CROWDS, BOOKS, LOVE(27/04/2011)
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On Sant Jordi's Day in Catalonia
The patron saint of the country in which I live is Sant Jordi, his name adapted here to Catalan just as it has been to the respective tongues of the 11 other countries that have adopted this apparent dragon-slayer as their national mascot. In Catalonia, however, far from being an occasion for patriotic breast-beating – as still seems to be the case in England – April 23, at least since the 15th century, has been revered as the dia dels enamorats or lovers' day, on which the enamoured are supposed to give a blood-red rose to their beloveds.
Towards the end of the 1920s, Vicent Clavel, a Valencian resident of Barcelona, realising that Sant Jordi's deathday coincided with those of Cervantes and Shakespeare, decided to encourage people to give books as well as roses to their loved ones, an idea welcomed with open arms by his fellow publishers.
Since then, on Sant Jordi's day (even under Franco, when the open sale of Catalan language books was banned for 39 years), the citizens of Catalonia have flocked to the centres of their villages, towns and cities to get a rose and a book for their spouses, lovers, offspring or parents. In the capital (Barcelona), things never fail to reach a frenetic apogee, with the two main Ramblas and a fair slice of the Passeig de Gràcia stuffed to the gills with potential readers on the lookout for the latest titles and the writers who are signing them, while roses are hawked by dozens upon dozens of street vendors dotted among the bookstalls.
Writers are traditionally invited to kick off Sant Jordi's Day by assembling at the central Regina hotel for a collective breakfast followed by a mass photo shoot. I personally skip this occasion (which is rush-hour crowded; besides which, I never eat breakfast anyway) and head straight for my first allocated stand. (Publishers organise between six and eight separate signing sessions throughout the day per author).
These stands are of banqueting-hall length, with the writers squeezed together like wedding guests, that is to say, within elbowing distance. Which has the advantage, sometimes, of being placed next to an author you have long been wanting to meet, and the disadvantage, on occasion, of being obliged to cosy up with someone who belongs to a pretentious clique whose work you despise (and who, almost certainly, feels the same way about you). More rare – though it has happened to me more than twice – is the unsettling experience of finding yourself next to a Catalan media personality before whom hordes are queuing to obtain his TV spin-off while in front of your own pile of volumes, written without the cameras in mind, there stretches nothing but empty paving.
Throughout the day, the inevitable spectacle of strangers picking up your book, reading through the blurb, and then tossing it disdainfully back on the pile, is offset, thank the Lord, by the pleasantness (far more common) involved in meeting many chatty, previously unknown readers.
At the end of each hour, it is mandatory to leap up from your chair and half-sprint off to the next scheduled stand. Given that the signing sessions are chronologically sandwiched – so that the author signing from, say, four to five, is supposed to start his next signing from five to six, often at a stand several hundred yards away – writers have to barge red-faced and sweating through the crowds in an attempt to defy the rules that still govern time and space.
Sant Jordi's Day ends around twilight, which is when the booksellers start to wrap up the unsold produce then stand around smoking in exhausted gaggles, while the throngs quickly thin to next to nothing and discarded publishers' flyers lie scattered on the pavements' darkening shades of grey.
By nine o'clock, it is hard to believe that for the last 12 hours, hundreds of thousands of people have shifted their way along the boulevards of Barcelona, Girona, Tarragona, Lleida and all the smaller towns in between: families and lovers and groups of friends eyeing covers, inspecting rose petals, exchanging books, exchanging roses, all of it, nominally at least, in the name of love: family love, couple love, erotic love. There is, indeed, nothing like Catalonia's dia dels enamorats anywhere else on this planet. Saint Valentine, eat your heart out.