Uncertainty in Catalonia

By Marc Herman

One of the most important novels of the Spanish Civil War that you might never have heard of is Uncertain Glory, by Joan Sales, a book told from the Catalan point of view and banned in Spain for much of the 20th century. The book’s long-awaited English language edition will arrive just days after an October 1 secession vote in Spain’s breakaway province of Catalonia, where much of the novel is set. Whoever timed this was an evil marketing genius.

Catalan is a small language, Catalonia a small place, and Catalan literature hardly known, but when Spanish police attacked ballot lines last Sunday, using truncheons and rubber bullets against unarmed people, the Catalan city of Barcelona leapt onto front pages worldwide. And here we are — literature as news.

Uncertain Glory was history written by the losers. Sales himself was a veteran of the war from the Republican side. He knew Barcelona intimately, he wasn’t shy about criticizing the culture around him and didn’t fetishize the anti-fascist struggle — unlike many documents of the time in English. Sales’ anarchists are his allies, but can be, in the novel, hypocrites. His libertines are often just jerks, and the communists become murderers.

Barcelona doesn’t escape either. The Mediterranean port city is home to people taking advantage of the chaos, where behavior can be rationalized in the name of opposing the great evil, fascism. Though history would prove the hustlers were in the right, their side would, in the end, lose.

Which brings us to the violence of this week. Protests block Barcelona’s streets, billy clubs are out, the para-military Spanish National Guard await orders, the hospitals treat people injured by National Police sent to crush last Sunday’s vote. A secession announcement is set for days, and a response from Madrid has so far only promised more truncheons. If you’re going to sell a book about the Spanish civil war — and read one — you might as well do it the week they seem to be starting another.

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Catalonia’s long-dormant independence movement sparked back to life a long seven years ago. In 2010, Spain’s supreme court gutted an agreement struck between the Spanish government in Madrid and Catalonia’s semi-autonomous government, which had granted the Catalans long-sought protections for their use of their language, some financial changes, and the chance to define themselves as a “nation” within Spain.

The reversal of the pact between Madrid and Barcelona soured relations immediately. A lingering financial crisis and a raft of corruption cases deepened the appeal of secession among Catalans. Support for independence had never been much higher than one in four in most polls in Catalonia but now started inching up into a majority. Proving adept organizers, the Catalan pro-secession groups held a series of million-person marches. Eventually, elections led to a weak, but absolute majority for a coalition of pro-independence forces in Catalonia’s local parliament, which passed legislation calling for a referendum and, in the event of a secessionist victory, a unilateral declaration of independence from Spain.

During the seven years of protests and legal maneuvers, the pro-independence side managed to instill into its events a nearly total rejection of violence. Catalans broke not one window in nearly a decade of massive events.

That peace held until Sunday, the day of the referendum, when the Spanish police ordered the ballot boxes treated as contraband. Then glass went everywhere.

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Independence protesters in Catalonia are trying a new tactic this week, where they go completely silent for several minutes. They just stand there.

This is effective because Barcelona’s wide avenues, once filled with thousands of angry people, now turn as still as a winter forest. Sunday’s secession vote had been unbearably loud and exhausting. Voting for the referendum took place in tight little school hallways with bright tile and institutional, headache-inducing lighting.

Since the vote was technically illegal and planned in secret, the officials involved in carrying out the vote slept all weekend on the floor. Everyone in Barcelona then spent election day living in a state of constant stress. The day was punctuated with sirens and roaring engines from police vans, hours of singing and shouting from voters waiting nervously in the ballot lines, and the unsettling chuck chuck chuck of helicopters above.

In the least-lucky neighborhoods you heard glass shattering, fencing clanging onto asphalt, weapons discharging and the injured wailing. Everyone involved in this terrible week is desperate for calm and a bit of sleep. Peek in a National Police van and the Madrid government’s troops looked dangerously frazzled, too. They were billeted far from home, and their orders were to attack people for, essentially, sitting down on a schoolhouse floor.

So some silence is welcome after such a day. As the tensions continue to rise, though, even the silent treatment has become unnerving.

An amazing thing happened in the offices of the Spanish delegation in Barcelona — Spain’s “embassy” if Catalonia were another country. The building is famous for its opulence, with a grand staircase and mosaic floors, renaissance paintings in the meeting rooms and heavy oak doors in the halls. One can imagine Pizarro poring over maps in the conference room. It’s a very Spanish place.

Dozens of heavily-armed police barricaded the building against an expected protest. A crowd that had been very small swelled with newcomers, who began surging toward a line of police vans and steel barriers. About a hundred Catalan municipal firefighters, who are strong and fit, and have helmets, and who typically support secession, had taken the front line as they approached the Spanish building.

Then the thousands of protesters stopped, put their open hands in the air, fell silent, and just stood there.

Spanish functionaries peered out from the austere old consulate’s leaded windows, unsure how to respond. A few lit nervous cigarettes. Riot police, some of whom had ducked inside to use the bathroom, gathered to look curiously from a side door toward the angry crowd.

The silence, and the bewildered Spanish staring into it, encompassed centuries of Iberian history and 20th century politics. It captured modern European tensions and evergreen bigotry on both sides. And for a moment it reduced the tension. But only for a moment, because the grievances are real.

On the Catalan side, the obscurity of stories like Uncertain Glory, a novel initially shunned, but now widely-admired as a classic, isn’t a result of the book falling through a crack in memory, or a victim of a publisher’s ledger. It was banned. The language it was written in was banned, and the story it told — of a culture and a city in defeat — was too raw to find favor for decades. It’s only emerging in the U.S. because a translator, Peter Bush, made a mission of it, and only that is happening now, 61 years after the novel’s publication.

In the end, what Sales is writing about, and the Barcelona protesters are now find themselves addressing, is violence and our reaction to it. In Catalonia this week, we find ourselves facing the same questions Sales’ characters do, and the author himself presumably did in the Republican trenches. Behind the questions both in 1930s Spain and 2017 Spain is the ancient matter of who gets to use violence, and who must succumb to it, in the quest for autonomy and power.

Sales’ characters face death and betrayal because their Barcelona is a place where the usual contracts about who gets to rule have gone haywire. And that seems to be happening again in Catalonia.

The Catalans deny that they are nationalists in the negative sense, and the Spanish claim they are just doing what Lincoln the American did in another civil war. The debate, which goes as far back perhaps as Hobbes, is that the state must have a monopoly on violence and laws must be enforced. Sales’ characters squirm under that idea, and eventually commit all sorts of violence to each other, because their civil war makes it unclear who has the right to use violence and who doesn’t.

In Sales’ case — as it was in history — Spain fell to a monster, who indeed controls the country with force for the next 40 years: the dictator Franco.

Sunday’s vote stirred up these ghosts. A pro-Catalan newspaper, El Punt Avui, printed a comparison of a famous picture of police beating protesters Sunday to a similar one taken during Spain’s 1976 democratic transition.

It also stirred up, and continues to stir up, the question of state violence. Catalonia’s government knew Spanish officials in Madrid would not let the vote go forward unopposed. Most people in Barcelona including the ones lining up to vote, 2.2 million of whom did, expected arrests, searches, and indeed some violence.

No one expected 900 injured, it is fair to say; no one expected batons swung to the faces of unarmed people just standing there.

So the question now is, how far will this go? Is there a monopoly on violence in Catalonia today, and if so, will Madrid use that monopoly wisely?

If not, will Spanish President Mariano Rajoy modulate the violence, from a National Police armed with clubs to a military police armed with guns?

Will the secessionist forces, like Sales’ characters, begin to distort, and begin to believe they too have a right of ownership to the use of violence? Is this a dispute between federal and state governments or is it already a Cold Civil War?

The secessionists seem to realize they risk a return to Sales’ Barcelona, which nobody wants. The upshot of this latest micro-shift in Catalan tactics, to a silent stare, is to repeat the secessionist’s longstanding rejection of violence, as Madrid repeats its entitlement to violence. Though losing the Constitutional debate, the Catalans are winning the moral one, which may be enough to win them the political one, carrying them somewhere they failed to go in Sales’ time (and his novel). But it also shows no willingness to get out of the way. Late Wednesday a European commission released a statement calling Sunday’s use of force appropriate and proportional, opening the door to continued use of similar tactics, should the Madrid government deem it necessary to end the standoff.

The head of Catalonia’s government, a former rural mayor named Carles Puigdemont, has said that he expects to declare independence in the coming days.

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