message about the Catalonian conflict:

Your opinion doesn’t matter, my foreign friend. Not at all. That’s because you have no skin in the game. If shit gets bad, it will never be your kids who die on a battlefield: it will be my kids. And I have two, who I wouldn’t like to see die before their time. I’m sentimental that way. The opinion of the Catalans matters very much, but also that of the rest of Spaniards, because if Spain starts to break it will be worse than Yugoslavia. I’ve seen people there, in Ukraine and in Syria saying: we never thought it would end up like this. Well, I do. Catalan nationalists only want independence as a stepping stone to taking over chunks of their liking from the rest of Spain, as you saw in that Wikipedia link I gave you. Does you media policy tell you that Wikipedia is unreliable (as opposed to CNN…? Ha, ha, correspondent joke here, sorry)? OK, go the source, where the largest Catalan party ERC spells it out in its own fucking webpage: don’t be shy and use Google Translate to get over the huge barrier presented by the use of the Catalan language. And don’t even get me started on the effects Catalan independence will have on the Basque Country.

Now, 38% of the Catalan census voted yesterday for independence, in a referendum that was sloppier than a vote for team captain in my neighbourhood football club. That’s 2 million votes in a country of 46 million people. Are we, the rest if Spaniards, supposed to just sit back and let them do as they wish just because people may get hurt otherwise, and complain on CNN? You think that was a Bloody Sunday? If Spain goes to shit, that will be less than nothing compared to what’s coming. I know you like Europe to be nice and friendly for tourists, but we have history and we have problems and sometimes we have to get rough so that this pretty country you appreciate during your visits stays nice and friendly, and doesn’t turn into a collection of Kosovos. When was the last time you visited Kosovo? Yeah, I thought so.

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Homenaje a Cataluña

Es el único buen libro escrito en un idioma extranjero sobre la Guerra Civil española. “Por Quién Doblan las Campanas” es una típica fantasía Hemingwayana con macizas exóticas y aventureros de bragueta fácil, que relata la única operación de guerra de guerrillas de todo el conflicto: la que ocurrió en la mente de Ernest. Sobre otras obras sería mejor correr un tupido velo.

Pongamos el caso de “Les Grands Cimitieres sous la Lune” (1938), del escritor francés Georges Bernanos, que describe la represión nacional en Mallorca en 1936, sin apenas referencias al desembarco republicano de agosto de ese mismo año, una patética operación militar en la que el gobierno de la Generalitat buscaba la construcción de los Paisos Catalans en plena guerra.

Hay progresistas que admiran a Bernanos, cuyo hijo era teniente de Falange, porque critica duramente a Franco; pero Bernanos era del curioso tipo de francés fascista de entreguerras, con rarezas típicas de su especie: en la página 126 del libro (editorial Plon) expresa admiración por Adolf Hitler, diciendo que él no hubiera tolerado miles de muertos en Mallorca (Salas Larrazábal, en su clásica obra sobre represión en guerra, estima en 700 los ejecutados en Mallorca, 2 por cada 1.000 habitantes, frente a 16.000 en Madrid, 12 por 1.000 habitantes). Bernanos también explicita su desprecio por la sangre española de numerosos reyes franceses, pero era un faltón sin prejuicios, que tenía para todo el mundo: ya entrada la Guerra Civil, comentó (aparentemente de forma irónica) que “Hitler a deshonoré l’antisemitisme.”

George Orwell le daba más vueltas a las cosas que Bernanos, y se enteró de bastante más de lo que pasaba a su alrededor. Llegó voluntario a España, se metió en una milicia trotskista (del POUM), y enseguida le tomó la temperatura al ambiente. Escribe al comienzo, en las páginas 50 y 51, de “Homenaje a Cataluña” (la traducción es mía):

“Lo que había ocurrido en España no fue, de hecho, una mera guerra civil, sino el comienzo de una revolución. La prensa antifascista fuera de España se encargó de ocultar este hecho. El conflicto se ha reducido a «fascismo contra democracia» y el aspecto revolucionario se ha ocultado lo más posible: en Inglaterra (…) sólo se han tenido en cuenta dos versiones de la guerra española: la versión derechista de los cristianos patriotas contra los bolcheviques hambrientos de sangre, y la versión izquierdista de republicanos caballerosos que sofocan una revuelta militar. El conflicto central ha sido exitosamente encubierto (…) Fuera de España, pocos comprendieron que había una revolución en marcha; en España, nadie lo dudaba”.


A Orwell no resultaba fácil engañarle mediante el modo preferido de confusión propagandística: la prensa.

“En cuanto a lo que decían los periódicos de que se trata de una ‘guerra por la democracia’, esto era un simple lavado de cara. Nadie en su sano juicio suponía que hubiera esperanza ninguna de tener una democracia, tal como la entendemos en Inglaterra o Francia, en un país tan dividido y agotado como lo sería España cuando se acabara la guerra. Tendría que ser una dictadura, y estaba claro que había pasado la oportunidad de una dictadura de la clase obrera”.

Como Bernanos, Orwell tenía una fuerte antipatía a Franco, combinada con una visión, en nada equivocada, de que era un personaje de otro tiempo tratando de dar marcha atrás al reloj de la historia. Como la revista National Review en tiempos de William Buckley, Franco “estaba subido en mitad de la historia, gritando ‘Detente’, en una época en la que nadie estaba inclinado a hacerlo, o a tener paciencia con los que lo pedían’:


“El Frente Popular podría ser una estafa, pero Franco era un anacronismo. Sólo los millonarios o los románticos querían que ganara”.

De vuelta a Inglaterra, después de haber casi muerto de un tiro, de haber visto lo peor de una guerra conducida con extrema torpeza e hipocresía por las autoridades republicanas de Cataluña y, en particular, una Generalitat que no fue capaz de perforar un frente aragonés defendido por puñados inconexos de falangistas y carlistas, Orwell entiende que el concepto de guerra que acabará con todas las guerras (tan repetido desde la Revolución Francesa) es siempre erróneo:

“Era como un cuadro alegórico de la guerra; el tren repleto de nuevos reclutas marchando sobre la vía, los mutilados bajando despacio, y mientras los cañones sobre camiones abiertos agitando el corazón como siempre lo hacen las armas, y reviviendo ese sentimiento pernicioso, tan difícil de quitarse de encima, de que la guerra es gloriosa a pesar de todo”.


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Evelyn Waugh and Sword of Honour’s Ending

In 2001, the then-not-so-famous Daniel Craig was talked into filming a long TV movie based on the most underrated novel of the 20th century, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour. I recently watched it, and I highly recommend it to all Waugh’s fans; I found Craig a rather acceptable Guy Crouchback. Also, there is a key point of the movie where it departs from the book version (at least the one I have) and it makes for a better story: the ending.

I remember the novel, which I read about a decade ago, pretty well, and was satisfied to see some of the classic, much-quoted bits, from it in the script. Of course, this being 2001, the Catholic theme is much diminished, but is still there. For example, when Guy’s father famously tells his son that  “if only one soul was saved that is full compensation for any amount of loss of ‘face.'”

In the movie, this is appropriately in a line of dialogue, rather than in a letter, as in the novel. The full context is not there, alas:

“That isn’t the church. The Mystical Body doesn’t strike attitudes and stand on its dignity. It accepts suffering and injustice. It is ready to forgive at the first hint of compunction… How many children may have been brought up in the faith who might have lived in ignorance? Quantitative judgements don’t apply. If only one soul was saved that is full compensation for any amount of loss of ‘face.'”

This paragraph is very relevant, because Guy–in the movie and in the book–ends up taking care of Gervase, the grandly-named kid fathered by the ghastly Trimmer on his wife Virginia. The last shot has Guy, thoroughly disappointed by World War II like so many of his age and persuasion, grabbing the toddler, and saying: “I’m your father” with some Christian emotion.

And that’s it. Credits roll.

I felt cheated: I distinctly remembered how, in the novel, the widowed Crouchback ends up marrying a proper, if unexciting, Catholic heiress who gives him more children, so that he’s not simply stuck raising Trimmer’s product.

I was in Beijing when I saw the movie, with no access to my library, so I went to the next best thing, and Wikipedia reminded me of something Stannard refers to in his massive Waugh biography, and that I had forgotten completely; or chosen to forget:

After the end of the war Guy meets the daughter of another old Roman Catholic family, Domenica Plessington, and marries her. In Waugh’s first version of the novel’s conclusion, Guy and his second wife produce further children who are ironically to be disinherited by Trimmer’s son. Waugh altered this ending to an uncompromisingly childless marriage in the revised text, after realising that some readers interpreted such a conclusion as hopeful. “No nippers for Guy,” he clarified in a letter to Nancy Mitford. Even so, although Waugh died in 1966, in the Penguin 1974 reprint Guy still has two sons with Domenica Plessington.


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Dos años de blog: grandes éxitos y lo demás

Hace dos años empecé este blog, sin tener una idea muy clara de lo que iba a hacer con él, aparte de evitar las diatribas políticas. He venido a descubrir que lo que me interesa de verdad es la propaganda: la propagación de ideologías, la adopción de algunas como dominantes y la desaparición de otras como derrotadas; “casposas” como a veces se dice en España, para declarar algo como caduco e irremediablemente del pasado (me gustaría saber de dónde salió ese uso argumental, un ejemplo excelente de propaganda exitosa). También me interesa el transhumanismo, un tema sobre el que insistí al principio y que luego he dejado de lado. Insistiré más.

Escribo alternativamente en español, mi idioma nativo, e inglés, mi idioma habitual de trabajo. Casi todas las entradas con más lectores en la historia de este blog han sido, para mi sorpresa, en inglés: en general, las que tienen que ver con Slavoj Zizek, un filósofo que es del todo incomprendido, y para nada incompresible a pesar de su fama. Pero también he escrito sobre Zizek en español, aquí.

En inglés son muchas de las entradas donde discuto la mezcla de la literatura con la propaganda; y cómo la literatura puede ser un resultado casual de la mala propaganda, o al menos de la propaganda que no consigue su objetivo. He usado como ejemplo a Arthur Miller y a Dante Alighieri.

Sobre conspiraciones, otro tema muy querido y que no está para nada desconectado de la propaganda, he escrito en general en español. También sobre esos curiosos personajes del siglo XX español, Manuel Azaña, Jorge Semprún y Ortega y Gasset; y sobre mi admirado Jorge Luis Borges, y mi igualmente admirado Julio Cortázar, un personaje que podríamos definir como ejemplo de pésimo propagandista y por ende gran artista. Y sobre la peor lectora del mundo. Por no hablar de nuestros queridos nacionalistas vascos y catalanes, tan de actualidad, y sus curiosidades.

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