LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: WRITING INSIDE SOMEONE ELSE鈥橲 BORDERS

NOTE: This post was originally written on 20 December 2021, but it’s published now, months later because of the cyberattack that UAB suffered then and that caused the temporary suspension of this blog

I鈥檓 borrowing for this post the famous phrase 鈥渓ocation, location, location鈥, coined by Harold Samuel to describe the three things that matter most in the real estate market. I won鈥檛 be dealing with property, however, but with the limits in the choice of settings for fiction, inspired by a film and a novel. The film is Ridley Scott鈥檚 The Last Duel (2021) and the novel V铆ctor Garc铆a Tur鈥檚 L鈥橝igua que Vols [The water you want] also of 2021. Though vastly different, both are incursions into a community by a foreign storyteller who might not be best qualified to tell the story precisely by reason of his being an outsider. I question here the assumption that authors are free to tell any tale they please regardless of where it is located, with some caveats about nationalism and national history.

When he made in 1992 the truly horrendous 1492: The Conquest of Paradise, with Gerard Depardieu playing Christopher Columbus, English director Ridley Scott was asked many times why he had wanted to make this film instead of leaving the matter to Spaniards. He always replied, increasingly annoyed, that no Spanish director had showed any interest in commemorating Columbus as a national hero in the 500th anniversary of his first American landing and, so, the story was his to tell. This elicits two immediate contradictory reactions: a) fair enough, b) did Scott personally ask all Spanish directors about their intentions? Actually three reactions, the third one of dismay, since a variety of Spanish directors have indeed told the story of Crist贸bal Col贸n; Scott was clearly not familiar with them nor interested in their films.

The Last Duel seems affected by a similar situation: since no French director had bothered to tell this notorious rape revenge story, set in 14th century France, why shouldn鈥檛 Scott tell it? The answer is that, as many reviewers and spectators have noticed, we may be no longer willing to accept films in which the original languages and national cultures are replaced by English and by a generically Anglo-American approach. There have been thousands of Anglophone films set in non-Anglophone locations, of course, but somehow The Last Duel makes this artifice particularly annoying. Imagine a French film set in the American west in which all the characters speak French simply because that is the language of the film producers, and you will quickly understand how wrong Scott鈥檚 film is. Add to this the socio-cultural distance between the 14th and the 21st century, and between Scott鈥檚 post #MeToo context and his historical material, and you have the explanation for why The Last Duel has failed at the box office.

I know that the point I am making is close to pure nonsense if we think of the long tradition of telling stories set in other lands which proliferates in Anglophones cultures. Although Italian by birth, Romeo and Juliet have always spoken English, even in the film version by Italian director Franco Zeffirelli. Shakespeare鈥檚 blatant cultural appropriation is not usually disputed by Italians, just as Danes don鈥檛 bother to complain that the characters in Hamlet should be speaking Danish. I think, however, that this type of cultural colonialism is suspect, to say the least. I am imagining now what it would be like to have Ridley Scott come to Catalonia to make a film about, for instance, the execution of Llu铆s Companys 鈥搕he President of the Catalan Government murdered by Franco鈥檚 regime in 1940 with the Gestapo鈥檚 collaboration鈥 in which not a word of Catalan was heard because the whole cast spoke in English (would Edward Norton play Companys?). No matter how that would help to publicize Companys鈥 tragedy internationally, I would be mightily annoyed as a Catalan native. If, supposing, Scott were interested in Companys (after all, the subject matter of The Last Duel is far more remote), then the best thing he could do would be to put his production machinery at the service of a Catalan director, such as Manuel Huerga who has already worked on a film on Companys, or put himself at the head of a Catalan team, including a Catalan cast, so that the film鈥檚 credibility would be enhanced as much as possible. In The Last Duel any credibility the film might have is thoroughly destroyed by the American accents and American body language of actors (and film screenwriters) Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, totally impossible to accept as feudal French aristocrats.

Am I saying that a 鈥榯o-each-their-own鈥 approach is the only narrative possibility? Not quite. What I am saying is that even though in many cases it makes sense to accept the artifice and conventions of filmmaking, the structure of feeling regarding this matter may be changing. It was easier for Ridley Scott to convince us in 2000 that New Zealander-Australian actor Russell Crowe was a Roman general than it is now to propose that we accept Matt Damon as a medieval French warrior, and not just because the Roman civilization is long gone whereas France is very much alive. The principle that Quentin Tarantino established in Inglorious Basterds (2009) by which film characters should speak realistically in their own languages or with an accent if they spoke another language has never caught on, nor has the idea that cultural-linguistic barriers need to be acknowledged. Watching the rather overrated Encanto this Christmas, I was really appalled by Disney鈥檚 insistence that using accented English for Colombian characters who logically should only use Spanish makes sense. It does not, and it should not.

Now for the novel by V铆ctor Garc铆a Tur, L鈥橝igua que Vols, a text written in Catalan but set in Qu茅bec. Again, I acknowledge that I am defending an almost non-sensical argumentation if I think that my favourite Catalan author, Marc Pastor, has set some of his novels (like Bioko or Farishta) in exotic locations, using only Catalan as the language for all his characters; the same goes for Albert S谩nchez Pi帽ol鈥檚 La Pell Freda, in which the main protagonist is Irish. That did bother me (why couldn鈥檛 this guy be Catalan, I wondered?), but less than I am bothered by the Quebecois family in Garc铆a Tur鈥檚 novel, perhaps because Pastor and Pi帽ol write in the tradition of the exotic novel inherited from the Anglophone nations, whereas Garc铆a Tur is writing in the realist tradition that is prevalent in Catalan. Funnily, I had a conversation with the author at the time when he was writing L鈥橝igua que Vols, and he was very much surprised by my point of view. Even more funnily, he writes in the postface that he understands the dangers of writing about a foreign community which he does not know first-hand, and promises not to do it again. He then proceeds to announce that his next novel will be science fiction, a genre in which writers are far freer to choose who they write about.

L鈥橝igua que Vols tells the simple story of a family reunion called by the matriarch, 76-year-old Marie, a widow and former theatre actor. The four siblings 鈥揓P, Hel猫ne, Laura, Anne-Sophie鈥 visit the downtrodden house by the lake, bought by their late father, and get updated about the state of each other鈥檚 lives. They speak plenty but cannot be really said to communicate, and nothing terribly dramatic happens until the end of the novel, though in a rather subdued way. As I read the text, written in a beautifully flowing Catalan, I was thinking of those enjoyable French films, such as Guillaume Canet鈥檚 Les Petits Mouchoirs (2010) and its sequel, which always make me wonder why we don鈥檛 have any movie that effective in Spanish or Catalan. At the same time, I was always wondering at each turn of the page, why Garc铆a Tur鈥檚 characters were not Catalan, and why their ramshackle home was not located by a Catalan lake. As I read, I was all the time under the very uncomfortable impression that they were dubbed, which was very much complicated by the author鈥檚 note presenting the Catalan text as a translation of a French-language Quebecois novel published in 1996. What a complicated pirouette鈥

It took me a while to understand why L鈥橝igua que Vols is not set in Catalonia, though at the same time I hope I am totally wrong. The novel is set in 1995, the date of the second (failed) referendum for independence in Qu茅bec; the first one was held in 1980. The siblings discuss their preferences, with Laura being very much in favour of independence and even attempting to buy her brother JP鈥檚 vote for the cause, though this is not centrally a political novel. At one point, however, JP gives a rather long speech about how tired he is of the whole independence debate, and how he envies Parisians because they don鈥檛 wake up in the morning thinking of their nation. They just go on with their life. JP also argues that it must be nice for people in ordinary countries unencumbered by independentist issues to complain about their nation. In contrast, he says, the Quebecois can never criticize their nation because it feels disloyal. My impression is that this is how Garc铆a Tur feels about Catalan independence but he chose a roundabout route to express himself, putting his own feelings and opinions in the mouth of a Quebecois character. His novel is, then, a sort of roman-脿-clef where everything Quebecois stands for something secretly Catalan. I just wish this was not the case, and the novel was overtly about Catalonia. It just would feel more authentic.

To conclude, what I propose is that each storyteller carefully considers their choice of location, beyond their first impulse. If tempted to set a story elsewhere, within someone else鈥檚 borders, the question to ask should be why this is necessary. Can a local person tell the story better? Why is the foreign location necessary if the tale can be set within one鈥檚 own borders? And always consider the opposite possibility: would Ridley Scott be happy with a French-language film about Queen Victoria?, would Garc铆a Tur enjoy a novel in Quebecois French with a cast of all-Catalan characters set in Catalonia? I may be limiting the scope of much fiction, historical or contemporary, but I believe these are questions that need to be addressed. Location, location, location鈥

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the posts is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/