Friday, January 10, 2014

The Man Who Wrote About Sa Pobla

At this time of the year, it is my lot to research and write about Sa Pobla and its Sant Antoni fiesta. The research is not obscure, unless you want it to be and unless you are deterred not just by texts in Catalan but also in Mallorquín (and the latter pose rather more problems than the former; finding assistance to help determine some Mallorquín meanings is not straightforward, the consequence of the dialect being obscure in its written form). The research is not obscure, thanks to a chronicler who, though he will be obscure for many, was one of Mallorca's more remarkable literary figures. He was remarkable for having combined an assiduous and devoted career as Sa Pobla's chronicler with having been an author and playwright.

Mallorca's towns have their historians and their chroniclers. If you were to put them together in a room, what tales and stories they could tell. Many of them have been told, but they are all too remote for the non-Catalan speaker. They tell so much, and so much that is overlooked because of linguistic obscurity. Biel Pieras, himself a leading Mallorcan historian and also Inca's chronicler, said at the end of June 2011 that Mallorca had lost its finest official chronicler. He was speaking about Alexandre Ballester.

78 years of age, Ballester was Sa Pobla through and through, despite having been born in Barcelona. He was only very young when his parents settled in Sa Pobla, and he was to become one of Mallorca's foremost literary figures. He wrote almost twenty plays, he wrote poetry, he wrote satirical essays and he wrote a novel, for which he received an award (the first of very many) in 1965. But he was far more than this, because he was also an historian; he was Sa Pobla's chronicler. When not writing for the theatre or for publication, he was writing about the place that, only a few months old, had become his home town, and included in his writings were those about the history of the Sant Antoni fiesta.

In late 2003, Sa Pobla town hall produced a history of the town. Its title is "Sa Pobla: The People, The Environment, The History". It was the work of four teachers from the town. Ballester wrote the foreword and wasn't being unkind when he referred to the history as "basic". It was a "basic book, indispensable for everyone who lives in, works in and loves our town". Ballester was cited extensively in the book, and one begins to get a flavour of just how diverse his own coverage was. From eleven bibliographic references, there are those to the archaeology of Talapi, a finca in the town, to the land at the turn of the twentieth century, to Albufera's "yesterdays" and to the third centenary of the Sant Antoni parish church in 1997 (the 300th anniversary of the church which replaced the original that was built in 1357).

There could have been many more references. Ballester, like any good historian, dealt with the broad picture and the specific, and included among his investigations in the latter category were those into the glosadors, themselves chroniclers of times past when communications and the perpetuation of Catalan (Mallorquín) were largely achieved by these monologuist-chanters, and into arròs brut, that most traditional of Mallorcan dishes but in truth a tradition that was bound up in the development of Albufera at the end of the nineteenth century and the cultivation of rice in the wetlands.

There is far more to Sa Pobla's history than two themes, but they are two themes which dominate its past and also its present. Albufera is one and especially the period of the English engineers - Hope, Waring, the preacher man Mister Green, Bateman and his son Lee, who adopted the Catalan Lluís name and called the Gatamoix colony after himself. The other is Sant Antoni, the tradition of the fiesta and the parish churches built in his honour. 

There is a third theme, which is agriculture and specifically the growing of potatoes. Put these three themes together, and you get what you have - a town wedded to the land and the wetland and to centuries-old tradition that was imported by the kings of Mallorca and which was invested in Sa Pobla; Sant Antoni became and remains the centre of this tradition. It is not for nothing that Sa Pobla is referred to as the capital of rural Mallorcan life, a mix of cultivation, the working of the land and superstitions and fiesta. Sa Pobla, perhaps in a self-appointed way, has assumed a role as capital also of a specifically Catalan rural life, and in its simple denomination, it asserts a position in Mallorcan history as a sort of favoured town. Sa Pobla, "the populace". Not a populace but the populace. And Ballester was the man who truly asserted this position. He was the man who wrote about Sa Pobla and, in many respects, was the man who made Sa Pobla.

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