Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Lost Soul Of Mallorca

For three days from tomorrow, the Hotel Formentor becomes the location for high literary culture. They're holding the ninth annual Formentor Conversations. They'll be conversing about ghosts and lost souls in purgatory over the weekend.

They also hand out an award. The Formentor Prize for Literature is going this year to the Italian author Roberto Calasso, whose oeuvre is characterised as considering the relationship between myth and the emergence of modern consciousness. His work will feature during the conversations. Works by other authors will include those by the likes of Dickens ("A Christmas Carol"), Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.

Low brow this gathering most certainly is not, while its surroundings are those of the distinctly high brow: the hotel itself, at which you could have parted with up to 1,000 euros a couple of weeks ago to see the American violinist Hilary Hahn; the nearby La Fortalesa, which will forever now be known as Roper's house; the Villa Cortina, the object of much controversy, now seemingly being made legal so that the one-time executive president of Repsol can live in it.

Literary tradition runs deep in Mallorca, albeit for the casual observer of the island it may as well not exist. Language, let's be blunt, doesn't help in this regard. This is a tradition that has generally not gone and will not go beyond borders. But it is there nevertheless, and Formentor plays its role. Arguably the most famous Mallorcan poem took a pine from Formentor and made it highly representative of the Mallorca School of poets: Miquel Costa i Llobera's "El pi de Formentor", written in 1875.

Costa i Llobera died in 1922. He was witness therefore to the early days of  Mallorca's tourism that grew in the years of the twentieth century prior to the Civil War. This was a tourism that was essentially high brow. It had to be in those days - travel was for the wealthy, and in its touristic version it was predominantly for the culture-seeker and the cultured, notwithstanding the occasional Bohemians. The Formentor Conversations are, therefore, like an echo of those distant days, not least because the founder of the hotel, the Argentine poet Adan Diehl, looked upon his building as a haven for the artistic and literary minded.

The Conversations, with their allusion to that past, are an example of the striking contrasts of this island. This is civilised Mallorca, one of culture, refinement and no small amount of money. In a touristic sense it is the complete opposite of the conversations held about Magalluf. Yet that allusion to the past and to what supplanted it when mass tourism started makes even more stark the extent to which Mallorca was transformed by its "industrial revolution".

There are all sorts of examples of the ways in which societies have undergone immense change over a comparatively short period of time - parts of the Middle East, for instance - and in Mallorca's case this transformation has occurred over the period of only two generations. It is an experience that has been lived by many and one that can perhaps be all too easily overlooked.

When researchers recently asked about current-day opinions regarding tourism - a survey in light of "saturation" - it was notable that the older generation felt the saturation sensation most acutely. Notable but not surprising. Here is a generation which, as an example, can recall how at the end of the 1950s Can Picafort had a couple of small hotels, a series of tracks made from sand, and a row of dunes. Now, it is a resort of high-density urbanisation. There aren't the dunes. They were flattened.

It was this process of "Balearisation" - the unprecedented development of the coasts - which contributed to Mallorca's one-time reputation. A further process of gentrification has shifted that reputation dramatically, but this makes it also easy to overlook how Mallorca was once shorthand for naffness.

The Formentor Conversations are an extreme and somewhat obscure manifestation of the extension to this gentrification, a desire to attempt to reclaim some essence of former times. There are things that cannot be reclaimed - the dunes that were built on, for example - but others can be. And one is a degree of civility. A further one is a spot of respect.

There is a tendency to argue that Mallorca should be grateful for the legacy bestowed upon it by mass tourism. There is gratitude, but here is a word that can disguise a patronising demand for servility. In the global economy, tourism no longer works as it once did, with the destination and its people expected to lump whatever was thrown at them.

Mallorca has a right to decide for itself, and within the context of current debates regarding saturation and sustainability, it may well do. Consequences of Balearisation will remain, but the lost soul of its purgatory can be reclaimed.

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