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

A biking revolution? I wish it were true. In any case, I was surprised by the coincidence of two articles discussing this issue, both of today: Revolución ciclista in El País, and En bicicleta, a diario in Semana.

Beyond the splendor of the situation in cities such as Copenhagen, where bicycling finally seems to have become the main and in many ways the best way of moving around, or even beyond the coincidence of being highly ranked in terms of living standard and using bicycles profusely (Helsinki is number one, followed by Munich, Copenhagen, Zürich, in one of those rankings I take with a grain of salt), what attracted my attention is the situation in much more problematic cities:

“Sin embargo, no es allí donde está la revolución, sino en Barcelona, Nueva York, Bogotá, París, Londres, Lyon, San Francisco, Sevilla, Lima, Berlín, Tokio y cientos de ciudades más que se unen a la ola ciclista pese a no tener una gran tradición” (“however, that’s not where the revolution is happening, but in Barcelona, New York, Bogotá, Paris, London, Lyon, San Francisco, Seville, Lima, Berlin, Tokyo and hundreds of other cities that are joining the cycing wave in spite of not having a long tradition) says Borja Echevarría of El País.

I half concur.

Being myself (very timidly, compared to the brave people, like the guards of our building, who work in Chapinero Alto and go every freezing morning, every evening, from Engativá, from Bosa, to our part of town – 15 km each direction, through the big city) a small part of what’s described in the article, I am completely biased for bicycling.

This last semester, my preferred, my most exhilarating, my most beautiful, way of going to teach at the University, was by bicycle. It usually took me some 20 minutes, from the door of my place to the door of the classroom. By car, with luck, it takes 15 minutes. Without luck, 30 minutes or more. By bus, not less than 30 minutes. By taxi, with the portion of walking from the entrance to the campus, perhaps 25 minutes. So, the bicycle practically beats all other options. And 80 or 90% or the route is actually quite beautiful and quiet – just a couple of very dense avenues with traffic jams, but I manage to avoid them almost completely.

I felt a better connection to my students when I arrived (like so many of them) with my helmet to the classroom, with my heart pumping a little faster from exertion. I believe (I may be completely wrong here) that my classes were better those days.

I wish Bogotá (now that we’ll have a new mayor and will have the right to hope to breathe again as a city, after years of urban disaster) will understand what’s at play here.

Un recorregut en imatges per l’exposició del CCCB “La Trieste de Magris”.

De nuevo el CCCB me sorprende. En septiembre de 2010 terminé yendo a ver la exposición Laberints/Laberintos con Rami – y la manera de armar el recorrido nos sorprendió mucho a ambos. Yo iba medio escéptico, Rami seguramente aún más, y terminamos muy contentos de haber visto la exposición.

Esta vez María Clara me habló tanto de esa exposición (que vio al principio de la semana), de la multiplicidad de idiomas, de culturas, de religiones, de mundos que tenía Trieste, y de la presencia de Magris, Svevo, Joyce, la ciudad y su multietnicidad temprana, como un laboratorio de lo mejor posible en este mundo, que no pude no ir. No tenía tanto tiempo, pero terminé recortando una que otra esquina del tiempo – llegar un poco tarde a cita con Zenaida y María Clara a almorzar en L’antic forn, etc. para ver eso.

Y me impresionó muchísimo ver los recuentos de Magris, de Svevo, de Joyce [sus cartas eróticas a Nora son deliciosas de leer], de los psiquiatras que decidieron no aplicar corrientazos sino trabajar directamente con el paciente, el experimento de poder estar juntos con gente hablando en polaco, serbo-cróata, checo, húngaro, rutenio, friuliano, alemán, y hasta italiano en el mismo lugar. El horrible discurso que dio Mussolini en la Piazza dell’Unità declarando la importancia de la “superioridad o inferioridad” de distintas razas, cuando la ciudad consistía justamente en esa posibilidad de lo que hoy llamaríamos multietnicidad, y la aparente respuesta robusta (?) que dio Trieste a esa locura del siglo XX.

La presencia del viento, la bora, del mar.

Anoche fuimos a pasear por Gracia (la Vila de Gràcia en catalán – algo a mitad de camino entre barrio y pueblo todavía) con Zenaida Osorio. Ella vive ahora en esa zona, y conoce algunos de sus detalles y secretos.

Además del ambiente de “barrio” verdadero, comercial pero (aún) sencillo en muchas partes, me encantó Gracia por la sensación (algo fantasmal en el ambiente hipster actual) de la antigua Cataluña anarquista. Intuyo, no conozco bien, los pormenores, de ese anarquismo catalán de 1860, 1870, etc. Supongo que congregó muchas cosas distintas – luchas por horarios de trabajo dignos, organización sindical, anticlericalismo, laicismo, modernidad, intelectualidad catalana y movimiento obrero. El cabezote arriba, la Campana de Gràcia, era de un semanario “satírico, republicano y anticlerical” que existió entre 1870 y 1934. El nombre se refiere al campanario laico de la plaza de Oriente (o de la Villa de Gracia) y prefigura (en mi mente) lo más interesante de ese otro renacimiento que tuvo España, que tuvo Cataluña, durante los primeros años del postfranquismo (El Viejo Topo, etc.).

Ir a Gracia le permite a uno soñar un poco con esos momentos de Barcelona. [El Centro Histórico (que sobra decirlo, es bellísimo) tiene los contrastes muy brutales del siglo XXI: la ciudad de moda para turistas sobre todo anglosajones, ciudad/muestrario comercial – mezclada con espacios urbanos torturados y la Barcelona de Biutiful.] Gracia es otro momento: aunque es hoy en día zona “burgués/bohemia”, conserva trazas bellísimas de ese otro momento de anarquismo – ciertos locales, ciertas plazas, cierto ambiente, cierto aire, y el reloj. Zenaida, que ha vivido ya en otras épocas en Gracia, dice que “todo eso se perderá también, como pasó con el Centro Histórico”. Yo no sé – siento que todo va mucho más despacio allá “arriba” en la Vila, que aquí en el Centre Històric.