BARCELONA, Spain—Books are big business in Barcelona, the publishing capital of Spain and an intellectual port for writers exploring the political shadows and sorrows of this country’s last century.
So when the world-renowned Frankfurt Book Fair asked to highlight the cultural influences of Barcelona, and specifically the Catalan culture, it was widely expected that literary stars across the region would embrace the distinction.
Instead, writers, politicians and publishing houses are wrestling over the honor in a peculiarly fierce—some might say Catalan—way. A culture war is brewing in this contrary, independent-minded slice of Spain, with writers of Spanish-language and Catalan-language works sparring over just who is Catalan enough to be invited to Frankfurt, and Catalan politicians maneuvering to keep Spanish-language writers out of the limelight.
“The politicians basically hijacked this,” said Antoni Comas, head of the Catalan Publishing Association. “We wanted to represent everybody and then the politicians got involved. They tried to separate us.”
The trade fair, set for October, chose the Catalan culture—rather than the more traditional selection of a single country—as its guest of honor.
Catalonia is one of Spain’s 17 autonomous areas. The Catalan language is spoken in Spain’s northeast as well as in the principality of Andorra, the Balearic Islands and border towns in southern France. But Barcelona is the heart of all things Catalan, and its history and politics are imbued with culture battles.
In the last century, dictator Francisco Franco enforced Spanish as Spain’s official language. Public use of Catalan, and any sense of nationalist fervor, were repressed. When Franco died in 1975, Catalan, spoken in secret for years, re-emerged with democracy.
Today, proficiency in Catalan is required for regional government workers. Businesses in Barcelona use Spanish but are obliged, when they benefit from regional government contracts, to post signs in Catalan. Catalan is one of three regional languages granted equal standing with Spanish in Spain. In Catalonia, Catalan is the official language in primary and secondary schools.
The Catalan language has become a matter of identity in this Mediterranean city—and a source of controversy in this country of 40 million people.
Political fortunes rise and fall based on attitudes toward Catalan. Last winter in Barcelona, three parties that promised to boost Catalan’s public profile won handily in regional parliament elections. But a new party, the Citizens of Catalonia, won three seats by trying to ease tensions over language and running on a single issue: Ensuring mutual respect for the Spanish and Catalan languages.
The war of words is now playing out on a much larger stage in Germany.
Catalonia’s regional government took an upper hand, choosing authors for the five-day event in Frankfurt, the world’s largest trade fair for books and a global happening for publishers to wheel and deal. Flush from the regional government’s election victory last year, the first minister, a Catalan nationalist, compiled a list of more than 100 participants to be invited to the fair.
The list included only authors who write in the Catalan language.
The list from Minister Josep Bargallo, who also is head of the Catalan-centric Ramon Llull Institute, triggered an outcry. Some critics thought it was simply bad manners; others believed it showed ignorance of the publishing scene. Spanish-language writers who have depicted the struggles of Catalonia are more well-known and are better draws, critics said.
Bargallo quickly responded and told reporters that he had “contacted” top Spanish writers but “they declined” to join the delegation. Bargallo noted, however, that he informed authors such as Eduardo Mendoza, who wrote the classic book about Barcelona, “The City of Marvels,” and Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a Barcelona native who wrote the best seller “The Shadow of the Wind” that they were welcome if they toed the regional government line: to push “Catalan culture written in Catalan.”
Spanish-language writers quickly closed ranks—and mouths—over the dispute.
This summer some writers refused to discuss the fair. Ruiz Zafon, who now lives in Los Angeles, told The Associated Press this month that he will boycott the trade show because of the “political commissars who eagerly took over and handled this affair.”
Book fair spokesman Thomas Minkus said organizers saw some potential for controversy by focusing on Catalan culture but that they had no role in choosing the writers.
“(Conflicts are) usually expressed in culture and literature, and it’s just natural that this is transported to the guest-of-honor program,” he said. “I just hope it is not dominated by the debate (over Catalan.) This is, after all, supposed to be about literature.”
Baltasar Porcel is among the Catalan writers who will speak at Frankfurt, but he, like others asked about the dispute, bemoans the standoff. Porcel writes his novels in Catalan; he uses Spanish in his newspaper columns in the daily La Vanguardia. Writers in Barcelona don’t cut themselves off from any language, he said from his home in Barcelona.
“My bookshelves are filled with Italian, Spanish, French and Catalan books,” he said, nodding at his library. “These are the languages I read.”
Still, Porcel casts himself as a Catalan writer, and he defends the idea of highlighting Catalan-language writers if Frankfurt’s intent is to focus on language as a formative part of culture. But he adds that he sees little good in politicians of any persuasion defining a country’s or culture’s literary wealth.
“What is going on here is a bit of nationalism at play. Spanish is very strong and Catalan is very resistant. The politicians have taken the issue of language and culture and used it to wave the Catalan flag. The Spanish politicians are doing the same. Spain is looking back and doing what Franco did: They protect one language, one culture.
“And you know, Gen. Franco is a ghost here,” Porcel said, explaining the emotional fury of the day. “He created instincts that still persist. ... The politicians are the ones using this book fair. For them, it’s an opportunity,”
Catalan is a Romance language spoken by about 10 million people in the northeastern part of the Iberian Peninsula. Evolving from Latin during the Middle Ages, it shares some characteristics with Spanish and others with French. The language experienced a decline from the 16th Century until the 19th Century, when there was a literary revival. It also suffered under Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in the mid-20th Century. In June, when Rolling Stones’ singer Mick Jagger went on Spanish television to apologize for canceling concerts in Barcelona and three other cities in 2006, he made his remarks in Catalan.
Sources: North American Catalan Society, Associated Press, gencat.net