When you are born in a country you inherit a history, you inherit an economic patrimony, and you inherit the language of that country and you inherit even the summer song of that country. Nobody, at the moment, is allowed to choose a country before being born, everything will go away. I don’t have much faith in the political identity of languages. I can communicate more with my peers than the display of any identity sign by pronouncing some sounds or others. From Ferdinand de Saussure we know that languages are conventions, arbitrariness, and that it is the same to say “table” than “table”. Languages are songs, because human beings are also singing birds. In a postmodern sense Saussure may today be more solvent than Freud, Nietzche, and Marx. For this reason, for Saussure, I am rather disaffected although respectful of the linguistic identity of peoples, but I am passionate and enthusiastic about communication between human beings. As a writer I admire the English language, not for the identity it reflects or for its cultural achievements, but for its power of planetary communication. Spain and Spanish literature are the official guests of the 2022 Frankfurt Book Fair, and this is one of the most important occasions that Spanish literature will have to become visible in the heart of Germany. And I am aware that the different Spanish authorities and institutions in charge of organizing the event are doing so with exceptional professionalism and high-mindedness. They know that the challenge and the challenge is great. I had the honor of collecting from the hands of the writer Dany Laferrière the witness that Canada, the guest of the 21st, passed to Spain, in a ceremony full of illusion. While the act was taking place, I remembered with a certain melancholy and with a lot of humor a Kafkaesque conversation that I had a few years ago in New York with the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec, where he asked me this: and writing in the wrong language? It was a joke, of course just a joke.
With joy and imagination, a Spanish writer, in his international career, must avoid any mistrust towards the culture, politics and economy of his country, of its historical origin. Because a literature is also the daughter of an economy, or a written representation of an economic model and a society. Before armies were important, now companies, technology and knowledge are important. There is today in Spanish life a sophistication and a way of being that astonishes the world, and that is new and prodigious, and we must cling to that. It is true that we have joined the flow of international culture late because of 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship.
One can be on the right or on the left without having to be in love with political and cultural underdevelopment. I think that after seeing the excellent German documentary on Francisco Franco, where beyond the ideological deflagration, what one sees is that historical impossibility of getting rid of underdevelopment forever in all its forms, the religious being one of the most sinister there is. suffered our country. This documentary about Franco should be mandatory in Spanish schools, because it shows something that goes beyond the ideological arc, it shows that any legacy of Francoism is unacceptable, and hence also the slab that still weighs on Spanish politics and culture. When the United States gave the go-ahead to Franco in the 1950s, they condemned Spanish culture to a few decades of international invisibility.
I visit many European bookstores, which hang framed photos of universal contemporary writers. I notice that there is never a sad photo of a Spanish novelist. And yet, never in Spain had there been, as today, so many writers, so many publishers, so many bookstores and libraries, so much wealth and so much talent. That process must be reversed. The enormous quality of Spanish literature must be made visible on the international scene.
It is true that sometimes one cannot remedy a certain linguistic hypochondria. I recently stayed in a hotel, belonging to a Spanish chain, in an important and rich European city. It occurred to me to speak to the receptionist in Spanish, to see what would happen, either out of romanticism or as a sociological experiment. His surprise was capital. He made me notice in English and with a look of linguistic superiority my act of ignorance of international education. More or less he came to tell me that how a person who dares to speak in that language can stay in such a hotel, and that is exactly where he wanted to go, to this hypocrisy, because hypocrisy is a fierce discovery of politics, which consists of accept the cultural productions of a language but doubt that language in its international use, because those who speak it are politically and culturally irrelevant. I get on a plane in Madrid, of an international airline, and the captain speaks to us in French and English, but the plane is in Madrid, and those of us who travel on it are almost all Spanish.
We cannot allow the still insufficient political and economic relevance of Spain in the international context to affect the visibility of Spanish literature. Something will have to be invented to get out of this vicious circle. Powerful countries create powerful literatures. And that is the uncomfortable and almost rude question: how to create an important literature that comes from an unimportant country. Literatures are mirrors of the economic, industrial and political powers of the countries that produce them. It is not a universal law, obviously, but it tends to be that way very often. You just have to see, to verify it, how English-language literature is sweeping all continents. An English-language writer walks around the world as if the world were monolingual, and that is so because behind the English language it is not exactly Shakespeare or Faulkner who encourages, but a political and economic and industrial and technological empire that continues to amaze the world. Sometimes at international festivals I am dumbfounded, with a small-town look, watching the English-language writers. Everybody wants to speak to them in English, so that they see that they are on the side of historical truth, on the side of correct language. The degree of trust in life expressed in the eyes of an English-language writer is more of a political than a literary marvel.
Perhaps in order to increase the relevance of Spanish culture and language abroad, the production model, and therefore the country model, must be modernized.This was suggested by Minister Garzón a few months ago and they were incomprehensibly attacked when it was an unappealable truth. Pay more attention to what is being said and not to who is saying it. If the Spanish economy does not modernize, does not burn, if we do not become a country of science and technology and research, it will be useless for writers to achieve literary excellence, because it often exists as a form of representation of a people and of a society that seeks progress and the economic avant-garde and political modernity. That melancholy of thinking that maybe you had the bad luck of speaking and writing in the wrong language should disappear forever and transform that residual melancholy into the good star of writing and living in a language of culture.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.