Last Sunday in Barcelona, the forces opposed to allowing any change in Catalonia’s political status within Spain staged a rally in Barcelona. Given the clear minority position of such hard-core unionists (defined here as people who neither want a vote on, nor a negotiation about, the matter of greater Catalan self-determination) within in the Catalan Autonomous Community, it was necessary to bus people in from all over Spain to bring the rally’s numbers – 350,000 according to the Catalan police – up to anything remotely approaching those achieved in recent weeks and months by the pro-independence forces.
Among the many unionists to arrive in Barcelona from the other parts of the state on Sunday was the Nobel-Prize winning Peruvian-Spanish novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, who stood before the crowd and issued yet another iteration of the critique of Basque and Catalan nationalism that he has been monotonously issuing over the past 25 years.
The stock script goes something like this.
Nationalism is a malign disease that appeals to our most primitive and basic instincts and that is akin, in many ways, to the worst and most oppressive forms of religion. It divides people and leads inexorably to violence. It therefore has no place in modern and developed society like Spain.
He almost always ends his perorations on the subject with a nostalgic look back to the happy years he spent living in Barcelona in the 1960s, writing and frolicking there with his fellow protagonists in the "Boom" of Latin American Literature (e.g. Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso and Gabriel García Márquez) as well as the city’s native-born Gauche Divine.
Back then, he suggests, there was none of the divisive nationalistic thinking we see today. People from all over the Spanish-speaking world lived and worked together in Catalonia within the same cultural coordinates, using the same world-striding Castilian tongue as their prime tool of communication and solidarity.
At first glance, the initial assertions of his well-rehearsed spiel make a lot of sense. Who can deny that nationalism often has a religious subtext? Or that it can often impel people to engage in terrible, divisive and violent actions? Having spent a half a lifetime studying precisely these things, certainly not me.
It is only when we remember that Vargas Llosa delivered his shopworn discourse to a flag-waving crowd that things begin to fall apart.
What flag were the overwhelming number of the assembled people waving on Sunday? It was the current Spanish national flag, which was re-imposed upon the nation in the wake of a brutal civil war (1936-39), a conflict provoked when the country’s oligarchy, working hand-in-glove with the church and key elements of the Spanish army’s officer core, staged a coup against the legally elected Republican government.
If there is any flag in the community of Western European "democracies" that is tied more closely to the irrationality and violence-unleashing capabilities of aggressive nationalism and religious superstition, I do not yet know of it.
With the brief exceptions of the First Republic (1873-74) and the Second Republic (1931-39), the church has, since the Middle Ages, been an integral element of the governance structure of Spain, stoutly supporting the country’s long line of inept kings and their corrupt and often extraordinarily belligerent ministers, not to mention the country’s class of large landholders, at every turn.
When after the civil war, and under this same flag, Franco quite purposefully and tenaciously liquidated at least 300,000 Spaniards whom he considered to be politically and/or socially objectionable (this on top of several hundred thousands more his coup and dictatorship forced to flee or condemned to living in internal exile), the Spanish Church stood completely mute before the spectacle, that is, when its more zealous members were not actively facilitating the carnage by slipping damning spy reports about "undesirable elements" in their localities to the dictatorship’s squads of executioners.
It was under this very same flag – this flag that if we are to listen to Vargas Llosa has nothing to do with "nationalism" and the violence it inevitably spawns, and everything to do with the rule of law – that the last elected Catalan President of the Second Republic was executed by a Francoist firing squad in 1940, a fact that a Spanish government spokesman, Pablo Casado, brought up recently as a helpful reminder about the type of consequences sitting Catalan president Carles Puigdemont might face should he proceed with his plans to declare independence on Tuesday, October 11th.
Normally, of course, a thinly disguised death threat by a government spokesperson against the president of one of the constituent polities of his state would elicit a bit of outrage in the media.
Had Puigdemont or one of his spokesman issued a threat one-eighth as suggestive as this one, there would have been no end to it. And it would have been held up from here to eternity as proof of the inherently violent nature of Catalan nationalism.
But when the spokesman of a government filled with corrupt authoritarians descended overwhelmingly from Francoist families does it, it’s no big deal. Rather, for the mainstream media it’s just another understandable utterance in the government’s ongoing crusade to preserve "democracy" and "the rule of law".
Though he has made a great deal of literary hay describing the tense oedipally-tinged relationship he had with his father and suggesting that his paternal alienation forced him to pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way in life, the fact is that Vargas Llosa was born into a very privileged stratum of the then (and in many ways still now) nearly feudal Peruvian power structure. Whether he admits it or not, he is a señorito – the rough equivalent of an upper class frat boy in the US – through and through
Perhaps it is the indifference to the plight of the less fortunate that all too often becomes second nature for those born into privileged castes such as his own that has allowed him to continue to maintain the illusion the Barcelona of the 60s was a wonderful, conflict-free society.
I believe him, in fact, when says that this was his personal reality. To hobnob during the day with people like Carlos Barral, the de facto inventor of the idea of the Latin American Literary Boom and the nexus of an extraordinary group of literary promoters and creators, must have been wonderful. I’ve often wished that I could have been a fly on the wall of his office during those years.
And to spend the night with the sexy and smart cadres of the Gauche Divine, the local jet-set made up, in large measure, from the comfortable children of the city’s Franco-inclined (or at least, Franco-acquiescent) upper and upper-middle classes, must have been a quite trip. From everything I’ve read, a good, taboo-busting, shock-Daddy-with-Daddy’s-money time was had by all.
Apparently, however, it has never occurred to Vargas Llosa that the reason that things were so copacetic for him and his high flying friends – and devoid of pesky and "divisive" things like Catalan nationalism, or the "primitive" drive to place cultural objects forged in the Catalan language at the core of the social system – was that the people holding these attitudes were either: a) in exile b) in jail c) rightfully afraid of expressing these ideas in public or d) flat out banned from doing so.
To ponder these things would have required the great novelist – something that no one I know denies that he is – to engage not just his literary imagination, but also his empathetic one.
For this terminally vain man (who in his late seventies unceremoniously dumped the woman whom he had said repeatedly over the years was one of the absolute keys to his literary success for a well-known high society gold digger) activating this essential human quality was, and is, it seems, a bridge too far.
When confronted some years ago with the need to decide how he wanted to spend his already enormous social capital during his last years on this earth he has never flinched or looked back.
His goal, as his nonfiction writings over the last quarter of a century make abundantly clear, would be to comfort the afflicters, to help those, like him, born near or at the top of the social and national heap maintain the privileges they inherited through sheer luck upon arriving into this world.
You might call it a case of noblesse non oblige.
An in this sense, he is indeed the perfect spokesman for Spanish unionism
Thomas S. Harrington is professor of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of Public Intellectuals and Nation Building in the Iberian Peninsula, 1900–1925: The Alchemy of Identity (Bucknell University Press, 2014).