Colm Tóibín: “It’s very difficult to dilute a national identity under pressure”

  • Interview with the Irish novelist, author of "Homage to Barcelona" and also "The Testament of Mary" which premieres this week at the Teatre Grec

Liz Castro
11.07.2014 - 11:43

La premsa lliure no la paga el govern, la paguen els lectors

Fes-te de VilaWeb, fem-nos lliures

Colm Tóibín is an Irish novelist, playwright, journalist and critic. After several years in Barcelona in the 1970’s, he wrote the acclaimed “Homage to Barcelona” a beautifully-written, remarkably accurate portrait of Catalan society at the crux between Franco and democracy. He was in Barcelona this week to give a talk entitled “Barcelona, from George Orwell to Democracy” at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (Barcelona Contemporary Culture Center, CCCB) as part of the George Orwell Day celebrations. Tóibín began the talk by explaining how Barcelona’s George Orwell square is ironically the first square in Barcelona to have surveillance cameras installed.

Tóibín’s play, The Testament of Mary, will premiere next week as part of the Teatre Grec program. The short novel was originally published in English in 2013, and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. A Catalan edition came out in February, published by ARA Llibres, and translated by Maria Rosich.

VilaWeb spoke with Tóibín just before his conference on Tuesday.

You arrived in Barcelona in 1975, probably before Franco was even dead, after having been inspired by Hemingway and Orwell. Did you find their Spain? What did you find?

I think if you come from the North to the Mediterranean, nothing is what you expect, because the colors are different. And also I came in late September, but it was really hot. I had never felt that heat before. It was really the leftovers of the summer. The humidity was still in the air. But I’d never felt humidity before. So the smells were all different. The visual thing was unexpected.

And also Hemingway didn’t really write about Catalonia. His thing was the whole business of the bulls, which isn’t my thing, you know. But there is in Hemingway, a way of taking pleasure in the smallest thing. In food. In drink. In finding the right bar. In being in the right restaurant. In light. So all of that was there. And of course, the Orwell thing was fascinating too. Because how little of it was there.

You know it was a very funny time in 1975 in Barcelona. I was twenty, and people aged 20 did not want to talk about politics. That changed, but then they didn’t. People lived in a private realm. The parents had moved into that realm at the end of the Civil War, and they had remained in that realm. So certain things were really important for them. American music was a way, Bob Dylan was a way of connecting to the free world, as it were. But what was also interesting was that Catalan, the language, was considered a way of being free. The teacher in school didn’t talk Catalan. Catalan was almost trendy. It was trendy to talk in Catalan to your friends. Nobody was talking about identity then. No one was talking about history. No one was talking about politics. But people were talking in Catalan. And they considered that a fundamental way of resisting, or being apart from official Spain, or the regime.

What was really odd was that a lot of people that I knew who were super literate in Spanish and could maybe could read English and certainly could read French, which they would have done at school, people could not read easily in Catalan. They didn’t. And also people couldn’t write in Catalan. They hadn’t learned the orthography, they hadn’t at age 5 learned how to spell the words. So it was unofficial, underground and trendy, the Catalan language, if you were 20 in Barcelona at that time.

But what nobody wanted to do was talk about the future. The political future. Because it was so uncertain, and it seemed so dark. And people were left to make jokes and to talk about literature, to talk about music. Music was very important. And also of course the thing that still remains is the Catalan summer, the idea of where you go in August, where your family went before, the idea of belonging somewhere other than Barcelona, and that was also an important thing. So it was a very interesting time because it was unexpected. I came with Hugh Thomas’ book. I thought nobody wanted to talk about the Civil War.

You have such a good way of capturing what is Catalonia. I’ve given away countless copies of your “Homage to Barcelona” to people interested in visiting. I wonder what you would change if you were going to write that book today.

I’m not sure I would change very much. I think what’s extraordinary is the way in which the nationalism—I mean nationalism is a big word, but I mean the fundamental business of feeling Catalan—has survived into the next generation, even though it became official, even though you were learning it in school, even though the president was speaking it on the television. Suddenly it wasn’t counter-culture, it was official culture. Even though that happened, the generation aged between 20-25 now did not decide “I don’t want this, it’s not part of me, it’s old, it belongs to my grandparents”. People still feel that.

I think the idea of a national identity under pressure is a very, very difficult thing to deal with if you’re trying to undermine it or dissolve it or dilute it. It doesn’t dilute. And we know this for very bad reasons. Like in somewhere like Yugoslavia. People really felt Croatian or Serb or indeed Slovenian or Albanian. And no amount of communism or Tito could deal with that. And even to this day, that idea is there.

In Ireland it’s probably taken more for granted now, you know because we’ve had independence for almost a century. But nonetheless, if you said to someone Irish, I mean from the Republic of Ireland, “would you go back?” I don’t know anyone who would. We complain about the government, we hate the government, the government couldn’t be worse, actually, but the idea that you would say, “it wasn’t worth it”, that we should never have separated from England, I don’t think there’s anyone who feels that. So that idea of identity remains something fundamental in us. People maybe live in their families, or live in their cities, but that idea of being French, or being Scottish. Scottish is more interesting at the moment. Because once you put the society under pressure, then people have to talk about it more, argue about it more, make the case for it more. The Scottish thing is very interesting from the Catalan perspective. Whether the referendum gets through doesn’t really matter. It is that Scotland is much more pro-European than England is.

And obviously the whole idea of Catalan identity culturally. The fact that the Pyrenees do not represent a natural boundary, that there were always passes, and people could see Paris as their capital city or France as their country. But also the way Catalonia embraced classical music. The way in which Wagner, for some really strange reason really matters in Catalonia. But the way in which the choral tradition, which gives us the Palau de la Música. All of that shows a really advanced European civilization in Catalonia. And if you start looking at it around 1900, you see that that idea of the importance of German and French and Italian opera, for people in Catalonia, that there has always been an openness to the outside. So that Catalan nationalism has an openness, and as an independent state, I suppose, would be a very good European state. I can’t imagine euroskepticism growing in Catalonia.

Nationalism is such a bad word…

Yes it is because it suggests that there is only us. On the positive side is that it’s not hard to become Catalan. And if you look at the last 150 years, Catalans seem in general to import every generation. For example, a lot of factory workers, whose children become Catalans. It’s not a matter of blood. It’s not a matter of religion. It is merely a matter of speaking the language and living here with a view to permanence. But I suppose what people really do mind is the business of, if there are three people in the room and one speaks only Spanish and the other two speak Catalan and Spanish. The Catalans will talk Spanish to the Spaniard but every time they turn towards each other, they’ll move back into Catalan. That drives Spaniards nuts. It’s one of the things that… “why can’t they”. It’s always “why can’t they…”.

I’ve always thought that that’s a thing about monolinguals, that they don’t understand how other people use two languages. They just expect that you use the language that the other people want you to. It doesn’t have further meaning. You wrote this thing that I thought was very good. In Toni Strubell’s “What Catalans Want”, you wrote “Identity comes from something deep and strange and the idea of a language in all its complexity lives at the mysterious core of what it means to be alive in the world.”

It’s complicated. I could tell you a sad story about Ireland. It would be that the language slowly faded and English became the spoken language. And I could tell you if I want that English is not my language, but that’s not true. Language is so fundamental to us, that the language that you’re brought up speaking, no matter what its history is, is your language. In Ireland we have particularly proud of the fact that we produced James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Beckett writing in French and English. Joyce, at the end, with Finnegan’s Wake, producing a book in many languages. But nonetheless the English language in Ireland has always been, in the last 200 years, a really important element in the society culturally. So to say “it’s not my language” I think would be completely untrue.

But, if you’re in Estonia now, for example, one and a half million people. The whole idea of how easy it would be to get rid of the language, replace it with Swedish or Russian, and how you protect it and what do you do. To be Estonian now, is bound up with speaking Estonian. And then you say to an Estonian, what about the people who don’t speak your language, who live in your country, who speak Russian? And you find that they go silent. They say, “well, they will have to learn Estonian in order to become Estonian.” It’s never a simple business. And once you have especially a minority language, a language under pressure, in order to preserve it and keep it from the larger language, the big language that’s French, Spanish, English, Russian, you do have to take measures. And those measures sometimes have a slightly unpleasant edge to them. If you say, by law, there must be a menu in every restaurant in Catalan or in Estonian then somebody who doesn’t want to do that can very likely feel that someone is really, really putting pressure on them.

It’s never simple. In that introduction to the Toni Strubell book, I was trying to write about the fact that in Europe every time there is a country, or a nation that is not a state, you get irony. You have to keep watching because things shift and move. Nothing is simple. And that identity is often open to suggestion. Some people want something that their neighbors desperately don’t want. Some people think some things are funny that others do not. The best example is that when I was in Scotland, and this is true, I went to the movie of Trainspotting. It’s all about drugs and stuff. But there’s a big long speech in the middle where they talk about being Scottish and they say that the worst thing about Scotland, they use a very rude word, but about English people, and they say it isn’t just that we were colonized but we were colonized by ——, and they use a very rude word. And I thought this was very funny. I was the only person laughing in a full cinema. The Scottish people were watching and they thought this was true and they thought it wasn’t funny. This was hitting some part of them that I thought required laughter. For them, it required a sort of shamed silence.

What’s also interesting, I was talking about the former Yugoslavia, the interesting country from Catalonia’s perspective there is Slovenia. Because Slovenia didn’t get involved in the war, even though it’s mainly Catholic and it didn’t join the Croatians in any way. But the minute it got the chance, it looked outwards towards Austria and towards Italy and it attempted to work with civil society to set up a modern European state while the other two countries were burning down below. And it used what Catalans are particularly good at: argument, agreement, trying to work out a compromise. And more or less got what it wanted. It was lucky. And it still remained an independent state.

Do you think Catalonia will get what it wants?

No, I think it will be very difficult. I think the forces against it, both in Europe and in Spain, are really very large. The issue then is to attempt to get more and more and more autonomy. And then to see where that takes you. But especially the issue of taxation. The issue, which also seems to me quite important, of what Catalonia has been trying to do, but what is really very difficult to do, if you have a Spanish embassy, an official Spanish embassy in every capital city, it’s very difficult for Catalonia to function as a sort of opposition within that, but that’s something that’s really required, almost at a semi-official level, to have a semi-official Catalan embassy working in the European countries, and in Washington. To have a Catalan consulate in New York. And also the power of the Instituto Cervantes is immense, and rightly so, it really does very good work. That’s another area, in which a city like New York or Los Angeles, or Toronto, those American cities, or in Paris or London, simply increase the spending on Catalan culture. But Catalan culture comes in many forms. It isn’t just merely people dancing sardanas. I mean the entire business of what Catalonia, for example, in painting and sculpture, the extraordinary achievement.

When I say “no”, you can just never tell. That’s terribly important to remember. We’re talking now in July, 2014. No one a hundred years ago had any idea what was coming. Maybe some people could guess, but nobody knew that the world war was going to last as long as it did, with the redrawing of borders all over Europe. So, I mean nobody knows. I remember in the mountains—the whole idea of Spain’s economy was really becoming serious with the levels of unemployment, youth unemployment—saying to someone that the slogan we used in Ireland during the first world war, when England was at war, was that “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity“. Everyone said it. It became the slogan. I’m not sure who said it first. England’s difficulty, Ireland’s opportunity. Since they’re busy and they’re at war over there, we can now set about doing what we do. But that involved a five year violent, really difficult time, 1916-1922. It entered into a civil war at the end. And when you look at those years, and we’re looking at them again now because the centenary is coming up. I don’t recommend that. And also that won’t happen here. That just won’t happen here.

Do you speak Gaelic?

No, I mean we learned it in school and we learned it so badly. First of all, it’s quite a difficult language. I mean the nouns decline. So every time you use a noun, you have to work out what you’re doing. If I went back to the islands and I spent a month, I could go around. If I turn on the news, I understand the news, but I don’t speak it.

Does being able to understand the news or be able to follow conversations, does it give you a different feeling of the place?

No. The way in which English has been used in Ireland for so long. I’m from the East coast of Ireland, and English has been the language of the town I live in really since the town was actually built. So it’s not as if there’s a memory of a grandparent who spoke Irish. I don’t have that. Or a great-grandparent. Or way back. There’s nothing. English is the language. The initial invasion of where I’m from was in 1169, so there was Irish spoken in the 12th century but really by the 16th century, the language is English. 

Do you speak Catalan?

[In Catalan] It’s very important if you live in the mountains, for example, because everyone speaks Catalan. And if you speak Spanish, they might speak Spanish with you, but with the rest of the people, they’ll speak in Catalan. And normally what they say amongst themselves is much more important than what they explain to you. And so, I don’t know, yes, I do speak it a little.

And it gives you a different understanding of the people, like you say, you get the good conversations.

Well, yes, and [changing to a Pallars accent] especially in the mountains, they talk like this, and you go to the market, and you say, well, it’s really cold out today, it’s been a rough winter, I’m going back to bed, I’m &*^% [bushed], I’m going to hit the sack. You know, they have a way of talking like this, when you’re at the market, like in Sort, or La Poble de Segur or Seu d’Urgell. One of the farmers ask for a kilo of that, it’s great. And the image that the rest of the world has of Spain, the country of guitars and how they spend all night dancing and singing, well, in the Pallars, that’s not what happens, eh? The Pallars is very serious. People want to work and after work, they go home to eat a little and then go to bed because we have to be in the fields at 6am with everybody else.

It feels like you should be in your play, The Testament of Mary, that comes out next week. Have you ever acted?

No, don’t encourage me [Laughs].

Tell us about your play.

Well, twenty years after the crucifixion, nobody knows where Mary was or if she still lived. Suppose she was still alive, twenty years later, ten years later. Suppose that figures like Saint Paul, or Saint John, or Mark or one of them were looking after her. But she was very, very difficult. And traumatized. And could not stop thinking about what had happened. Going over everything. And one  day they left her alone. And she’s old. And has nothing to lose. And she starts to tell the story from her point of view. From what she saw, what she remembered and what she thinks. And the guilt about things and the sorrow. Tiny images that stayed in her mind. So that’s the story, that’s the play. It’s also been published, it’s also a novel, and so the novel has been published in Catalan, The Testament of Mary. The play is a version of that, it’s much shorter. But the impression is given in both the book and the play that this is time, this is urgent time. There’s not much time. So she’s talking in a particular tone. She doesn’t take prisoners in the way she talks.

Why isn’t there time?

Maybe they’ll come back. Just this once, maybe she’ll say, even to the air, to the birds, just for once this illiterate woman, who’s immensely intelligent, will say what she saw and what she remembered. And she has no interest in story telling, in anecdote, in plot, in side character. Her interest is in this story, of this story only. There’s a sort of relentlessness in the way that she speaks, in the way that sentences are constructed.


La premsa lliure no la paga el govern. La paguem els lectors.

Fes-te de VilaWeb, fem-nos lliures.

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