CATENGESP


STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

(10/02/2009)

Aquest article no està traduït al català; es mostra la seva versió en anglès

A recently rediscovered (by me) article for the International Journal of Iberian Studies. Subtitled '20 Years of Living and Writing in Catalonia', it was read at an international symposium at Lancaster University in early 2005.

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND: 20 YEARS OF LIVING AND WRITING IN CATALONIA

ABSTRACT: This article is a subjective account of the various problems involved in moving to a nationally ambiguous area such as Catalonia; and a discussion of the function of autobiographical writing for authors living abroad.

By: Matthew Tree

Recent, even relatively recent, books by foreign writers on the part of Spain which I have lived in for the last twenty years – Catalonia, and, for that matter, the Catalan-speaking areas in general – are few and far between. What is more, the vast majority of these books are written by authors whose stance wishes to be formally objective, and who therefore present themselves as reporters, journalists, chroniclers, historians and so forth. This is the case even in a book as impassioned as E. Allison Peer's 'Catalonia Infelix', published in 1937, in which this expert on Ramon Llull attempts to ellicit his readers' sympathy for the plight of the war-torn Catalans. By absenting his own personal motives for writing, however, Peers tries to give the impression that his book is an objective account of a given situation, whereas any reader can see that the author feels strongly, feels desperate indeed, about his subject matter. But as we are not told why, the book ends up having a pamphlety feel to it. Two other writers working in the same period, George Orwell and John Langdon-Davies, give magnificent accounts of their time in Catalonia. Both authors, however, are well-aware that they are writing – naturally enough – for a British readership, and this, consciously or unconsciously, conditions many of their observations, right down to homely touches that verge on journalistic travel-writing for the folks back home, such as Orwell's definition of chorizo, in 'Homage to Catalonia', as 'that red sausage which gives you diarrhoea'. Forty years later, authors like Jan Read and, more importantly, Colm Toibin, decided to write about the area, in two books - 'The Catalans' and 'Homage to Barcelona', respectively – which provide invaluable introductions to readers unfamiliar with Catalonia. When it comes to making any kind of subjective value judgement, however, both authors prefer, in the last instance, to maintain what amounts to a detached, almost anthropological approach to the more controversial aspects of daily life in a notoriously complex area. (A curious exception to the general rule is the Canadian cookery writer Colman Andrews, whose 'Catalan Cuisine' contains several convinced personal statements of a political and cultural nature, as well as a plethora of tasty recipes). The 1980s and 1990s saw the appearance of a new phenomenon: foreign authors writing about Catalonia in Catalan: the German Til Stegmann and the Japanese Ko Tazawa both produced books about how they saw Catalonia from their different national standpoints which became instant best-sellers within Catalonia itself. Once again, however, the personal element was largely missing. Stegmann limited himself to making a series of linguistic recommendations – somewhat pedantic ones, if we have to be honest – to the Catalans, and Tazawa concentrated on providing an objective description of how Catalonia was perceived in his own country.

Now, I know for a fact that this brief list of authors writing on Catalonia is incomplete – no mention has been made, for example, of Daniele Conversi's excellent 1997 report 'The Basques, The Catalans and Spain' - but the point that is trying to be made here is that nearly all the writers mentioned have chosen, for one reason or another, not to deal with some of the deeper implications of writing about a foreign land. Certain key questions have remained unanswered. For example, what elements in their own personal lives have conditioned their views of this land? How do they view their own sense of nationality or of national belonging, and indeed, how do they evaluate the concept of nationhood itself? (A particularly pertinent question in the case of a nationally ambiguous area like Catalonia). To what extent are they linked to this land? Do they have friends from there? Lovers and spouses, even? How long have they spent there and how has their stay affected their viewpoint? In which circles did they or do they move, what opinions did they or do they come across? (The sojourn of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in Paris in the 1950s springs to mind: for years they mixed almost exclusively with fellow Americans, a social set-up which must have conditioned their overall view of France). Again, such questions are of even more vital importance in Catalonia, where the group of friends you fall in with will determine not only the kind of opinions you hear but also the very language you learn to speak.

I say all this because my own twenty-five year long relationship with Catalonia has been nothing if not subjective, and I am only capable of explaining it in purely subjective terms. When I was young and hysterical, my opinions about Catalonia were young and hysterical. When I reached an almost complete dead end in London, in my mid-twenties, it was to Catalonia that I turned when seeking a way out. In my thirties, when I'd been writing for so long that I finally managed to achieve a lifelong ambition and write something publishable, I wrote it in Catalan and it was Catalans who published me and Catalans who read me. And now, in my mid-forties, plagued by self-doubt and completely unsure of the future, it is Catalonia that provides the background, the beautiful background, against which all this middle-aged angst is currently being played out. There is something else, too. Never one for birthdays, I am nonetheless finding it increasingly hard to ignore the fact that this September will mark the twentieth anniversary of my arrival in Barcelona as a permanent resident. Twenty has a nice, round feel to it, and I daresay it is because of all this unavoidable roundness looming up on the horizon that over the last year and a half I have been given to increasingly long periods of reflection about the process of contact with and arrival in Catalonia, and all the years that have passed since then. The late Arthur Terry, at the end of his book on Catalan literature, famously quoted W.B. Yeats as saying that one's nation 'is the only thing one knows even a little of'. On the contrary, it seems to me that nations are mysterious organisms that defy any attempts to even define, let alone know, them, and that the only thing one really knows even a little of, when it comes down to it, is one's own subjective, personal experience. I hope you will therefore forgive me, if I use my personal experience as the principal material upon which I will base the comments that follow: that is to say, the rest of this paper.

Those of us who have lived for a long time in Catalonia are usually asked, sooner or later, about how integrated we feel. Many Catalans – for whom the whole concept of identity plays an important role in their lives – often come out with a sentence like: 'After all this time, you're a Catalan like the rest of us'. I, for one, tend to refuse this generous offer, simply because I feel that, in the end, I am English by definition (not that I feel at home in England, but that's another story), given that that is where I was born and lived until twenty-six years of age, which is old enough for anyone to feel attached for life to a given place or culture. When pressed on the question – and believe me, the Catalans are good pressers – I come out with what seems to me the only truthful solution, and answer that I feel like an adopted Catalan, that Catalonia – not Spain, by the way, but that too is another story – is my adopted country.

This mutual adoption, however – and this is the case of many foreigners currently living in Catalonia – did not happen overnight. To begin with, there is a specific hurdle which needs to be overcome by those of us whose sense of national identity is so much taken for granted that it is virtually unconscious. To give an idea of why this hurdle exists precisely in Catalonia, we could do worse than describe what can only be called the identity surveys that are carried out in the area by both Spanish and Catalan government organisations, every two or three years or so. In these surveys, Catalans – that is, people born in Catalonia - are asked a bewildering range of questions about their sense of national belonging. They can choose, for example, between feeling only Catalan, more Catalan than Spanish, as much Catalan as Spanish, more Spanish than Catalan, and only Spanish. All categories have their adherents, although most belong to the first three, at least at the last count. I explain all this, so as to give some idea of what the newcomer faces when arriving in Catalonia for the first time. The great majority – though I suspect it is a shrinking majority – of European citizens still have no sense of ambiguity whatsoever when it comes to their own national and cultural identity. They are where they're from and that's it: their identity is a question of unquestioned common sense, for them. Such citizens, upon arrival in a nationally ambiguous area such as Catalonia, have two options. They can either ignore the ambiguities altogether, and impose their own monocultural concept of common sense on the natives, considering them, in this case, to be Spanish and Spanish only (an option which only 3 per cent of the Catalans themselves believe in, according to the surveys), or they can try and come to terms with the ambiguities they find by gradually infiltrating Catalan society and eventually adopting a personal approach to it which allows them to feel comfortable in Catalonia without them having to close their eyes – not to mention their ears – to any aspect of what is, by any standards, a bafflingly intricate cultural and linguistic situation.

I have a vivid memory of my own mental struggles with the whole idea of Catalonia when I first arrived there. Convinced that Spain had a single national identity – like England, but not Britain of course – I could simply not visualise what you might call the role of Catalonia within Spain. When I went on a trip with some Catalan friends to monolingual central Spain my fretting reached an almost unbearable pitch. Where was I, exactly? What was the exact difference between Catalonia and the Spain I was now visiting? Could a country exist within another country, or was that just wishful thinking on the part of a sector of the Catalan population? If Catalonia was also Spain, why did some Spanish show a marked hostility towards Catalonia (and some Catalans towards Spain)? Later, I was relieved to find that I wasn't the only one who had wracked his brain in this manner. From the foundational text of Catalan nationalism – Valentí Almirall's 'Lo catalanisme', published in 1886 – through to dozens of titles published every year since Franco's death – the Catalans have puzzled over, vilified, celebrated, defended and criticised their peculiar condition as the heirs of a defunct 14th century empire and a defeated 18th century semi-state for nearly a hundred and twenty years. This is neither the time nor the place to enter the maze of Catalanist – and, in part, anti-Catalanist – theory which the Catalans have built up over time: we would all get lost and besides, there is as yet no exit gate through which we could emerge into the wider world. However, a general observation is in order. To begin with, no matter how confusing I found Catalonia at first, I soon discovered one thing for sure: that the importance of language in the Catalan mindset cannot be overexaggerated: a citizen's relationship with Catalan - latent or visible - has effectively replaced the old 19th century concept of 'blood' (universal throughout Europe then and, sadly, in many cases, even now) as a marker of identity. Catalans have little difficulty nowadays in accepting that someone from Cáceres or even from Karachi is a Catalan citizen, as long as this person's relationship with the language is a comfortable, albeit a passive, one: in other words, that the language is understood if not actually spoken. On the other hand, few would find it easy to describe as Catalan someone who couldn't understand at least basic Catalan (which is the case of a mere seven per cent of the population, by the way). This does not mean that Catalan-speakers are dogmatic about their use of language: most switch from Catalan to Castilian and back again with practised ease on a daily basis, depending on who they are talking to. Some have even ended up all but eliminating Catalan from their social lives, without this implying rejection of the language, which is always present somewhere in the background, be it at home, or at work, or on TV and radio. There is also a relatively new phenomenon: some children of Castilian-speakers who prefer to use Catalan as their default language. And so on. I mention this so as to highlight the importance for the foreigner of the language question. Everyone is free to deal with this question as she or he sees fit, of course, but it is necessary to deal with it, to face up to it, to make a linguistic decision of some kind, and – languages being doorways into shared complicities as well as simple means of communication – that decision will condition the nature and degree of your integration into Catalonia. As I probably don't need to say by now, I learnt Catalan first. Castilian came along six years later and remains very much my third language. This has resulted in a sense of being correspondingly much closer to things Catalan than to things Spanish, with all that that entails in terms of books read, media consumed, sense of geographical attachment, linguistic behaviour and so forth. I do not see my linguistic decision as being any better or worse than anyone else's. But I am pleased with it personally, it has resulted in me feeling entirely at home in my foreign land of choice for many years, and it has afforded me insights which a different decision would not have made possible. Beyond this statement of subjective satisfaction, I do not wish to go. I no longer like to suggest what people should or should not do when they arrive in Catalonia – as if I knew! After all, I made my decision on my own and that is perhaps the best way for anyone to make any decision, especially one as important as this.

*

And now for the hard part. Calliope Stephanides, the Greek-American hermaphrodite hero, or heroine, of Jeffrey Eugenides's Pulitzer prize-winning novel 'Middlesex', remarks at one point in the narrative that funerals have only one function, namely, to keep the bereaved so busy that they have no time to think about the deceased. Something similar could be said about people – at least Western European people – who make a conscious decision to change country: they become so wrapped up in the ins and outs of finding their feet in the host culture: learning a new language, perhaps, or looking for work, or trying to rebuild their social lives, that they conveniently forget about what is possibly the most important thing of all: themselves, the very people who are making the change. Who are they, at heart? What are their deeper motives for moving? What situations did they leave behind in their native countries? Besides, there is something giddying about changing country, something intoxicating, something that helps erase the past. You walk through foreign streets, past foreign people, smelling foreign food until it gradually dawns on you that you could be anyone, meet anyone, spin any old yarn about yourself to them, and be accepted by them on your own terms. In a foreign country, you can hobnob with people who would have been beyond the reach of your social spectrum back in the old country, you can rough it with the roughest at breakfast time and look high-flying multinational executives in the eye when taking your evening gin and tonic; there is no apparent limit to your mobility, because there is no need to explain yourself, no one will expect you to reel off your social curriculum – born here, studied this, worked at that – in an attempt to pigeonhole you, because they already have pigeonholed you, as a foreigner, that is to say, as British or French or whatever, and, at least at first, they require no more information from you. They might attach a few clichéd labels to you – if you're English you must be punctual, if you're French you have to be a gourmet, etcetera – but that aside, you are free to reinvent yourself at will. In the case of someone from Britain, where people still try to pinpoint someone's social class automatically upon meeting them by checking on their place of birth, current residence and, last but definitely not least, their accent, the social anonymity to be found when away in a foreign country leaves you with a feeling of instant relief that is absolutely breathtaking.

So it was that, once installed in Barcelona, I stowed my English past away in the deepest mental hold I could find. As a result, I not only became a much happier person but I found, once I had sufficiently mastered the host language, that I could write in it with much the same freedom and lack of awkward ballast that I was experiencing in my new social life. I wrote principally autobiographical stories and novels and books of non-fiction, which dealt almost exclusively with personal events which had taken place in the host country. England – with the exception of a few burlesque episodes – barely got a look-in. I liked it like that. Accepted – thanks to what I consider to be their extraordinary capacity for integrating outsiders – by the Catalans as simply one more of their writers, I continued to publish over a period of some five or six years, happy as a sandboy, unaware that the monster in the hold had begun to stir.

You can stow the past away, but you can't throw it overboard, so sooner or later, it is going to make its presence felt, as it chafes about, frustrated with its cramped conditions. After nearly eighteen years of having lived abroad, I was finding the past – the pre-Catalan past, I mean - harder and harder to ignore. My early social freewheeling in Catalonia had slowly transformed itself into a more settled way of life. Yet the more outwardly settled I became, the more unsettled I felt deep down. This increasing discomfort was not helped by the fact that things, objectively, had gone fairly well, in the sense that I was basically living off what I'd always wanted to do – write – and so everyone expected me to be chirpy most of the time. So I felt the need to write a novel which would, I hoped, at least open the hatch of the hold, so to speak, and allow people the chance to peek in. I wrote the novel. In general, the message didn't get through. Catalan readers who had been used to my earlier fictionalised accounts of life in Catalonia didn't understand or even like this new, much darker story set mainly in the UK. Stunned by this reaction, I ignored the good reviews and comments and rolled in the dung of the negative ones until I had convinced myself that as a writer, I stank: I was no good, I had reached the end of the line, I was a fraud, it was time to pull the plug. For about a year, I moped about on the verge of a self-induced despair, quite literally not knowing what to do with myself. Only then did it occur to me that there was just one way out: to go back to the autobiographical vein but this time in order to write as truthfully as possible about what had happened to me in the pre-Catalan years and what I felt about it. This confession, which poured out of me over a six month period, eventually became the first two thirds of the book recently published in Catalan with the title 'Meṃries!'. Here, for the first time, I looked at the privileged English education – at both school and university - which I had not wanted and which I had always been deeply, obsessively ashamed of, and at the mental illness triggered, in part, by my inability to cope with the sense of guilt such an education had aroused in me. To give an idea of what writing this down for the general public meant to me, I need say no more than, before the publication of this book, my social background was known to just three of my closest friends – none of them in Catalonia – and my mental illness to them and perhaps half a dozen people more. Now, as it were, I was slapping the whole lot down on a canvas intended for open display. No wonder that, two weeks before the publication date, I almost chickened out and withdrew the manuscript. However, despite my quavering, the book came out, in March 2004. I dreaded the reception it would get. I even mentally wrote some of the terrible reviews I felt sure it would receive and rehearsed the bad-mouthing I felt sure readers would give it. None of these things happened. Of the six titles I have published to date, none has produced anything like the kind of rewarding, personal, positive responses I have had for 'Meṃries!'. What people identified with and reacted to was not so much the details of my life explained in the book, as the act of honesty implied by their telling. As a result they found points of contact, of self-identification, in the most unlikely episodes. To cut a long story short, after 'Meṃries!', I no longer feel like a fraud. No matter what I do in the future, the truth, my truth, about the past, at least, is now there for everyone who wishes to, to see.

So it is, that I have come to the end of a long twenty year cycle in Catalonia, leading from fictional beginnings to an autobiographical conclusion. I would now dearly like to reconcile myself in a similar manner with the country in which I was born, which is the next challenge on the horizon.

To sum up, when we arrive in the foreign country we aspire to adopt, we can hide – and frolic happily – behind the mask that our status as outsiders provides us with. We can infiltrate the host society, if we so wish, with the deftness of master spies, putting on different guises for different social situations. But this masquerade can only go on for so long if we do not want to end up as cardboard characters. Sooner or later, we have to define ourselves clearly as individuals before the people among whom we live. We have to come clean. Autobiography – the writing of memoirs – is one way of coming in from the cold of the past, that is, of the time before we burnt our bridges and turned ourselves, willingly, into strangers in a strange land.



- Textos i contingut: Matthew Tree - Disseny i programació: Nac -