reading Magris / thinking about Catalonia

As the book meanders to and fro – Danube, of course, the novel by Claudio Magris that is at the same time an enormous collection of essays and a kind of travelogue along the River Danube – we get treated to extremely insightful and eye-opening essays.

One of these is called Dove sono i nostri castelli – Where are our castles. The title is (as we learn by reading Magris) also the title of a 1968 essay by the Slovak writer Vladimír Mináč. Magris uses castles at some point to describe (paraphrasing Mináč) questi castelli… sono altrove, in un’altra storia, che non è fatta dagli slovacchi. Those castles are somewhere else, in another story (or history), not made by Slovaks.

Slovakia was until quite recently occupied by Hungarians, until the 20th century. The castles that dot the mountainous landscape were almost all of them Hungarian, or Austrian, mentre le mani delle contadine nel villaggio sottostante hanno ancor oggi il colore della terra, sono rinsecchite e nodose… while the hands of the peasant women in the village right below [the castle] have even today the color of earth, are dry and knotty… The passage has a sentence that opened my eyes: “for centuries, Slovaks were an ignored people, the dark substratum and fabric of their country similar to that hay and dry mud that holds together the drevenice” (the traditional Slovak dwellings).

One may well compare this situation (some thirty years ago) with Slovakia today. Slovakia is not only one of the European countries with highest living standards but it was able to get independence – a smooth process – from the Czechs and become a European Union member. The Slovak language, spoken by just a few million people, is an official language of the EU; Slovakia seems to be well-integrated economically with its neighbors. Of course not free from other problems (the greatest of them all in 2018 being, in all the EU but very sharply in the immediate vicinity of Slovakia – Hungary and Poland being the worst – racism, anti-immigration, rising fascism). But at least the Slovak people have become a successful country.

Apparently the worst time was after 1867, when the Dual (Austrian and Hungarian) Monarchy was instated – Hungarians came in control of Slovakia. They were considered (says Magris) “a mere quasi-folkloric group in the middle of the Hungarian nation – the Slovaks saw their identity and their language negated, their schools forbidden and blocked, their demands crushed in a sometimes bloody way, their social ascent dampened, their representation in Parliament boycotted.”

Most of these phrases seem a description of what Catalonia has had to go through, at the hands of Spain. Except perhaps for the social ascent being dampened, all the rest, the boycott of parliamentary representation, the crushing of the language (during Franco times), the blocking of schools, the identity being ridiculed, their demands being crushed in sometimes bloody ways – all of this has happened (and is partially happening) in Catalonia.

In Slovakia, after the Hungarian domination they still had to contend with a different kind of situation: their neighbors the Czechs. Of course the question of “Slavic fraternity” created a dual situation for the emancipation movement. Magris: “some Czechs indeed -who were at the head of Austroslavism- called for the used of Czech as a written language, also in Slovakia, to confer unity and efficiency to the movement, thus relegating the role of Slovak to a dialectal and domestic role, clearly secondary.”

The story unfolded for Slovakia in an interesting way. The Spring of ’68, and the Soviet Union’s crushing of Czechoslovakia in fact became an opening for Slovakia, for an ironic reason. Although Slovakia participated actively in the movement, in the Spring of ’68, the brutality of the Soviet reaction was geared mainly at Prague, at the Czech part of the country. Magris: Mentre Praga è stata decapitata, la restaurazione totalitaria del ’68 ha certo inferito anche in Slovacchia sulle libertà civili e sui diretti individuali, accentuando tuttavia -per calcolo politico e per fiducia nella tradizione panslava e dunque filorussa del paese- il peso politico dell’elemento locale. Così oggi la Slovacchia si trova contemporaneamente sotto un tallone e in una fase di ascesa storica, di risveglio ed espansione del suo ruolo.

(While Prague was beheaded, the totalitarian restoration of ’68 has certainly also in Slovakia affected civil liberties and individual rights, however emphasizing -by political calculation and belief in the pan-Slavic (and thus philo-Russian) tradition of the country- the political weight of the local element. Therefore today [1985] Slovakia is at the same time under a boot heel and in a phase of historical ascent, of awakening and expansion of its role.)

This perception by Magris was fantastic. Only a decade later, Slovakia would be an independent country, the Slovak language a language of the European Union, on a par with every other language there.

Although Catalonia has shared the fate of Slovakia at times – with some differences, of course – this is a defining moment. Tomorrow 11 September 2018, the National Day of Catalonia, will be (I believe) an important moment of this process. The whole past year has been an extremely difficult process – with their government in jail or exiled, with the Spanish media and central power exerting all their might – military, police, judiciary, parliamentary – against Catalonia.

There is no compelling reason to prevent Catalonia from running a referendum on independence – there has never been (except in Spanish legalistic minds who want to continue a narrative that does not hold water at this point).

Many critics of the independence process have pointed out that the movement is led by a reactionary Catalan bourgeoisie, that they only want to grab their riches without having to share it with the rest of Spain. But even if there are (as always in those processes) opportunists, people in the independence camp certainly are much more varied than that. Many of them are quite progressive-minded, quite respectful of the importance of democratic institutions and of the importance of the European construction. I stand with them.

And yes, there is a Barcelona that has been open to immigrants, along centuries, and that nowadays is more wary of tourists (who in many cases destroy the economy) than of immigrants. I believe that will be a difficult subject for the new republic once it gets established. It will be a test of the strength of Catalonia’s democratic values.

I don’t buy the argument that “Europe will be weakened if Catalonia leaves Spain”. On the contrary: Europe’s role so far has been (ambiguously, admittedly) that of a guarantee of less violence from Spain (many people believe that Spain would have been much more violent towards Catalonia were it not for the restraining influence of the EU). But Catalonia inside Europe may be an extremely interesting player, and Europe should better take the opportunity of strengthening itself as a confederation of states of different sizes.

Barcelona, September 2016 – foto: AV

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