Catalonia is on my mind. My friend Amand went to Barcelona to see the referendum on October 1. He was born in Mallorca and studied in Barcelona as a drama student in the seventies, joining street protests against the Franco régime in its last years. Like all of us, he is a complex mix of histories: as a witness, a participant and a victim.
“I stayed in a small hostel,” he said. “There were three others in my dormitory. One of them was Basque. The other two were from Galicia.”
“Galicia,” I echoed, thinking of my own life as a walker and a reader.
“Yes. They wanted to see this happening.”
Of course they did. From the nineteenth-century to the present, through the Irmandades da Fala to Castelao and onwards, Galicia has sighed its unique identity onto the page. And there is fellow feeling across the linguistic divides: Manolo Rivas issued one collection of poetry in Galego, Basque, Catalan and Castilian Spanish.
Spain is a country of peoples. Those peoples have felt their identities in the richness of their cultural history, their traditions, their music and above all their poetry. The Spanish state has crushed the separatist movement in Catalonia with the force of the law. I run around in circles in my head, repulsed by the authoritarianism of the state and equally horrified by the waving of flags in the streets of Catalonia. I think about the different poets I have been studying over the past year and do not come away from the thoughts with a clearer picture.
R.S. Thomas dug in at the edges of Wales. He had a visceral dislike of what he called the Machine that pushed the lives of the Welsh hill-farmers he served to the edge. The English state represented for him what the Spanish state might represent for the Catalans. His poems about the hills and the mountains, his mourning for the Welsh language and the tender bitterness of his meditations on relationships and landscape, make me think of poets in Asturias and Galicia and Catalonia.
They particularly make me think of Uxío Novoneyra.
Galicia será a mina xeneración quen te salve?
Irei un día do Courel a Compostela por terras libradas?
He asks if his generation will save Galicia: will he one day go from the Courel to Compostela through liberated lands?
I have walked from the Courel, in the Ancares mountains, to Santiago perhaps one hundred times over the past ten years. On those walks I have often carried Novoneyra’s collection, Os Eidos (1955), with me. He was a poet who walked the hills. I felt myself into his words, learning to love the Galician language in my own inadequate way. His were the eyes of a wolf to see a landscape dressed in heathers.
You do not read Novoneyra because you want to back up your political opinions. But his poetry, with its emphasis on places and people, seems to inevitably lead him to declare separation and difference. It comes as the cumulative result of meditations on deep particular moments.
I look up from a the quiet particular to the cackling commentators who, like a pack of jackals, attempt to ridicule the referendum in Catalonia. The vilification of Puigdemont is an insult to the people who voted. They were not sheep being led by a corrupt and self-serving leader. They are hardly going to forget their deep-felt desire for their own national identity because Mariano Rajoy imposes the full force of the law to suppress their ebullience. They may sink back, disappointed, into the grooves of their lives, but culture is not suppressed this way; it has its own life.
The Catalan poet, Verdaguer, gave voice to the equivalent of the Galician rexurdimento:
Poeta i fangador sói
en tot faig feina tan neta,
que fango com un poeta
i escric com un fangador
(I am a poet and a digger and in everything I do I am so clean that I dig like a pet and write like a digger.) It is like Seamus Heaney considering his pen and how he will dig with it. This is what poets do: they dig.
Translators on the other hand move from place to place. They cross boundaries and frontiers and look for correspondences and ways of understanding. I can’t help but feel that more translation is needed in this fracturing world of shouted identities. I can’t help but feel that the imposition of “the law” on Catalonia is a heavy-handed mistake that will have the Catalans digging in. Where is the listening ear? Where is the open hand? Who wants to listen to the stories?
The stories must be fascinating.
Amand was present as people went to cast their votes in Barcelona on October 1.
“Old people came tottering up on their canes,” he said. “The young people formed aisles and applauded them as they made their way to vote. The young people were crying and the old ones were trembling with emotion. What had they seen in their lifetimes?”
There is something more powerful here than the realities of business or the harsh application of the word of the law. There is something that cannot be shouted down with arguments, but demands to be listened to.