Saturday, March 01, 2014

Carnival: Inverting the established order

General Franco's old mate Benito Mussolini was the first to realise that carnival might not just be an ideal celebration for the fascist state with authoritarian or totalitarian tendencies. For Benito, there was a problem with the masks. They could be used to hide possible criminal or subversive elements. They were a matter of national security. Mussolini, therefore, banned the Venice Carnival, and once Franco had taken control of Spain, he took a leaf out of Mussolini's book and banned the carnival in Cadíz. In fact, he didn't stop there. He banned it everywhere. Like Mussolini, he sensed possible subversiveness because of the wearing of masks, while the church weighed in and suggested that carnivals were all a bit of an excuse for licentious behaviour.

The Cadíz Carnival was the original carnival in Spain, and its inspiration was the carnival tradition in Italy, notably that of Venice, but also elsewhere. It was Italian merchants, especially those from Genoa, who helped to create the Cadíz Carnival, and despite various attempts over the centuries by the church to ban it, it continued and grew until Franco stepped in.

The banning orders weren't necessarily that well observed. Even in Cadíz, they managed to have a carnival in secret - quite how, I'm not entirely sure - while in more remote parts of Spain, the islands for instance, they could get away with more than was the case in the main urban centres on the mainland. The carnival in Santa Cruz in Tenerife more or less carried on uninterrupted but under a different name, the Winter Festival.

Mallorca doesn't have the same tradition of carnival as, say, Tenerife, but carnival there most definitely is and its popularity has arguably never been stronger than it is today. Every town has its carnival, and in some towns there are more than the one, depending on the parts of a town - Santa Margalida, just as an example, has three separate carnival parades.

Yet, and it is a familiar lament with the winter fiestas and celebrations, little attempt is made to turn carnival in Mallorca into something with which to attract the tourism punter. There may not be parades on a similar scale to those of Cadíz or Santa Cruz, but there is often much to be said for events that are less grand; it can be easier to enjoy them.

Observed through British eyes - the eyes of the British tourist, that is - it might be argued that carnival doesn't carry a great deal of weight because it isn't a British tradition. Perhaps so, but the British have their own way of celebrating the days preceding the start of Lent, and they are as peculiar as some aspects of carnival. Pancake Day is as mad as the burying of the sardine, and once upon a time it was a staple of news reports. Perhaps it still is, I couldn't honestly say, but I well recall the footage of housewives with headscarves and curlers dashing along streets with frying-pans. Things don't get much madder than that. Or do they?

German tourists, unlike their British counterparts, would be fully aware of the craziness that carnival can create. Unaware of the strength of carnival in Germany, I once switched on the telly there and was confronted with what looked like some parliamentary session or other that was being staged by Coco the Clown and his friends. After some minutes I realised it was a parliamentary session being staged by Coco. Politician sorts actually dress up in silly outfits for carnival. Whoever said the Germans lacked a sense of humour? And a sense of humour is required, if you happen to be a male, for the tradition of females seeking out males wearing ties and cutting these ties off with pairs of scissors. Bonkers or what?

And that - bonkers - is the essence of carnival. Masks, fancy dress, colour and even more colour; they will all be in evidence today, as they have already been in evidence around Mallorca these past couple of days. Maybe there is something to be said for Mallorca inventing itself as a sort of carnival island, staging grander parades and seeking to upstage Tenerife. But one supposes that would be beyond the wit of someone to organise it and, as importantly, promote it.

That there isn't really much by way of carnival promotion for the tourist is, in one particular way, odd. This is because of how carnival is now perceived, if only in scholarly circles. The foremost authority on carnival in Mallorca is Caterina Valriu. She has written two books about carnival which draw on the research that went into her dissertation. This was based on oral history, i.e. people's personal recollections. And she considered how carnival was - pre-tourism - with how it now is. It is the very use of the term pre-tourism which indicates that current-day carnival has, not unlike other celebrations on the island, been moulded to suit a potential tourism market. Pre-tourism, carnival was an occasion to "invert the established order" and for satire, excess, food, drink and sex. While some of this does still exist, Caterina Valriu's point is that sophistication and originality have taken precedence over simpler and baser instincts that prevailed pre-tourism.

And it was those baser instincts which of course didn't appeal to Franco. He wasn't one for people having fun, as fun was not compatible with another F-word.


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