The Spanish novelist Eduardo Mendoza has won many literary prices, including the Franz Kafka Prize, in 2015, and the Premio Cervantes, in 2016. Recently, he published a short essay entitled Que está pasando en Catalunya (What is happening in Catalonia).
Like many others, he wants to understand what is happening in the Spanish region of Catalonia, especially, as he notes, because of the “ignorance” and “prejudices” that affect many people’s images of Catalonia and Spain.
It is a mistake to reduce the Catalan nationalist and separatist movement solely to origins in the Spanish Civil War, Mendoza says. Franco’s dictatorial regime is gone. Since the late 1970s, Spain has undergone a difficult, but also impressive, democratic transition. Many of those today who refer to “Franco’s ghost” never lived under his regime; if they had, they would probably be more cautious when using terms such as “Francoism,” “fascism,” and “dictatorships” so carelessly. At the very least, they would be cautious out of respect for all those who suffered and died during that time.
It is true, however, that Catalonia, like the rest of Spain, suffered during the Franco years. Furthermore, the Catalans suffered with respect to their language, and many Catalans wanted to separate themselves from Franco (as did many other Spaniards). “No one doubts the antipathy of the Franco regime towards the Catalan language,” Mendoza writes. And yet, not all Catalans were against Franco. He continues, “we should forget that a good part of the young (and not so young) Catalans volunteered for the Falangist movement.”
The idea of Catalonia revolting against Spain is wrong, because this assumption is based on the naïve generalization of claiming that all Spanish or Catalan people are identical. Spain, as a country, suffered under Franco, just as some Catalans followed Franco freely.
Luckily – and I say this ironically – for the contemporary Catalan separatist, “the habit of adapting history to fit contemporary conviction is a distinctive Catalan identity,” Mendoza says.
Anyone with a little knowledge of what has happened in Catalonia will know that facts are treated with creative elegance that places the separatist within the post-truth, alternative facts, or fake news era. Illustratively, Mendoza draws a comparison between France and Catalonia. While France had a glorious past, one to which we can look for compassion, the Catalans never had one. Thus, “to hide what they considered shameful, the imagination and artistic talent of Catalans has been dedicated to inventing a past that the society would have loved to have.”
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the complexity of the separatist lie is by referring to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith,” a way of using freedom to deny ourselves the freedom we actually have. This is a strategic way in which some Catalans take away their own responsibility to choose by saying that they have no choice. As a consequence, the independence movement has created a culture of victimization where it is easier to blame Spain than to take responsibility for themselves. For example, blaming the centralization of power in Madrid. Interestingly, Mendoza writes, “if there is place where you can speak about savagely centralism it’s in Catalonia. Barcelona has always scorned the second ranked cities …”
Mendoza describes the Catalans as shy and a group whose thinking is not used to getting very far. “They are practical thinkers, but theory and abstraction bores them.” Perhaps, for this reason, some seem to speak of democracy and freedom that, at most, resembles Orwell’s Newspeak. As Mendoza has written elsewhere, if you can freely demonstrate in the street and participate in the Spanish government, then there is, indeed, democracy. However, if you do not wish to accept that democracy is a long and tiring process, then you simply need to organize an illegal election insisting that it is legal.
To begin with, “the participation of Catalans in the Spanish government was encouraged … during the years after the transition.” Unfortunately, with Jordi Pujol, who served as President of the Catalan Generalitat (i.e. the Catalan government) from 1980 to 2003, a systematic plan towards independence was in place: it was found in schools, the media (Mendoza mentions how the Catalan media outlets TV3 and Catalunya Radio moved from being neutral to “separatist organs”), the local government, and via less involvement in the Spanish government. All activities were aimed at creating a Spanish enemy by altering facts. Then came the financial crisis in 2008, which – as is many other places such as in Madrid, Athens, Lisbon – hit the younger generations, and created a healthy and global anticapitalistic movement that, unfortunately, quickly turned into a nationalistic protectionism.
Using his trademark easy-going style, Mendoza writes that, regardless of the mythical stories that Spain and Madrid is stealing, ”you live better in Barcelona than in Madrid.” The morale is: Life is hard, for all, not just the Catalans.
Towards the end of Mendoza’s pedagogical essay, he concludes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” before adding, “Spain is not a bad country. It could be better.” This is true, but so can Denmark, where I am from, and all other countries. Democracy is, after all, a dynamic process.
Mendoza succeeds in killing a few myths, but whether these efforts are enough to make people less ignorant, only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is good to see that more and more Spanish and Catalan intellectuals are participating in uncovering the political theater, where politicians (most notably Puigdemont & co) play with the Catalan people’s emotions by selling certain beliefs, irrespectively whether these beliefs are true or false.
So, when Mendoza writes that there is “no practice which can justify the desire for independence from Spain,” then he emphasizes that the emotions and beliefs behind the separatist are unreasonable and unjustified, despite how some Catalans feel. Therefore, it is healthy, as Mendoza says, to question our ideas, to explain things to each other, and to eliminate prejudice, ignorance, and incomprehension.
Mendoza shows that sometimes thinking is painful. For example, Puigdemont & co use “freedom” and “democracy” as tranquilizing slogans, yet if we pay attention, it’s obvious that their use refer to a superficial understanding (if not simply a nationalistic misunderstanding). At most these slogans are sleeping pills that hinders an open and honest examination of a challenging conflict, an examination that requires empathy and compassion. Elsewhere, I ‘ve argued that compassion is needed in Catalonia, not as something artificial, but as something that arises naturally in complex and tense situations.
A difficult road lies ahead – for all parties.