PRESIDENT RAJOY AND THE STARSHIP THAT FAILED TO LAND ON NOU CAMP: ‘ESPERPENTO’, LOW SELF-ESTEEM AND CERVANTES

My doctoral student Josie Swarbrick, who is working on the representation of monstrous masculinity in SF cinema, visited last week my SF class to offer a presentation based on one of her dissertation’s chapters, the one on District 9. In that film a massive alien starship reaches Johannesburg carrying thousands of refugees who have nowhere else to go. Their unenthusiastic South African hosts decide to lock them in an insalubrious township placed in, precisely, District 9, as they decide how to cope with these unwelcome, unsightly visitors. If you have seen the film you know that the central plot concerns the accidental transformation of a pathetic white man into one of the frankly disgusting ‘prawns’, a metamorphosis usually read in the context of post-Apartheid policies but that Josie is reading taking into account this man’s strange fall out of the human species.

District 9 is exceptional, as any SF fan knows, because it changed the trope of the alien invasion in cinema by turning the extraterrestrial visitors into refugees and by setting the action outside the habitual US context. Its closest precedent is possibly Alien Nation (1988, TV series 1989-1990), in which the aliens are not invaders, either, but runaway slaves seeking refuge from their masters in the Los Angeles area. Men in Black (1997) included a scene showing the MIBs patrolling the Mexican border, trying to make sure that no illegal aliens would cross it. In the more recent Monsters (2010) the metaphorical link between the extraterrestrial alien and the illegal human migrant is emphasized: the monsters of the title have invaded most of Earth and only the USA remains a safe haven for humans–or so Americans think. Like real Americans today, the fictional Americans of Monsters seem to believe that migration can be stopped, which is never the case.

I started a conversation about the aliens in these films and I asked my students what kind of stories we could tell, taking into account the shameful humanitarian crisis affecting the poor refugees stranded in Turkey, Greece and Eastern Europe. Imagine, I said, that a spaceship similar to the one in District 9 lands on Nou Camp, here in the middle of Barcelona… How does the story continue? And the students laughed. As Laia explained, one can easily imagine President Obama addressing visitors from outer space, but the idea of President Rajoy doing the same is simply hilarious (President Puigdemont seems to be slightly less hilarious, but still…). Laia herself added that if a spaceship landed in Spain this would result in another episode of Aquí no hay quien viva, the popular TV sitcom about a group of raucous neighbours.

At the end of the 1960s, Carlo Fruttero, editor of the SF publication series Urania, the most important one in Italy of its kind, was asked why he never published Italian SF. Famously, he replied that it “was impossible to imagine a flying saucer landing in Lucca”, a controversial statement that, of course, only spurred the imagination of Italian SF authors. I’m not familiar with Italian SF, and not even that much with Spanish SF, and I don’t know whether a starship has ever landed in Lucca. I know that Spanish writer Tomás Salvador produced an absolute masterpiece, even translated into English, with his tale of a generation ship, La nave (1959). Of course, this ship never lands in Franco’s Spain, it has been already travelling in space for many years when the story begins.

The aliens, curiously, have trodden Catalan land in at least two very well-known novels. One is Manuel de Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (one alien at least is stranded after her companions manage to massacre practically all humans before abandoning their intended colonization project). The other is, there we go again, the hilarious Sin noticias de Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza (serialized 1990 in El País, published as a volume in 1991).

In this novel the eponymous Gurb, a metamorphic alien, takes the physical appearance of singer Marta Sánchez (!) and decides to explore Barcelona, going awol. Another alien, a shy fellow quite disturbed by his mate’s French leave, follows his tracks also using a variety of human disguises, each more outrageous than the previous one. My fellow citizens respond with total dead-pan indifference to the absurd situations in which the poor alien finds himself in the midst of the chaotic upheaval of the city which preceded the Olympic Games of 1992. This is the funniest book of any kind I have ever read, more than Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, more than Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember re-reading it once on the train and having to give up because I could not suppress my laughter. And, to be honest, I would have been very happy to have written Gurb.

Mendoza practices in Gurb the very Spanish literary genre of the ‘esperpento’; Aquí no hay quien viva is its television version. ‘Esperpento’, usually associated with writer Ramón María del Valle-Inclán is, supposedly, a deformed mirror of Spanish society which emphasizes with great irony its worst traits, among them its vulgarity, widespread ignorance, excessive pride, lazy habits and so on. It connects closely with the older genre of the picaresque novel but goes much further in highlighting the grotesque in local Spanish reality. Any Spanish literary critic will tell you that there is no consensus on whether ‘esperpento’ is a deformed or an exact mirror image of Spain (by the way, in Catalonia we also have ‘esperpento’ as seen in the popular TV political satire Polònia).

I believe that ‘esperpento’ is the reason why Laia and my other students laugh at the idea of President Rajoy welcoming the aliens. Unlike what is often believed, the inability to imagine the aliens landing on Nou Camp or in Lucca has nothing to do with the alleged low technological level of Spanish and Italian societies, as both societies are like any other in the West in that sense. It’s not, either, a matter of occupying secondary positions in the world order for District 9 and Monsters show that being a world leader is no longer a requirement to the object of the aliens’ attention in SF movies. I don’t know how things work in Italy, but Spain is dominated by a terrifying low self-esteem which ‘esperpento’ tries to mask with humour. That might explain the lack of alien visitors.

I’m sure that many others have given far more satisfactory explanations of why Spaniards have generated ‘esperpento’ as a strategy to cope with Spanish reality. Also stuck in a similar post-Imperial decadence, England has reacted very differently–unless, that is, we come to the conclusion that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and certainly Monty Python are also ‘esperpento’, and perhaps they are. Americans have also generated plenty of humour around the idea of the visiting alien. I’m thinking of some TV series: Mork and Mindy (1978-82) the sitcom that made Robin Williams a star, Alf (1986-1990) with its furry alien visitor or Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001). In US culture, however, the humour at the expense of alien contact is perfectly compatible with the countless examples of fictional American Presidents facing alien visitors or invaders in far more dramatic circumstances. It must be, as I say, a matter of self-esteem. Theirs is so high that American cannot conceive of aliens visiting first other countries on Earth–I’m sure they would be flabbergasted if the aliens chose China.

One of the saddest films I have seen on the topic of alien contact is Óscar Aíbar’s bitter-sweet Platillos volantes (2003). This movie tells the pathetic real-life story of José Félix Rodríguez Montero (47), a textile worker, and Juan Turu Vallés (21), an accountant in the same Terrassa factory, near Barcelona, who committed suicide on 20 June 1972. Following the supposed call of the aliens and believing that they had somehow mutated, the two men lay down their heads on the tracks of the Barcelona-Zaragoza railway line convinced that dying was a one-way ticket to Jupiter.

I’m not the only spectator to have seen in these two poor deluded men the shadow of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza, although they seem to have been both Quijotes. Aíbar’s film is a singular portrait of a naïve, poorly educated Spain easily misled by fantasies of alien contact, as I remember from my own childhood (yes, I did believe in aliens then… now I want to believe). If this were an American film, of course, José Félix and Juan would have eventually met the aliens, proven everyone wrong, and been carried away by an breath-taking starship to Jupiter and beyond. Being Spanish, the film is dominated by Cervantes’s legacy and, so, must punish those who dare fantasize–or, rather, since this is a real-life story, the director is conditioned by Cervantes’ legacy to choose this sad tale, rather than a more uplifting fantasy, for his film. True, he made amends with El bosc (2012), but the damage is done.

To sum up, then, Cervantes + ‘esperpento’ + Spanish post-Imperial low self-esteem = no alien contact. And just in case you were thinking of this, yes, Rajoy with his inexistent English and his frequent gaffes seems to embody much of this inconvenient mixture. It is certainly easier to imagine Pedro Sánchez, Albert Rivera, Pablo Iglesias or Alberto Garzón, perhaps even Soraya Saéz de Santamaría (?), engaging in elegant alien contact on behalf of Spain.

Perhaps a clear sign of the decadence of American world leadership is that soon we may have to imagine Donald Trump welcoming the aliens–now, that’s ‘esperpento’…

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