24 years ago, on April 23 to be exact, I was flipping through a weekday edition of the International Herald Tribune during my first true spring in Spain. Back then, the daily was practically the only way to keep abreast of what was happening outside the Iberian Peninsula, and I was startled to come upon a full-page advertisement with a headline that read something like “Today, even Joyce would have felt Catalan”. I’ve tried to track down the exact wording, the internet is great at retrieving past archives, but I think even this one has slipped through the web’s sticky trap. Trust me, though, it went something to that effect.
What I do recall vividly was that a not-so-short string of writers of universal prestige was included as candidates for Catalan-pride Day, none of whom were living at the time making it conveniently difficult for them to refute the claim. was the fact a region in Spain was promoting itself as a separate entity.
First of all, allow me to set the stage for you:
April 23 is World Book Day, which is why I can recall the date, not because I have a prodigious memory. This celebration did not become official since the UN declared it so in 1995, but in Spain it goes back decades, where it has taken greater popularity than in other countries, especially in Catalonia.
The reason this date was chosen has to do with oft-claimed, though poorly verified, rumor that Cervantes and Shakespeare both died on the same day of the same year. This is a close call but no cigar. The author of Don Quixote actually passed away on April 22, and was buried on the 23rd, while the Bard departed from this world on April 23, but according to the Julian Calendar, which was still in effect in England at the time, meaning he really held on for another days before kicking the bucket. The point it is, it wasn’t the literary world took a shot that year. Wordsworth, by the way, would also join this club in 1850.
Not all Catalans were aware of this, but they did already have their own tradition linked to this date: St. George’s Day, or San Jordi (as it is known here), the patron saint of Catalonia. Celebrations go back centuries, as did one particular custom, that of giving a rose as a present to a loved one. This apparently started back in the 15th Century. Then in 1923, a union of that tradition with literature was established thanks to a bookseller who decided that a book could be there perfect gift for a man, to complement the flower for his beau. A tad of machismo there, if you get my drift, but a nice touch all the same, and a pleasant removal from a toolkit. It also represented a poetic angle so typical of the artistically-inclined and refined Barcelona. The practice has been growing in popularity ever since and even extended into other parts of Spain.
This bit of background helps us to understand why on earth such a an advertisement would ever even exist. What it doesn’t explain, is why it would find its way into the most important international newspaper of the day and take up so much space. That’s where politics slip in. You see, this was no mere chance to take pride in local custom, no call to end world illiteracy, no gratuitous display of cultural selflessness. It was an orchestrated action to put Catalonia on the map…not the map of Spain. No one I knew had even heard of Catalonia and, before I set foot in the country, I hadn’t either. Its anonymity was common knowledge.
As I look back at it now, I am ever more convinced that it was not the product of a hair-brained attempt to make the world think that the land which was home to the great city of Barcelona was its own country in 1991, but a patient and deliberate campaign to make Catalonia known as an independent nation at some point in the future. Any point. When, was the the question. And the timing could not have been more deliberate. Barcelona was just a year away from becoming the center of global attention for two weeks during the 1992 Summer Olympics. Now was the time to get the ball rolling.
Was I the only one who realized this? Would anyone in Manchester pick up on the detail? What about the Americsn expat in Singapore? Would they detect what the message was all about? In Madrid it would have plowed through like a bulldozer, but how many Spaniards read the Herald Tribune? How many knew enough English? Who would have cared? It was just those pesky Catalans pretending to be their own country. Dream on. I still hear Spaniards swear that the Catalans are just playing hardball so that they can get more autonomy as a region. Better autonomy? A region? Just a week ago they pronounced what amounted to be a declaration of independence. Just how deep can you stick your head? That’s when the Cher within me, and I’ll have you know I don’t feel like Cher very often, comes out and recalls the moment when she lays one of the best slaps in movie history on Nicholas Cage in Moonstruck as she coolly advises with her best New York accent, “Snap out of it!”
That’s what so many people have needed to hear over the years. So after more than 20 years of putting off talking about the subject because, as a rule, I avoid writing about political issues because, as a rule, they hardly change over the years and because, as a rule, people’s political opinions are a generation behind the times and because, as a rule, it’s risky business for a foreigner to get involved.
But that quarter century has gone by and I feel equipped enough to take on the challenge, and because I feel it’s time now. I am drawn not to the debate of whether or not Catalonia should be independent, it doesn’t really matter at this point, but by all that surrounds the confrontation. Just like the story of human of the Titanic, every possible element of human nature emerges in those final fateful minutes; and just like Bob Dylan observed with acerbic accuracy in Desolation Row, “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune, the Titanic sails at dawn / Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”