Catalan, not Shrubbery
I’m a Catalan.
I’m not an armadillo, or a shrubbery, or for that matter a hair dryer or a 30-feet long Stegosaurus. I was born in a town in the outskirts of Barcelona, and I am and I feel just Catalan. For the same reasons (as the writer Joan Sales said) why an apricot feels like an apricot and not a peach.
I grew up here, next to to the Mediterranean, in a large city that looks towards France and Italy, in the peninsula’s northeast corner, a place with its own language, traditions, a particular mood and a handful of rather irritating folkloric displays.
Yes, I’m Catalan because I’m from here, not from somewhere else. And that’s why it takes me a full decade to make new friends. I like order and punctuality. I do not give a damn if the beer is “well poured” or if they give you “free tapa”. And I believe that God created His green and pleasant land somewhere in the Costa Brava.
I am Catalan and, although fate played an unforgivable trick that prevented me from being British, I soon accepted the situation. Why be bitter about it? I do not feel anything resembling national pride but, of course, if I did it would be a different kind of pride from what a colonial-nation might feel, wanting to enslave natives or forbid languages or institute arcane cults at the drop of a crucifix.
The Catalans feel Catalan in a placid and somewhat parochial and shrug-like manner, comfortable in the role of losers in a couple of wars; an oppressed nation for centuries, but equally stubborn in an ‘oh-well-what’s-for-tea?’ way. They can trample us in many ways, no doubt, they can lift Liberty Valance’s whip again and again, but they will never get a Catalan -or at least a few million of them- to feel Spanish or, for that matter, Venusian or Congolese. You can not feel something you’re not. They cannot force you.
I am a novelist, and I write in Spanish. If you need reasons, I will tell you that Catalan is the language of my parents and my blood and the people I buried, and Castilian the language I adopted through my childhood and teenage novels, my eighties pop music and the shockingly rude jargon of my friends, most of them children of immigrants from Extremadura, Aragón or Murcia (most of these children of immigrants now consider themselves Catalans; not armadillos, shrubberies, etc. You get the image).
I am, like everyone in my country, bilingual by birth, and doubly privileged for it. I speak both languages and change from one to the other without realising it. This, now that we mention it, is the rule in Catalan streets; none of the vile statements that are usually seen in the Spanish media are true. We already know that, according to Spanish TV, Catalan President Puigdemont eats raw Palestinian babies –marinated in their own blood- for breakfast, the CUP have the neutron bomb and intend to use it, and the ANC has just opened a konzentrationslager for people with a Madrid accent.
Look: sorry to bring this up again, but the truth is that if there has been a language imposed violently in this peninsula then it’s Castilian. And that’s fine, I love writing and speaking it and besides we can’t carry on discussing eighteenth century grievances all day: ‘you shat in my well’, ‘that one dishonoured my great-great-grandmother’ and all that. But, alas, that’s how it is. The day that the last Bourbon king said that the Castilian “was never a language of imposition” the entire northeast corner of the Iberian peninsula exploded in laughter. Hey, come on, man. We are not that thick. And we don’t suffer from amnesia. We remember what you did last dictatorship.
I write these words on the independence “procés” for a couple of reasons. The first one is rather childish: everyone else seems to be doing it. People who only know Catalans from the racist jokes seen on Spanish telly circa 1981 (there always seemed to be a money-obsessed, cunning dislikable character with a funny accent back then); patients newly escaped from mental asylums; people recently awaken from a 40-year coma: everyone feels they have the right to write about “secessionism”. Even Donald Trump, for pete’s sake. Why not me then, who at least happens to live here, have been around and don’t have the brain the size of a sultana?
The second reason, as you can very well imagine, are the events of these last days, which have culminated in the anti-democratic repression of 1-O. You have already seen them in the newspapers, and besides I am not a political analyst, so I won’t examine them in depth. But let’s say that one would have to be addicted to medieval dungeon pain to want to be attached unconditionally to a State that acts in the way that the Spanish State has acted towards (against) the Catalan process. After the illegal searches, the coup de facto, the suppression of Autonomy, arrests without court order, intimidation, condescension, savage repression of the vote and, perhaps worse of all, a military police boat with the effigy of Tweety the Bird in our beautiful harbour, how could someone not understand that a few millions of Catalans believe that their long (and ominous) relationship with the Spanish State should come to an end? (and it would be a friendly end, like the best of divorces, with kisses on the platform and joint custody and all the rest).
Perhaps it is the right moment to ask what are the political views of the massive independent current. Nobody in Spain knows, because 1) Their media shows nothing but outrageous lies, 2) nobody has asked the Catalans directly, and, 3) as we have seen, they won’t even let them vote to find out themselves. But, let me tell you it’s not the monolithic thinking of a few weatherbeaten peasants parading with torches under the Arc de Triomf amidst cries of ‘Hang All Spaniards’, as the rightist media would have you believe.
Independence, as I have been able to attest, is an heterogeneous and interclassist (as well as mostly lefty and progressive) massive stream of hopeful (some will say naive) types who believe they can advance more successfully without the chains of a monarchy not only did they never vote for, but that put in place an infamous vulture-faced dictator in his last days, and a constitution more passé than snuff or steam trains, signed by a few scared centrists and wishy-washy socialists under the watchful glance of the new monarch and a few trigger-happy francoist generals.
It is a depressing legacy, to be honest; a most daunting state of affairs. Catalans’ life in this post-transitional Spain feels a bit too similar to Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, where two of the last survivors of an apocalypse wake up, day after day, to frost, fatigue and dread. Without a single damn ray of hope on the horizon other than a brief bout of cannibalism. Catalunya rises every morning in a funereal mood, remembering that the bloke with the funny crown will never leave his armchair (apparently his behind is pretty comfy up there), and that the sacrosanct 1978 Spanish constitution was engraved with the Mjolmir hammer in an indestructible piece of Adamantium.
To clarify further: Catalunya does not intend to split like California in Superman III, when Lex Luthor tears if off the continent. There would not be a ditch, a river, or an Elven labyrinth: it will still be here, a couple of hours away by car, just behind Los Monegros, and open-armed as always. The hysterical obsession with the Spanish “union” is reminiscent of the thug who gives you a beastly push in the playground and then says “Don’t run away, man.”
The Spanish State has the “unity of territory” mantra on a loop these days, as if it was something extraordinary and delicious, a freshly baked cake or a summer copulation, perhaps forgetting that under the same motto and, what a coincidence, under an identical red and yellow flag (at least they could have dyed it up a bit) Franco’s troops (and the Civil Guard) exterminated half of our grandparents. The Dothraki thinks that because he has combed his hair to one side and carries a bouquet of daisies in his hand, and smells a bit less of dung, we will forget the bloody axe behind his back. An axe that, and as it was verified during the referendum on Sunday, is liable to strike faster than you could say ‘Bye bye Spain’.
“Another mad argument that has been heard these last few days from the extreme Unionist side is that we are “being lied to”. By the “catalan nationalist bourgeois”, apparently. The Spanish State is trying to spread the image of a Wizard of CatalOZnia, a vile Dr. Strange-like mesmerist who keeps the population hypnotised with a couple of sim-a-la-bims and ta few Kabbalistic gestures. But the Catalans are not preschoolers; they no longer believe in an enigmatic Daddy Long Legs entity who brings gifts if they behave well.”
Is it so hard to believe that an adult population has come to the conclusion of divorce? The Catalans wanting to separate from Spain only because they have been “deceived” sounds like the argument of the abusive husband who is unable to understand (or accept) that his wife has left him for a young windsurfing teacher, so he goes around spreading the rumour that the former spouse was an anthropophagous halitosic lesbian.
But it’s not that complicated: many of us do not like governments whose head of state is a ruler hand-picked by a fictional deity (“you can’t expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you”, as the Pythons said), nor do we believe that a “legality” bound by a constitution as inefficient, biased, geriatric and half-assed (to use the parlance of our times) as that of 1978 should be blindly obeyed. A constitution which protects actions such as those undertaken by the Spanish government this week. Barbaric, totalitarian, blood-thirsty and boastful actions, driven by an irrational and dictatorial “because, erm, I say so” that, I am sorry to say, has not convinced anyone around these here parts.
Quite the opposite: they have pushed thousands and thousands, millions of people, quite agnostic or passive towards independence, to go out and vote. People like little old me, who felt not particularly militant nor inflamed for the Catalanist cause. Because, you know what? Seeing the Civil Guard kidnapping urns has clarified a couple of points in this old mind of mine. A fog has been lifted, as one says. Seeing an invading army crush an election reminds you quite quickly which side you should be on. Because, although I do not feel a great sympathy to the local bourgeoisie nor I am much one for catalan folkloric dances (I’m a child of punk rock) I have realised that, perhaps, anything (and I mean: anything, as long as it does not involve skulls on stakes) would be better than going arm in arm with a boastful, police-driven, antidemocratic, prehistoric and totalitarian State that prevents votes and arrests parliamentarians and attacks citizens and steals urns and enters schools, hammer in hand (sometimes even getting trapped in the gates for comical relief) and, in short, is governed by Cro-Magnon notions of brute force and mental bloody-mindedness that shouldn’t be those of a modern European country.
The Spanish State is not that far removed from its direct predecessor Franco; these last days prove it. The icing of the cake is their continuous, decidedly orwellian, use of the term “fascists” to define independentists, an action as obscene and topsy-turvy and insane as the recent statement by their president Mariano Rajoy that the 800 injured by the spanish Guardia Civil somehow faked their injuries. And the not-that-surprising statement that there were, magically and all of a sudden, after a whole day of peaceful resistance, next to 400 policemen injured. Four hundred? I wonder what the exact nature of said injuries is. Carpal tunnel syndrome from excessive baton smashing in the face of harmless nonagenarians?
And after all this I’ve written I still don’t agree with many, many independentist ideas. I still do not think that the Omnium, the ANC or President Puigdemont speak for me, particularly. I still don’t have, as I said before, any inflamed feelings about my Catalanity. Puigdemont would be “pissing outside the pot” (as Catalans define someone who is out of order) if he assumed that the massive demonstrations against Spanish police repression imply that we are all of a sudden for independence. We are not, at least not in the present scenario. One thing is opposing the rightist Spanish State and its outdated constitution of ‘78 and the other is wanting to go along blindly with an unilateral declaration of Independence. That thing won’t do, and would alienate thousands of people. The referendum must be voted by all, in normal conditions. Everyone should be free to feel as Catalan, Spanish or sea urchin as they wish, and that also implies that hardline independentists must stop thinking that voters for the union are direct descendants of Heinrich Himmler or founder members of the KKK. We do have to listen to all the voices, even the ones that oppose the procés. If all channels of dialogue with the Spanish State have been shut, lock, stock and barrel (by them), we must work so they reopen. We are Catalans: sensible, tolerant, madly organized, slightly domestic and hugely open-minded. Let’s prove it by doing this the right way and not falling for their cheap taunting and bullying. As the british band McCarthy sang a couple of decades ago: Keep an open mind or else.
We really need your support to develop and we’d like to ask you to support us by donating to us here.
Bella Caledonia remains free (and ad-free) and takes us hundreds of hours a month to research, write, commission and edit.
If you value what we do, please consider supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing.
GoCardless to set up a small monthly donation to support independent journalism in Scotland.