5 December 2006

Spain's many identities

By Tapani Lausti

Giles Tremlett, Ghosts of Spain: Travels through a country's hidden past. Faber and Faber 2006.

It takes a brave writer to attempt to describe a whole nation for foreign readers. Easy generalisations are an easy trap to fall into. Giles Tremlett — the Madrid correspondent of the British newspaper The Guardian — has immersed himself so thoroughly in Spanish life that one reads his generalisations with a reasonable amount of confidence.

The main ghost of Spain, of course, is the Civil War. Recently the Spaniards have been breaking the so-called Pact of Forgetting. People are openly talking about the history of the war. Hidden graves of Republican victims of Franco's execution squads are being dug up. All this is happening at a time when the Civil War generation is slowly disappearing.

During the so-called transición from Franco's dictatorship to democracy, the silence over the Civil War was a facilitator. As Tremlett writes: "If the Transición was a success, it was because Spaniards made a supreme effort to find consensus. That effort was driven, to a large degree, by the Civil War ghosts still haunting so many Spanish households. The divisions now visible in Spain have much to do with the release of those historic constraints. How Spaniards deal with them will be the ultimate test of that Transición." (p. 419)

Modern Spain emerges as a country almost frenetically trying to renew itself. Construction of new housing has reached such intensity that some economists are warning of a looming collapse. House prices are rocketing. Here is Tremlett again: "The eagerness with which the new is embraced has something to do with the memory, real or inherited, of poverty. Again, there is an element of huida, of flight. Old, in many minds, still equals poor." (p. 405)

The feverish construction of new housing has been connected with an alarming level of corruption. Corruption is at its worst in the Costa del Sol. According to Tremlett this has been inevitable because politicians are often builders themselves. One could add that one of the reasons is that the councils earn much of their income from handing out building licenses. A great amount of illegal housing is now being pulled down. In bar conversations, many locals in the Andalucian village, where I live, will declare that none of the political parties have clean hands.

Tremlett adds another interesting observation about the Spaniards' enchantment with things new: "Part of this love of the new is a desire to catch up. Spaniards spent the best part of two centuries looking enviously over the Pyrenees at what was happening in the rest of Europe. When a Spaniard wants to be down on his own country — or complain, in a rare burst of irony, of an old French attitude to it — he still sometimes reproduces a tired, overused phrase: 'Africa, you know, starts at the Pyrenees.'" (p. 406)

One paradox of self-identity is that Spanish nationalists have little time for regional identities. In the Basque country and Catalonia, local nationalist feelings are strong. Tremlett often feels exhausted by the arguments about nationalism and history, arguments which are a constant phenomenon in these two very nationalistic provinces.

At the time of writing, Spain is watching with bated breath the peace process in the Basque country, a process which is partly a result of the Madrid bombing in March 2004. As Tremlett writes: "Even the most radical separatists had claimed to be sickened by the 11 March bombings. How could they now justify meting out more of the same?" (p. 280)

In Catalonia, feelings of separatism have not led to violence. Nationalist pride is running high though. The Catalonian regional government describes the Catalans as being "well-mannered, hard-working, thrifty, enterprising, and generally prudent — with a habit of 'seny i rauxa' (literally 'common sense and madness')'. (p. 327) The trouble with these kinds of characterisations is that they could be said to be true of many people in many places.

Tremlett emphasises the difference between Spaniards and other Europeans. Indeed, it is one of the reasons he has fallen in love with the country. When I myself first arrived in Andalucia I sensed a different atmosphere which I immediately liked. I still love to live here after six years, but I doubt that it is possible to really love a whole country.

See also:

Go to the archive: Spain


[home] [archive] [focus]