FAILING TO EXIST: THE UNITED STATES OF EUROPE AND THE EUROVISION SONG CONTEST

Just one year ago I wrote a post about Conchita Wurst’s unexpected triumph at the Eurovision Song Contest. This year’s edition was broadcast last Saturday from Austria, her homeland. The winner was the handsome Måns Zelmerlöw, representing Sweden, in tight competition with the pretty Polina Gagarina, representing Russia. I know that my remark is far from original, but their singing in English highlights the main reason why the United States of Europe are failing to materialize: we are too reluctant to accepting our diverse cultural and linguistic identities.

If I recall this correctly, the singers using their national language were representing Italy (third in the grand final), Montenegro (thirteenth), Romania (fifteenth), Spain (twenty-first) and France (twenty-fifth). The rest of the twenty-seven sang in English, or, rather, the bad English full of clichés that surfaces when you translate from your own language lyrics already quite cheesy. Of course, singing in English guarantees no good results: look at the United Kingdom’s position–twenty four out of twenty-seven… (Australia, the guest country, did much better, making it to a fifth position which should have been a second). And, as usual, the Spanish media and social networks have deplored that Edurne only got 15 points… because she sang in Spanish–well, send a Basque singer, or Catalan, or Galician, and see if that improves matters. And once again, our local jury delegate, Lara Ciscar, spoke only mediocre English, saving us at least from the embarrassment of last year’s ‘oit points.’ Just barely.

My personal favourite was Latvian Aminata’s “Love Injected”, which was also accompanied, in my view, by the best, most elegant, atmospheric mise-en-scène. Aminata, the festival’s commentators explained, is the daughter of a Russian mother and a Burkina-Fasso father, but regards herself as profoundly Latvian… whatever that means, for I simply don’t know. She sang in English which, I guess, must be for Latvians as shocking as it would be for me to hear Manel (local most popular Catalan band) sing in Shakespeare’s language. So, on surface, beautiful black Aminata does represent Europe’s plurality, as did the winner of 2012, the Swede Loreen (born Lorine Zineb Nora Talhaoui in Stockholm to Moroccan Amazigh parents). Yet, this is only on surface for as long as the ruling language is English the plurality remains unseen (and, above all, unheard).

Knez, the gentleman from Montenegro who offered us the beautiful ‘Adio’, sang, I assume (excuse my stupidity) in Serbian. Nobody bothered to explain which of the four languages spoken in his country he sang in. Anyway, the Eurovision Song Contest website does offer translations of the lyrics into English (…and French, since Francophone speakers seemingly still believe that theirs is a pan-European language…) This translation, then, could have been easily used in subtitles, helping us viewers understand what Knez sang about (not that this was strictly necessary as the title ‘Adio’ helped very much). In Spain’s case it would certainly have helped as it was hard to guess why Edurne was crying very pretty tears as she danced with a great-looking male dancer (mourning a dead lover, it transpires). The Rumanians, offering a moving song on the sorrows of abandoning your children to migrate elsewhere–now that’s a European subject–opted to self-translate, offering a bilingual song.

The contest is always criticised for being a shabby, old-fashioned spectacle for which nobody in their rights mind should care. To begin with, it’s not that shabby anymore and, as TV shows go, it is quite good. If, excuse me, this is an event supported mainly by gay people, then let’s give gay people the run of all European TV, it would be much more fun, believe me… I watched the contest, semi-finals and all included, because for a few evenings I got unusual variety on TV, and I heard about countries supposedly also in Europe, which never appear on my local media (or only for tragic, war-related reasons). Four years ago Azerbaijan’s Ell & Nikki won with “Running Scared” and I can still sing the chorus; I wouldn’t know, however, to place their country on a map. This does not mean that a handful of songs, more or less silly, should or can conceal tensions in European politics–everyone hoped this year Russia would NOT win with ‘A Million Voices’… a pacifist song, for God’s sake! Sorry, Polina Gagarina, I know you meant well.

Love it or hate it, the Eurovision Song Contest is the only yearly event that makes this strange idea we call Europe visible–it’s Brigadoon, remember?, that little Scottish village which in the famous Broadway musical reappears only once very hundred years. Luckily, we don’t have to wait that much, yet it is to be wondered why Europe is managing so poorly to exist. Many years ago, Robert Maxwell, the Czechoslovakian-born British media mogul, founded the only newspaper with a truly pan-European vocation, simply called The European. Its short life (May 1990 to December 1998) and reduced market (a weekly circulation of just 180,000 against the planed 225,000) is, to me, a sign of Europe’s inability to believe in itself as a political, social and cultural entity. In this context, the festival (now reaching its 60th anniversary) is simultaneously a freak event in European life and a much necessary, basic link among the disparate nations of Europe.

How is, then, the problem of this unmanageable diversity solved? We cannot all abandon our local languages for English, which is why it is a very bad sign that so many Eurovision’s singers are doing this. If this trivial event manages to highlight so clearly what our main problems are, imagine what things must be like at Strasbourg’s Parliament… I would prefer everyone to sing in their own language, using, as I suggested English subtitles for translation; in the Parliament, likewise, they use translators even though everyone speaks English (well, I assume …). What simple kills me is how European television is not happening at all beyond that evening every May. I have noticed that the Germans have managed to sell us lots and lots of second-rate TV movies but, beyond this, how come we have never heard of Måns Zelmerlöw, Polina Gagarina, Aminata or Knez if they are so famous in their own countries? Just to mention a few names… And will it matter for Latvia (or Estonia) that so many millions outside their country voted for their song and its multicultural lady singer?

Um, one last barb for Catalan nationalism: all those who complain that we waste plenty of money by sending Spanish singers to the contest, as they never win–wouldn’t you be pleased if Manel won singing in Catalan? Um, what a chance to explain Catalan independence to this Europe who cares nothing for it…

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‘VAMOS A LA PLAYA, OH, OH, OH…’: ACADEMIC LIFE (IN SOUTHERN EUROPE, ON A TRULY GLORIOUS DAY)

It’s an absolutely glorious day outside, with temperatures around an ideal 25º, not a cloud in sight. The beach is 5 kms. away, reachable in under 40 minutes by metro and here I am, hearing in my head the chorus of that catchy 1983 summer hit by Italo-disco Righeira, singing in Spanish: ‘Vamos a la playa, oh, oh, oh…’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sTsVJ1PsnMs). Never mind that the song deals actually with the risks of going back to the beach after a nuclear explosion… (http://www.musica.com/letras.asp?letra=1490365). And that I hate going to the beach because I’m pale and I sunburn in five minutes, not to mention how the gritty sand finds a way all over your body… Ugh. It’s just this strange feeling that nothing and nobody prevents me from walking away, yet I’m staying on, tied to my desk and my computer. How much easier it is to do this with grey northern skies outside the window.

I do not intend to draw a sharp line between productive northern academics and unproductive southern academics justifying the division on the grounds of how distracting the weather is. Surely, one can always find other distractions. When I was on La Caixa’s scholarship, I recall one of my peers asking genuinely surprised how come nobody was going to check on our performance as scholars, considering we would be abroad, we were young and, well, you know?, fill in the rest. The person in charge of us replied, very politely, ‘we trust you; you know how hard it’s been to get here and you won’t start misbehaving now.’ ‘My!,’ I thought, ‘aren’t we strange people?’ Twenty years later, I have the same feeling: we, academics, are very strange. Here I am, tied to my desk, writing this post as I hope for the energy to continue the complicated article I’m working on to descend on me… instead of picking up my bag and heading to the sea… beaconing out there… It seems I’m still to be trusted.

The problem is that as I age I find my trustworthiness increasingly stupid (of me). Less vocational colleagues are surely if not down on the actual beach, possibly taking it easy in ways that my vocation spoiled for me from day one. Meanwhile, here I am, all stressed out because time runs fast and I won’t be able to do, in this strange semester with no teaching, all the writing I vowed I would do. Why all that stress, I wonder? As I brace myself to reach the ripe age of fifty next year, I am starting to wonder whether it is worth it, the whole thing of trying to accomplish something–and this nagging doubt returns with the intensity of a punch to the face on every sunny day.

I think of a colleague, truly upset that she had not passed her accreditation as full professor, telling me ‘if it’s going to be ‘no’, then at least they could let us go to the beach and relax.’ She, nonetheless, did not relax and got her accreditation at the second try–she’s still waiting for her merits to be acknowledged with real tenure not just a certificate but I’m 100% sure she’s not sunbathing. Good for her? I wonder… I’m thinking also of this other colleague who worked wonderfully hard to get the same accreditation, but then lost tenure to someone else in her own Department. Already past sixty, this admired colleague decided to retire–telling none of us, her colleagues for decades in Cultural Studies. I do wonder what went through her head and whether she finally decided that the beach made more sense. I hope she is happy now.

Of course, I’m way too young for that kind of decision. Still, just as forty certainly is a time of personal crisis, fifty seems to be the natural time for an academic crisis (in the Humanities, I’m aware that scientific research is quite different, bringing in earlier crises). Fifty is when you start measuring your colleagues in terms of how many books they’ve written and when you start thinking that the time to write your own is fast shrinking. Mind you, I am not depressed, feeling that I cannot do anything worthwhile yet. What I am considering here is that, unlike most workers whose daily schedule is marked by someone else, I determine my own and there are days when it feels like a strange masochistic exercise–why try so hard to produce something that, as a younger colleague noted with a smile, nobody will want to read, anyway? Why not relax and go to the beach instead? Is it a sense of duty? Is it pure ego?

I keep on telling myself that as long as football players and top models matter, academic work matters–but, who am I kidding? All the articles and books published this year by Spanish scholars matter far, far less than Leo Messi’s goal yesterday, the one that won Barça the League’s championship. Nobody goes on the streets to cheer for intellectual achievement, whereas thousands flooded La Rambla yesterday to celebrate Barça’s triumph. Thousands more had cheered Barça’s star player Gerard Piqué in the morning for publishing a cute photo showing his usually well-coiffured blond head all tousled. In this trivial world of ours, this matters. (Is it envy? Is it sour grapes?)

I could end up by claiming that I’m not picking up my bathing suit and towel this Monday morning out of respect for those workers who do not have the option to do so, even for the unemployed who sadly have all the time in the world to enjoy sunshine but little reason to enjoy themselves. But no, this is hypocrisy–it’s pure ego, the hope that this is finally the article that makes my reputation (if ever an article written by a Southern European academic can achieve that). The hope that next comes a book, and another, and another. It is also, a little bit or all of it, cultural clash between the northern Puritan work ethos born of melancholy grey skies and the southern temptation to take life as it comes born of cheerful blue skies.

The weather forecast for tomorrow announces rain…

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STAGE TO SCREEN: A POORLY UNDERSTOOD TRANSITION

I will not refer in this post to the film adaptation of stage plays, though if you’re curious, you may start by checking the IMDB list I opened last February with my students in the MA ‘Theatre Studies’ (UAB). Here it is: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls076798996/. I mean, rather, the poorly understood transition from the 19th century technologies of spectacle to the beginnings of cinema, both in France and in the United States. This is a story I learned years ago in the course of studying for a tenured position I failed to secure. I ended up transforming the report I wrote then into an online document, Teatro y Teatro Inglés: Una Breve Introducción (2000), https://ddd.uab.cat/record/122989, if you care to take a look.

I had always distrusted the many introductions to English Literature which claim that there is nothing of interest in Romantic and Victorian theatre, except for the plays of Oscar Wilde. And I was right to do so, for there may have been few 19th century plays worth printing for posterity, but the history of theatre in those years is a very exciting tale about how the many technological advances and the new urban mass audiences, both created by the Industrial Revolution in England, resulted in an relentless, thrilling stage revolution.

I had told no students the complete story because, although I teach Victorian Literature, this is focused on the novel (yes, we used to teach Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest but it felt odd, out of place). This is why I was very happy to finally get a chance within my seminar on ‘Shakespeare and the Cinema’ for the MA subject ‘Stage Arts and Other Arts’ (the MA itself is called ‘Theatre Arts’, http://masters.filescat.uab.cat/muet/). Using Shakespeare as my excuse, I tried to make sense for the benefit of my students of how cinema was born as a parasitical theatrical art to become eventually a separate, fully autonomous art. Just recall that in the USA cinemas are still called ‘theatres’. At the time of preparing my seminar I did not know about the existence of Pablo Iglesias Simón’s monograph De las tablas al celuloide: Trasvases discursivos del teatro al cine primitivo y al cine clásico de Hollywood (2007, Fundamentos), based on his doctoral dissertation, a book that I have read with great enjoyment. It is an excellent account of this little known but crucial process.

I’ll begin here by recycling my own PowerPoint presentation to mention a number of facts that may be surprising for the Shakespeare aficionado:

*Up to the 1720s, there was no serious attempt to preserve Shakespeare’s ‘original’ plays (‘original’ because he never bothered to edit them and what has survived is by no means reliable)

*David Garrick, who wanted to turned his Drury Lane theatre into the literary competitor of the spectacle-oriented Covent Garden, organized the first Shakespeare Jubilee (1769). Despite this, he himself used Restoration re-writings of Shakespeare by John Dryden and Colley Cibber, as was then the common practice.

*Throughout the 19th century Shakespeare became the object of increasingly spectacular productions aimed at a general audience.

*At the beginning of the 20th century William Poel changed this trend by foregrounding the text and using a simple pseudo-Elizabethan production design (by Edward Gordon Craig, son of stage star Ellen Terry). This was the beginning of the end for the view of Shakespeare as a popular author.

*Today, yes, Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen (cinema or TV) more than 1,000 times (see his IMDB entry http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000636/), yet although he is fundamental to understand how stage and scene connect, the real roots of this connection are to be found in 19th century popular theatre.

Now for theatre itself:
* From the early 19th century onwards Drury Lane (remember Garrick?) and Covent Garden, the only two ‘legitimate’ theatres licensed by the authorities, started competing with each other, enlarging their buildings and offering increasingly more expensive productions that required bigger audiences (even above 3,000…). These were secured by turning melodrama, imported from France in 1802 with Thomas Holcroft’s version of a play by the originator Guilbert de Pixérécourt, into the main attraction.

*As the actors’ star system grows (there no director really until the early 20th century…), the upper and middle-classes abandon the theatre for the novel (excepting opera and ballet).

*This lasted until mid-century when the Haymarket Theatre, re-decorated as an exclusive middle-class playhouse, starts offering text-based plays in a naturalist style avoiding the excesses of melodrama but still derived from it (these are the plays which Wilde later parodies and that Ibsen crumbles down).

*Melodrama thrives for as long as gaslight dominates (1803-1881), yet stage illusion and special effects need to be reconsidered with the advent of the much harsher electric light: London’s Savoy Theatre is the first in the world to be illuminated by electricity in 1881 (Boston’s Bijou follows in 1882). By 1890s most theatres have abandoned gaslight (Savoy recently pioneered the introduction of integral LED lighting).

*Cinema, which appears in the 1890s, soon starts borrowing plots and actors from melodrama, also from vaudeville (and/or music hall). Most importantly, early cinema tries to reproduce the experience of being in a theatre, using the spectator’s point of view, showing actors in their natural size and using static filming.
*Mèlies in France and Edison in the USA, however, soon see that this is not the way to go, and they start generating new film effects in the first cinema studios in the world, Montreuil (1896) and Black Maria (1896), respectively.

*Cinema’s real independence from theatre comes with the work of David Griffith, who invents what we know today as edition, wisely mixing with the series of diverse shots he and others developed (famously the close-up).

I think that what best explains the transition from spectacular stage melodrama to the cinema of spectacle is Ben-Hur. This was originally a novel by General Lew Wallace (1880), very successfully adapted for the stage in 1899. This adaptation inspired in its turn the short film Ben-Hur (1907, black and white), the long feature film Ben-Hur (1925, black and white, the third highest-grossing silent film), and finally the Technicolor blockbuster we all know, Ben-Hur (1959) with Charlton Heston. My students would not believe me when I explained that the stage adaptation included the famous chariot race, until I showed them the original poster.

To sum up, then, Victorian theatre on both sides of the Atlantic ended up offering amazing pre-electricity spectacle of a kind we can hardly imagine today. Cinema appeared precisely when electricity started complicating the continuity of the old gaslight-style of stage spectacle; initially borrowing basic techniques from theatre, cinema ended up eventually developing its own spectacular technology. Sadly, we tend to believe that this is exclusive to cinema because our current theatre (with the exception of musicals) tends to be visually quite limited. David Griffith already foretold it would be so.

About vaudeville… I was immensely pleased when I found a photo of the very popular vaudeville stars The Gumm Sisters in their first film (the short The Big Review, 1929). The youngest, Judy Garland…, was just 7. Early cinema certainly knew where to find big talent…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

TRAVELLERS AND PLANNERS: TWO STYLES IN FABULATION

I am going to sound sillier than usual in this post but I keep wondering these days why there is no research on how writers fabulate. Yes, I am aware that I am most likely misusing the word. See below.

I’m working on Black Man, an SF novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan and wondering why this thriller is so long (630 pages) and why the action is so often interrupted with long (juicy) conversations, I emailed the author. I have never ever bothered an author, except to request a formal interview in a couple of cases, as my PhD supervisor used to tell me that authors lie all the time… Well, to my surprise and delight Morgan generously answered this and many other questions (I’ll soon publish the improvised interview online at my university’s repository). One thing he clarified is that unlike what I supposed, that thrillers are written ‘backwards’ after careful planning, he had started the journey of writing the book with a clear ending in mind but with only a vague idea of the actual path he would take. Paraphrasing his words, writing Black Man was like travelling towards a hilltop glimpsed at the end of a thick jungle with little idea of how to cross it. Since, he says, he is not good at planning, he will never make the airport best-selling lists. I answered back telling him about my surprise that he is a ‘traveller’ and not a ‘planner’.

These two labels, ‘traveller’ and ‘planner’, are my own private way to distinguish between types of authors but I have never used them formally in any academic writing. There was a time, years ago, when I attended many of the presentations offered by British novelists at the British Council’s building in Barcelona (no longer offered, sadly). From their talks, I deduced that fiction writers are very keen on discussing technical matters but that nobody really asks them the right questions. The ones that do get asked refer to the habitual matters: ‘where did you get your inspiration for this or that?’, ‘were you influenced by this or that?’ Naturally. We, common readers, are always making connections and expressing curiosity about how exactly fiction is written. Yet we don’t write novels.

The problem is that, academically speaking, this curiosity is complicated to manage. I did ask Morgan whether he got the inspiration for his main character (Carl Marsalis) from an actor (Idris Elba) who seemed to connect very well with his novel; he confirmed that I had got this right and his confirmation will help me with the article I am writing, as I will be able to claim that audiovisual products do have a very direct impact on fiction writing, particularly as regards the possibility that white writers deal with black characters. Yet, this connection still explains very little about the process of what I call ‘fabulation’: what happens when, as Martin Amis recalled in a British Council presentation, the writer sits down to think about a story, spending hours looking at the computer screen and outside the window, being bored, picking his nose now and then…

Back to my topic: the many writers I heard discuss their trade alluded, mysteriously to me, to either a long process of pre-planning or to taking a journey, a favourite metaphor it seems. Michael Crichton, the best-selling author who penned Jurassic Park among many other very popular novels, used to explain that he would do research for six months, plan his forthcoming book down to the last comma and then sit down to write it. A ‘planner’, then. Stephen King is, in contrast, a ‘traveller’ of the thick-jungle-crossing kind, which also explains why all his books are overlong. My dear Charles Dickens seems to be a hybrid ‘journey planner’: I once wrote a paper on his longest novel, Bleak House, and was completely overwhelmed by the enormous effort at planning the book he had made; yet, he was at the same time quite capable of improvising new plot lines to increase the sales of his serialised works. And, as I keep on explaining, what put me off watching TV series is the fact that the writers in charge of Lost claimed to be the best of planners when they were actually travellers, and very poor ones to boot, with no real hilltop in view.

If I consider what Morgan suggests, that planners make the best-selling lists better than travellers (um, I don’t know, look at King), then this means that there is a so far little explored tension between the needs of the writer to fabulate and the needs of the text to be constrained by feasible limits. My guess is that the masterpiece is the work in which those contrary needs are best balanced. Now, for the word ‘fabulate’…

I use ‘fabulate’ in the basic sense of ‘telling invented stories’ but within Theory of Literature, or literary criticism, the word has a more specific meaning. Robert Scholes is responsible for first using ‘fabulation’ to describe the plotting of liminal novels, placed somewhere between realism and fantasy, though not quite 100% the same as magical realism (perhaps because they were Anglophone?). He did so in The Fabulators (1967), although this particular meaning of ‘fabulation’ was spread among literary scholars thanks to Fabulation and Metafiction (1979). It seems that writers were labelled ‘fabulist’ until the word ‘post-modernist’ put Scholes’ term out of fashion in the 1980s. Or not quite. Within SF, ‘fabulation’ is associated with the work of American scholar Marleen Barr, who with her volume Feminist Fabulation: Space/postmodern Fiction (1992) urged critics to correct the exclusion of women fantasists from the post-modern canon. I do not use ‘fabulate’ in this way.

I mean, rather, the psychological process which is the foundation of storytelling. For all I know, someone in Cognitive Science may be literally picking the brains of novelists to see what happens when they sit down to stare at the blank page or screen and daydream about their stories. Think of J.K. Rowling’s famous claim that Harry Potter materialized in her head during a train journey and consider the impressive effort at planning his confrontation with Voldemort into 3,500 exciting pages. A detailed reading of Rowling’s series shows, as we all know, errors and gaps, and, certainly, improvised authorial decisions but, on the whole, she knew where she was going and had a pretty good idea of the jungle paths. What she did do as she walked them down, however, is just a matter for speculation and for, mainly, fan interviews, for it seems as if we have developed in academia a manifest distrust of writers. Remember my PhD supervisor?

I was thinking, excuse my silliness, that it would be nice to have ‘making of’ documentaries about novels. We have them for movies and they offer wonderful insights into filmmaking. I have no idea whether novelists keep writing journals where they jot down observations about how, returning to Black Man, Idris Elba shaped the physical appearance of Carl Marsalis, or showing their surprise that, say, Professor Dumbledore turned out to be gay. It would be nice to read something like ‘and then I realized that Heathcliff would never get Cathy’, in the same way we get sentences like ‘and when I saw Vivien Leigh, I knew we had our Scarlett O’Hara’. Supposing the journals existed, they would only scratch the surface, of course. Yet, it would be nice to have them.

What I am discussing here also affects, naturally, other kinds of writing, including academic writing. As a teacher, I insist to my students that they MUST plan their essays in advance, yet I know from my own practice that the greatest pleasures in writing come from surprising yourself: ‘Now, where did that come from?’ Now, imagine a silly academic asking you that all the time…

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. Follow on Twitter the blog updates: @SaraMartinUAB. See my publications and activities on my personal web http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

CERCAS, HERNÁNDEZ DE MIGUEL AND MAUTHAUSEN: THE LIMITED USE OF THE NOVEL (FICTION OR NON-FICTION…)

Knowing about my recurrent interest in the Holocaust, my family gave me as Sant Jordi presents two closely related books: Javier Cercas’ non-fiction novel El impostor (2014) and Carlos Hernández de Miguel non-fiction essay Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen (2015). I have read them back-to-back, half by chance and half on purpose and the result is that I have serious doubts right now about the function of the novel in contemporary culture.

Cercas became an instant celebrity back in 2001 with the publication of Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis) and remains today one of the few Spanish novelists with a truly high literary reputation. I enjoyed his Soldados though still today I find it an over-hyped novel, a phenomenon rather than a literary masterpiece capable of withstanding the test of time. The subject of El impostor, however, intrigued me, which is why I was glad to receive the book. In case you have not heard about it, Cercas deals with the extraordinary case of Enric Marco Batlle, a compulsive liar who ended up presiding the association ‘Amical Mauthausen’ falsely claiming he was one of the 9,000 Spanish Republican prisoners locked up in a Nazi concentration camp (in Flössenburg). This affable, talkative man became the main spokesperson for the Spanish victims of the Nazis and when historian Benito Bermejo exposed him, in 2005, public opinion was sharply divided between the urge to shame him and the impulse to defend him as one of the main Spanish disseminators of knowledge about the Holocaust, quite unknown in Spain (until Schindler’s List…).

Cercas seems fascinated by Truman Capote’s dubious position when writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood (1966), the book which the American writer devoted to the two murderers of a family of farmers in Kansas. This is the volume that originated the genre we know today as ‘non-fiction’, which uses a mixture of techniques borrowed from the journalistic report and from the novel, with the difference that, unlike the latter, non-fiction is supposed to narrate the ‘truth’ (or something that approximates it).

Cercas, very cleverly, calls El impostor a ‘non-fiction novel’ so that his reader never knows whether there is any truth in it or, the opposite, whether this is fiction disguised as something else. I was first taken over by Cercas’ post-postmodern approach to his elusive subject, his constant hesitation about whether Marco’s life had any truth in it, and his insightful suggestion that Marco’s pathological lying responds to a deeper pathology in the Spanish psyche, as so many Spaniards chose to re-invent themselves as victims after the Transition. My initial admiration, though, started paling when I realised that as the volume progressed the repetitions increased without Cercas’ scratching more than Enric Marco’s surface. Above all, I was quite annoyed by the constant authorial presence in the text, that of his friends, family and even his student son, whose banal problems seemed to worry Cercas on their trip to Flössenburg more than the truths (and lies) of History. In the end, Cercas delivers a trite message about the novel as a genre: just like Marco, novelists are unreliable manipulators who will do anything it takes to pass themselves off in public for what they are not… in Cercas’ world, real writers.

Next I read Carlos Hernández de Miguel’s non-fiction essay Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, a thick book which presents itself as a work of clear didactic intent, aimed at teaching common readers the truth about the sad fate of the Spanish Republicans after 1939, when 500,000 Spaniards faced exile in France little imagining the horrors awaiting them. Hernández de Miguel, who started his own trip into Nazism chasing leads that would explain his own uncle’s experience, chose to let the few Spanish survivors speak. He disappears from the text, fusing in his portrait of these men and women his own interviews with them, testimonials kept by their families and frequent quotations from other sources, whether these are military and Government documents or well-known volumes like, for instance, Montserrat Roig’s Els catalans als camps nazis (1977). The result is extremely vivid, compelling and at the same time absolutely devastating. I have read quite a few volumes about the camps and knew about many of the atrocities I would find in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen. Even so the immediacy of the Spanish voices–and Hernández de Miguel’s adamant denunciation of the complicity among Franco, Hitler, Pétain and even the allies to let the Republican exiles die–made reading this volume a very intense experience. A true History lesson.

As I read Los últimos españoles… I could not stop thinking, logically, of Cercas’ novel, for what Hernández de Miguel’s narrates is the truth that Enric Marco usurped for his own false biography. Being familiar with Marco’s very public downfall through the media before reading El impostor, I already knew that his lie was grotesque. Yet, when reading the disheartening memories of the real survivors, and understanding the depth of their still unacknowledged grief ad suffering, Marco’s lie appears to be hideous and unpardonable. I am now convinced that Cercas made a very serious mistake in choosing for his novel this monster and not one of the 9,000 lives that passed through Mauthausen and similar places.

Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen produces the same intense disgust with the human species that many other books on Nazism produce, for the facts narrated touch the very marrow of evil. No wonder many survivors decided to keep silent, seeing that family and friends would not believe them. If you are familiar with Primo Levi’s If This is a Man (1947), a volume absolutely fundamental to understand Nazism and the Holocaust, but also human nature, you’ll find that Hernández de Miguel’s survivors tread the same dark territory.

Cercas, who has quite a cavalier attitude towards the recent process in favour of recovering historical memory in Spain, may be regarded as a good literary writer but I find in the end his work quite trivial in comparison to what Hernández de Miguel provides the reader with in his volume. At one point in El impostor, Cercas (I’m not sure whether the man himself or a meta-fictional version) claims that Marco could fabricate his ersatz victim personality because of the rampant historical kitsch. He doesn’t explain himself clearly but he seems to mean that kind of superficial, sentimental (or morbid) fashion for Holocaust stories that has led to perversions such as best-selling novel The Book Thief. I hope he’s not thinking of Schindler’s List for we owe Thomas Keneally and Steven Spielberg much more than they’re credited for. I have no idea what Cercas thinks of Hernández de Miguel’s book but what worries me is that is can be mistaken for historical kitsch. It is not.

I express in my title doubts about the function of the novel today and perhaps I mean the novelist. Hernández de Miguel takes a back seat but even so he makes his indignation palpable all through his book. In contrast, Cercas’ literary vanity is all he thinks about. Novelists used to be good at writing well and spreading indignation (Charles Dickens…) but it seems that now these two aims are incompatible. If you ask me, in the end I even find much better Literature in Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen than in El impostor, in the essay than in the novel, non-fiction both. I have no doubt whatsoever about which is the truly good book.

Now, visit www.deportados.es and let’s continue thinking–for here’s the irony: as I read Los últimos españoles de Mauthausen, I wished Hernández de Miguel had made a documentary mini-series which millions would watch instead of a book which only a few thousand will read. So much for the power of the written word…

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