Daniel Gascón

Categoría: The English file

ENGLAND, MY EUROPE

Halls of residence

The first time I felt truly European was in the UK, when I was an Erasmus student at the University of East Anglia. The UEA is in Norwich, in Norfolk, an area which was quite rural, sometimes almost exotic and generally not too eventful. Over the years, when I’ve returned, I’ve had the strange feeling of returning to a place that was important to my idea of Europe.

It was not because I felt a difference with continental Europe. Since I had not lived  outside Spain before, I couldn’t really compare. European institutions, and political and economic negotiations were part of the conversation I was used to reading about in the papers. But this time it was more specific: I could study there thanks to a European project. Although I lived with several British people and some of the friends whom I’d see more were from Canada and the United States, I was part of an international community that came from many parts of Europe, and communicated in English as a second language which was also the language of the EU and of many international institutions. For most of us it was the first time that we were with so many people from other places. Another advantage of being at a British university is that there were many students from outside the EU.

Some of the concerns were similar to the present ones, some were not. Shortly before the start of the academic year, the attacks of 9/11 took place. We started using the euro in Spain in everyday life. Students of Development Studies organized rallies against globalization which often ended with songs by Manu Chao.

I wanted my university to be more similar to British Universities, I wanted that my country’s newspapers were a bit more like the British press. And I wanted more Indian restaurants.

At that time I did not realize, perhaps because it was something natural, or perhaps because I was mostly interested in Anglo-American culture, but the university had a very clear European element.

The most famous person on campus was the writer W. G. Sebald, who published his novel Austerlitz that autumn. Although Sebald had been born in Germany in 1944, he had long been living in the UK. He taught literature from Central Europe, he had a couple of courses about Kafka. One of the subjects of his work was memory. His books often deal with the recent history of Europe and its traumas: from the exploitation of Congo by Belgium or the Allied bombing of Germany in World War II. From the plains of East Anglia, which appear in some of his works, the RAF had flown to the continent.

Sebald’s office had a copy of an engraving by Goya in the door. It was near the British Centre for Literary Translation, which he had helped to create. At that time, the director was no longer Sebald, but Peter Bush, who translated authors such as Juan Goytisolo. Another translator who frequented the university was Don Bartlett, who had rewritten in English many Scandinavian books (and lately Knausgård), and was married to Cristina Punter, a descendant of Spanish exiles.

These issues were were also British issues. Many of the scholars who best explained Central Europe to the rest of the West were British historians. T. S. Eliot, who’d decided to be British, noted that England was also a Latin country. Few authors embody more clearly the idea of Englishness than Orwell, an author who knew French culture, who wrote about Paris and went to fight fascism in Spain, who wrote works that inspired the dissidents of communism, who wanted to call 1984 “the last man in Europe”, and who argued, from the positions of the democratic left, for the union of European countries.

Obviously, that was the cosmopolitan, university, liberal UK, the one that benefits from globalization –and also where people who are overwhelmingly in favor of staying in the European Union live.

We were also in contact, albeit much less, with other parts of the UK: Portuguese men working in a McDonald’s plant, trade unionists. Shortly after arriving, I saw some posters offering to work in police identification lineups. I enrolled with some friends. It was well paid: 15 pounds an hour. Once there, we had to go in front of the glass and the defence attorney would choose those who resembled most his client. As Spaniards, we were classified with Italians, Greeks, and Portuguese. As I have light coloured  eyes, I was often rejected. My more Mediterranean looking friends fared better.

A policewoman, Frank, would call when there was a lineup . She was very friendly. “My dream is to live in Spain when I retire”, she told me one day. I hope that Frank was able to fulfil her dream. And that she votes for the remain side.

GAY, FREE AND EQUAL

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It happened so fast that if you were not paying attention you could have missed it. But we’ve lived through a revolution –a bloodless, victimless one. Not so long ago it seemed a crazy idea or a very distant dream. Today it is a reality in much of the world and it seems irreversible. It happened fast, but it is the result of an effort carried out by many people over a long period time, and it helped correct an old injustice.

This summer the law recognizing gay marriage in Spain turns ten (Pedro Zerolo, an activist and politician who was one of the staunchest supporters of the norm, died shortly before the anniversary). A few days ago, the Supreme Court of Mexico endorsed same-sex marriage. And this spring that Ireland became the first country to approve gay marriage with a referendum.

The change shows two virtues in areas where it has often been easy to find faults. Firstly, Spain, which for historical reasons one might not automatically associate with tolerance and moral permissiveness (and the same goes for Mexico or Ireland, which has restrictive and often tragic laws on abortion), has been a pioneer country in recognizing the rights of homosexuals. A few decades ago Spain had a uniform society, dominated by the Catholic Church. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, it is the most gay-friendly country in the world. Secondly, former prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who promoted a demagogic, naïve and often self-defeating enthusiasm in office, and who wouldn’t or couldn’t stop the housing bubble on time, but who bravely pushed forward important measures, such as the abortion law, the attempt to create independent public broadcasting or the legalization of gay marriage. When someone argues that legalization (and the possibility that couples formed by members of the same sex can adopt children) is an empty or meaningless gesture, their protest, and what it conceals, shows that it is not.

In Spain and elsewhere the law met opposition from conservative sectors, which included some representatives of the Popular Party, and the outraged refusal of the Catholic Church. The PP voted against the measure and appealed to the Constitutional Court (this appeal was rejected in 2012). However, when they won the general election in 2011, the Popular Party didn’t want to change the law, as they tried to do with the abortion law. Before the Constitutional Court ruling and despite the party line, some of its members had officiated at gay weddings; some had got married to a partner of the same sex. The fact that the party has changed its stance is also good news.

For a long time, left or left of center governments did not support gay marriage. Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states not to recognize gay marriages performed in other parts of the country, and Barack Obama hesitated to support same-sex marriage till 2012. His administration decided to stop defending Doma in court, and in 2013 the Supreme Court held that its third section was unconstitutional. Clinton has also changed his view. In recent years, right-wing parties have defended gay marriage. British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was in favor of gay marriage “because I am conservative.” Same-sex marriage is now legal in the United Kingdom (except in Northern Ireland).

Time has weakened some objections. The etymological argument, which reivindicated the original meaning of the word “marriage”, overlooked the fact that the meaning of words changes in order to represent reality, and was somewhat weak, because resorting to an etymological argument -a form of linguistic legitimism- tends to reveal that you’ve already lost. Gay marriage did not cause the dissolution of the family, but its reinforcement: what we see is that there are more types of families. One of the keys to the success of the supporters of gay marriage is that their claim has been raised not as a minority issue but as an equality issue. Homosexuals simply ask to have the same rights as their fellow citizens. Those who oppose gay marriage have to argue that some citizens must have fewer rights than others because their sexual orientation is different.

The legalization of same-sex marriage is a symptom of a bigger tolerance towards homosexuality in much of the world. People who previously had to hide their sexual and emotional life can now experience it freely. Expressions and sensibilities that were once confined to a ghetto have become part of a common heritage. But in many countries homosexuality is punishable by law or socially penalized. In some of them homophobia is not a disease in remission but a state policy. Sectors of the US evangelical right, aware that they have lost the battle at home, fund anti-gay campaigns in Africa. The persecution not only occurs in dictatorships; but also in pseudo-democracies. In recent years countries like Russia (where 74% of the population disapprove of homosexuality) have passed homophobic laws. In Mauritania, Sudan and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, homosexual acts between men are punishable by death, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Brunei, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Practicing homosexual acts can lead to life imprisonment in Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Pakistan, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Uganda. In some parts of the world homosexuals suffer beatings, mutilation and rapes.

With intelligence and firmness, and without excessive arrogance, Western democracies should support gay rights groups in countries where they are persecuted. Gay visibility -in some areas: not in all domains of society yet- has helped to increase tolerance in the West, and may do so on a global scale. The story of moral progress is the story of how empathy grew: how it spread to those who at the beginning seemed to be very different from us. As in other instances of the fight against prejudice, familiarization -through the media, art and everyday experience- is a critical factor.

Although sometimes self-appointed defenders of liberty have been slow to notice it, sexual freedom is an essential one, and the victory of gay marriage is a triumph of liberal principles. The journalist Jonathan Rauch, author of a breakthrough editorial in The Economist in 1996, defended gay marriage by appealing to the ideals upheld by those who signed the Declaration of American Independence: “All men are created equal. Though they could not have imagined same-sex marriage, its advent is a tribute to the revolutionary incrementalism of their liberal idea.”

Supreme Court Declares Same Sex Marriage Legal in All Fifty States.

[En español. Imagen.]

JAVIER TOMEO, GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ AND THE NOBEL PRIZE

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On 21 Octuber 2012 Javier Tomeo and I were invited to speak on the Radio Zaragoza/Cadena Ser programme A vivir Aragón, directed and hosted by Miguel Mena. We were to talk about Tomeo’s Cuentos completos, which had just been published by Páginas de Espuma. Tomeo had difficulties walking and we had to take a service lift behind the radio. Miguel Mena asked Tomeo about his stories, the themes in his work and the way he saw  the world. He reminded Tomeo that the city of Zaragoza had nominated him as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999. Tomeo replied that the Nobel Prize had become an act of political affirmation. Every place wanted to have a Nobel Prize or an Everest-conquering climber. So, he said, “I don’t think it’s that important.”

“If I received the Nobel Prize,” he said, “it would present me with the problem of how should I go and receive the Prize, maybe with a kerchief  wrapped around my head, like a good Aragonese man, because, I don’t know, there was a guy who went dressed as a Colombian… Who? García Márquez…”

“Yes, García Márquez  sported a guayabera, typical from his…,” replied Miguel.

“Well, then, I would probably go with a tightly-wrapped head.”

[You can listen to the podcast here. The interview with Tomeo starts at 1:20:30. The Nobel conversation starts at 1:26.]

[Tomeo according to Luis Grañena.]

DON QUIXOTE, UKRAINE AND RUSSIA

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In 2007 I took a graduate class on film and literature at the University of Zaragoza. One of my classmates was Ukranian. We became friends. He was writing a dissertation in Spanish, and he asked me to help him correct it. When the academic year ended, he went back to Kiev, finished his Ph.D. and worked as an interpreter for a time. But, as he told me in an email a few weeks ago, “I got tired of poverty”, and he now lives in Canada with his wife and his son.

One afternoon in the Spring of 2007, our teacher was talking about literary adaptations, and about the differences between the language of film and the language of books. She showed us a part of the Don Quixote adaptation that Grigori Kozintsev directed in 1957. She told us a few things about the typical idealism of “this Russian film”. I noticed my classmate seemed a bit uncomfortable.

“Actually,” he said, “it would be more accurate to say it was a Soviet movie.”

The teacher kept talking. She went on referring to the movie as a “Russian film”. My classmate spoke again.

“As I said, it would be better to say it was a Soviet film. In the production files it says Soviet Union. The movie was filmed in Russian. The director was from the Ukraine, he was born in Kiev, and the film was shot in Kiev.

“Well, it makes no difference,” replied the teacher.

(In Spanish.]

[Image.]

GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ: MYTH AND THE FABULIST

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[Aquí, una versión en castellano.]

Gabriel García Márquez, who died on April 17 at the age of 87, was one of the most important writers of the last decades disappears, and an author who represented many other things. The Colombian novelist, born in Aracataca in 1927 and winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize, wasn’t just a creator of legends and mythical landscapes –he was himself a myth, an author who embodied an idea of writing and who became the best known name in a movement that changed the history of Spanish-language literature.

He was above all a great storyteller, with a special gift to create atmospheres, to combine comic, magic, erotic and tragic elements, and a talent to forge rotund, unforgettable sentences. He declared that journalism was the best job in the world: his chronicle The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is admirable, and his journalistic experience would be essential to Chronicle of a Death Foretold or News of a Kidnapping. He explained he was stunned by Kafka and the feeling of immediacy at the beginning of The Metamorphosis. He defended Simenon and was captivated by Oedipus Rex –the enquiry, fate, detective fiction before its time.As for so many others, Faulkner was a decisive author, and this influence is especially visible in his first novel, Leave Storm. He could produce dry and precise works, such as No One Writes to the Colonel. But the book that turned him into a myth was, apparently, the opposite: One Hundred Years of Solitude, where he told the story of the Buendía family, and of a mythical place, Macondo. This powerful and baroque work had an almost primitive quality, an inheritance of oral literature and the pleasure of telling stories. It is a family saga and a historical allegory, but also a book endowed with unlikely ambition which describes the creation and destruction of a world by merging modern techniques with Biblical undertones. (He said “the Bible is a fabulous [cojonudo] book, full of fantastic stories”, and he probably was one of the few writers one can imagine writing a blurb for God.)

One Hundred Years of Solitude’s unbelievable success makes it difficult to judge. Frequent imitation and its conversion into cliché might have undermined some of its wonderful moments and abundant virtues. Possibly there are better books written by authors belonging to the South American boom. Some of his contemporaries may have had more solid careers. One Hundred Years of Solitude had something different, exotic and appropriate for its time, and its narrative thrust made it more accessible than other works. In any case, it was a decisive book, and its influence exceeds the Spanish language. Ironically, the allegedly unique reality and causality of Latin America were understood and adapted in many other places of the world. It is hard to imagine a good part of English-language postcolonial literature without the inspiration and the feeling of freedom provided by One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Maybe García Márquez himself couldn’t escape his own myth. But he wrote admirable books after One Hundred Years of Solitude, such as Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Love in the Time of Cholera and some of the stories in Strange Pilgrims. More of a fabulist than a thinker, and sometimes more charming than profound, his interest in power was aesthetically fruitful but not always wholesome. It might have been, along with his friendship with Fidel Castro and a certain political and intellectual stagnation, one of the reasons that lead him to maintain his support for the Cuban regime beyond any reasonable justification.

With the passing of García Márquez, we lost the creator of an admirable and rich body of work, still alive for millions of readers –a formidable storyteller simultaneously ancient and modern, who has left a strong imprint in writers belonging to many languages and generations.

[Una versión de este texto se ha publicado esta noche en Heraldo.es.]

[Imagen, de Pericolli.]