Yet another country

On April 23rd of this year, Catalonia’s Book Day, a group of some fifteen international observers of this event - journalists and MPs from all over the continent - had supper in Barcelona together with a handful of Catalans and long-term foreign residents. The observers’ knowledge of Catalonia was well above the European average: they knew pretty much who was who and what was what in Catalan literature, art, music and politics, both past and present. But when the conversation turned to Valencia (meaning the three provinces of the País Valencià, not just the city) they were, to put it mildly, at a loss. They were unaware, for instance, that Valencian and Catalan were the same language (a fact taken for granted by every Romance language faculty on the planet). Having said which, their unfamiliarity was not at all surprising, Valencia being one of the more baffling corners of Europe for most outsiders.

There are recent historical reasons for this: during the post-Franco Transition to democracy, Spanish establishment fears that the Catalan-speaking areas might form some kind of federation which would dilute or condition Madrid’s hegemony, led directly to the so-called Battle of Valencia, an attempt to nip any cultural or political complicity between Valencia and Catalonia in the bud. To this effect, right-wing politicians in the Valencian parliament – many of them non-Valencian speakers - claimed that Valencian was a separate language from Catalan, and in general stirred up anti-Catalan feelings whenever and wherever possible. This resulted in many unpleasant events, such as two bombings of the home of Joan Fuster, a prestigious Valencian intellectual who defended the unity of the Catalan language (a similar treatment was meted out to bookshops selling books in Valencian/Catalan).

More confusion followed when it came to naming the new Valencian autonomous region when it was restored in 1982. Joan Fuster and many other intellectuals, writers, artists and left-wing politicians opted for País Valencià (Valencian Country) – a name frequently used by Valencians on both the left and right during the short-lived Second Republic (1931-39). Then an influential ultracatholic lawyer called Emilio Attard invented the more anodyne Comunitat Valenciana (Valencian Community) and insisted that it be included in the Statute of Autonomy. (Oddly enough, a few years before his death, Attard confessed to El Temps magazine that the name he himself had given to Valencia – Comunitat Valenciana - was ’imbecilic’).

Michael Eaude kicks off ’Sails & Winds’ with a simple introduction which both reveals and clarifies all the confusions about the name of the place and the nature of the language. (The latter he defines using the elegant words of the now legendary singer and actor Ovidi Montllor: ’I speak Catalan in the style of Valencia’).

Once all this has been cleared up, Eaude launches into a non-stop, kaleidoscopic tour of Valencia, in which we are taken back through time, pushed back again into the present or the more recent past, and moved, as if by sleight of hand, from place to place until by the end of the book we have the feeling we’ve been almost everywhere worth being.

Although ’Sails & Winds’ contains some stunning descriptions of certain landscapes, towns and buildings, it avoids the fawning clichés so often to be found in standard guidebooks, and offers us a great deal more, such as a cultural overview of Valencian literature in both Catalan and Spanish through references to a handful of key figures: Ausiàs March, Joanot Martorell, Max Aub, Miguel Hernández, Blasco Ibañez. Similar overviews are given of Valencian singer-songwriting (Raimon and Ovidi), and painting (Joaquín Sorolla, above all). History is woven painlessly into the text depending on where we find ourselves. For example, a visit to the Silk Exchange leads to a description of Valencia city’s remarkable domination of the European silk trade for several centuries; when in Alcoi, we learn about the roots of the local anarchist movement; a trip to Morella comes complete with a succinct description of the complex Carlist Wars; and more recently, a stay in Valencia city morphs into a thorough account of the mind-bogglingly shameless corruption practised by the right-wing politicians who ran the country (and the city) for years until defeated by a left-leaning coalition in 2015.

Eaude is also refreshingly quick to point out certain negative aspects of his chosen subject: the concrete high-rises that plague the coastline, the exploitation of workers in the tourist industry, the pollution slowly killing off two of Valencia’s most prized natural areas: the huge horta or agricultural zone, and the Albufera wetlands.

But what makes this book especially enjoyable is that even when Eaude is talking about places or artists or writers with whom the reader may be completely unfamiliar, everything comes over as intensely interesting: an interest generated by the author’s personal enthusiasm and equally personal style.

If I had any bones to pick, it would be concerning three sins of omission. Although Eaude references the magazine El Temps, he never once mentions its founder, Eliseu Climent, who has probably done more to promote Valencian culture in recent years than any other single person, through his organisation Acció Cultural del País Valencià, which has organised the area’s most important literary events, and has set up a major Centre of Contemporary Culture. Second, there is no mention of pilota valenciana, a kind of home-grown Jai Alai which is to many Valencians what the Human Towers are to Catalans: an important mixture of sport and tradition. Third, although we get rather a lot of Blasco Ibañez, nothing is said of the contemporary novelist Ferran Torrent, whose prolific output documents the Valencian underworld, the gambling dens, the political corruption and Torrent’s own Valencian upbringing.

But I am quibbling, given that in a book of this size and scope, some omissions are inevitable. ’Sails & Winds’ is a magnificent, well-written introduction to one of the most enigmatic areas of both the Països Catalans and Spain as a whole. Full of surprises as it is, perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that ’Winds & Sails’, which tackles such a complicated subject with both dynamism and precision, was written in the first place.

book review

Sails & Winds Author: Michael Eaude Pages: 372 Publisher: Signal, Oxford, 2019

From Gibraltar to Barcelona

Michael Eaude was born and brought up in Gibraltar. However, he has lived in Barcelona since 1989, and is a regular contributor to both the Independent and The Guardian. He has published several books of non-fiction, such as those on writers Arturo Barea and Manuel Vázquez, as well as his successful ’A Cultural History of Catalonia’. Michael is also a long-standing and valued contributor to Catalonia Today magazine.

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