Some friends were generous and unwise enough to react to last year’s parting of ways (following several years of auricular gloom) by booking me on blind dates. One of these came with gold-plated CV and connections, but unfortunately turned out to be a Catazombie. (If Jordi Bilbeny had a sex change I still probably wouldn’t marry him, but at least he’s not boring.) I stopped her at “If it weren’t for Spanish obfuscation, everyone would know about Catalonia’s great literary heritage” by wondering if she could name a single author writing in Catalan in the 16th to 18th centuries. After a long pause, she came up with Ausiàs March (first half of 15th), and then confirmed that, yes, she had read him. At which point proceedings drew rapidly to a close.
Having sweated my way through all the 180-odd pages of faux-Renaissance heroics of the 19th century Catalan nationalist icon Jascinto Verdaguer’s La Atlántida (sic), I get a funny feeling that this dislocation between separatist salesmen and their wares may be quite general. For the poem is nothing less than a paean to a particular Spanish traditionalist notion of nation, territory and destiny, which accords Catalonia considerable but by no means exclusive pride of place. It’s completely compatible with the mental deliria of nice old Mr Aznar, and a Catalan PP that valued literature over cosmetic surgery would quite happily have turned it into a manifesto declaration a long time ago.
The Occitan poet Mistral’s dedication starts off the fun by denying that Catalan is any more than a variant of his chosen language (“la Reneissènço de nosto lengo”), and then Verdaguer sets the tone by having a dying Pyrene, deity of the Pyrenees, hand to Hercules the keys of Spain:
Y á tu que entre les ales del cor m’ has acullida,
d’Espanya que tant amo vullte donar la clau,
d’eix pa de cel que en terra te guarda una florida
d’amor, si tràurel d’urpes tiràniques te plau.
She recalls how, after Babel, Tubal chose Spain, “the happiest of his father’s kingdoms”:
Del mon quiscú á sa branca volá: Tubal á Espanya,
dels regnes de son pare triant lo més felis,
y, abont jau Tarragona, bastía sa cabanya,
sos camps y ribes fentli recorts del paradís.
Geryon, the evil, tricephalic cowherd who is to be her nemesis, discovers that the towers he builds at Gades are equalled by those of “inmortal Girona” (“Gerona, tres veces inmortal” was the title awarded to the city to recall the three terrible sieges it suffered from Napoleon’s troops during the peninsular entanglement which the Spanish refer to as the War of Independence). But she dies, and Hercules builds her a great tomb at the eastern extremity of the Pyrenees, dividing Spain all the better from France:
Desde esta gesta d’ Hèrcules, ma dolsa Catalunya
d’altre castell de roques seure pogué á redós;
de la vehina Fransa dormí Espanya mes llunya,
fins al mar allargantse lo Pyrineu boyrós.
And so on and so forth, really!
It may be true that nationalists who have actually read Verdaguer now quietly ignore him in favour of the nonsense about the desire to recuperate ancient “liberties”, which, as Toni Soler, points out, is Barcelona’s 19th century industrial bourgeoisie’s euphemismistic way of demanding protectionism be applied to cheap British manufactured goods.
I suppose those who can’t bear to think of Verdaguer as a traitor may find hope in the odd phrase like “si tràurel d’urpes tiràniques te plau”: Spain is ruled by tyrannical claws and must therefore undergo the same destruction endured by the sinners of the poet’s Atlantis, or something.
I am such a sorry and confused person.
In the interest of fairness I also read a bunch of other contemporaneous Atlantis tracts. Generally speaking they were less coherent but also more entertaining than Verdaguer. Pick of the bunch: Ignatius L. Donnelly’s splendidly maniac Atlantis: The Antediluvian World.
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