Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Book Of The Absurd

Gabriel García Márquez should have held on for a few more days, preferably until the twenty-second or the twenty-third of the month. Had it been the twenty-second, he would have died on the same day in 1616 as Miguel de Cervantes. If the twenty-third, it would have been the same day as Cervantes was buried. It would also have been World Book Day and Saint George's Day, aka (in Catalan) the Diada de Sant Jordi.

García Márquez was the modern Cervantes; his story-telling elevated him to an equal status. They are the two greatest novelists in the Spanish language and they both left an enormous legacy. With Cervantes it was "Don Quijote" and quixotism. García Márquez gave us the epic "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" and magical realism. This combination of the everyday with the fantastical will not pass into dictionary usage in the way that quixotism has, but magical realism is an enduring element of contemporary culture. The juxtaposition of the normal and the absurd can, for example, describe much comedy. As such, García Márquez placed the real next to the surreal. It was story-telling with a splash of Dalism.

There was a common thread to these two literary greats' work. The absurd. A reason why Cervantes is still so meaningful today is that quixotism, the pursuit of impractical ideals that can lead to absurd consequences, might be used as a metaphor for certain political, societal or business aims. If one were being really harsh, one might describe the whole European "project" as quixotic. But then one would have to have a real downer on Europe in order to do so.

The death of García Márquez has been met in Spain with grief tempered with pride at his literary achievements. But though he attained a status to match Cervantes, for the Spanish there is one very crucial difference. He wasn't Spanish. He was a standard-bearer for the Spanish language and so therefore for the notion of "Spanishness", but having been Colombian he can't be claimed as Spain's own.

Placing Cervantes and García Márquez on a similar pedestal, one separated by over three centuries, should offer a pause for thought. Despite a rich literary tradition, Spanish has failed to produce novelists or other writers of genuinely global legendary status. Cervantes died, remarkably enough, only one day before William Shakespeare, just one writer in English among numerous others with legendary status. Germany has given several - Böll, the Brothers Grimm, Grass, Hesse, Thomas Mann. French has been about as prolific as English - Honoré de Balzac, Albert Camus, Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant, Marcel Proust, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile Zola, the list goes on.

Spain possessed global presence and the Spanish language still possesses global diffusion and usage. A one-time great power, criteria were in place for literary cultural export in the original language and in translation. Yet somehow, it never really happened in the sense that Spanish writers did not attain the reputations of those from other major European powers. I am trying to think of a good explanation as to why, but I'm struggling.

One conclusion might be that Spain, regardless of one-time empire and that global presence, was and remained on the cultural periphery in European terms. But if this was the case with written culture, the same can't be said for other artistic endeavours. In the last century alone, Spain provided three towering figures to the world of art - Dali, Miró and Picasso. It has also provided the greatest of all - Francisco de Goya.

Whatever the reason, it will probably not be being mulled over too closely on 23 April. Thanks to some clever marketing by Spanish book publishers back in 1923, the burial date of Cervantes was chosen to be the day of the book. It has since become a worldwide "day", having been adopted by UNESCO. That the day happens to also be St. George's Day is just a coincidence. But the Diada de Sant Jordi is as much to do with books - more so in fact - than a saint's day.

Almost inevitably, the day is a day to proudly promote a Catalan literary tradition that was, for so many years during the last century, buried by proscription. In Sa Pobla there is a special honouring of Miquel López Crespí, a native of the town, a writer, novelist, poet and historian.

López Crespí will not be a familiar name. It is certainly not one that has travelled round the world. Yet here is a remarkable man who as a teenager was arrested in 1963 and tortured because of his opposition to the Franco regime. In honouring him, there is an honouring also, thanks to Ramon Llull, of a literary tradition - one in Catalan - which predates Spanish tradition. As a man of literature, López Crespí will doubtless recognise the greats in Castellano - Cervantes and García Márquez. But he would doubtless also reflect on the absurd. Books, in whatever language, should not be proscribed.

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