Juan Fernández 13 March 2021
Hispanist Ian Gibson, in Madrid’s Lavapiés neighbourhood /DAVID CASTRO
Ian Gibson: It is time to ask Spaniards: monarchy or republic?
Over a double beer at mid-morning on a terrace in Lavapiés, the Madrid neighbourhood where he lives, Ian Gibson (Dublin, 1939) uses irony to sum up his career over the last four decades. “Someone told me that there’s nothing like being a Hispanist and living in Sweden: you get free luxury services, a fabulous salary, a dream pension and from time to time they bring you to enjoy Spanish food and give interviews as an expert on the country”, he says before finishing: “That life must be fantastic, but I never wanted to be a Hispanist from afar, I wouldn’t have been able to write my books living in another country”.
With Spanish dust on his shoes – he has lived here since 1978 and has held dual nationality since 1984 – but without ever losing the perspective of the outsider who sees the local reality with a wide-angle lens, he has just articulated a formula to solve the country’s territorial problems: to build a republican federation with Portugal. He is aware that the current political climate is not conducive to the proposals he launches in ‘Towards the Iberian Federal Republic’ (Espasa), but he believes he is fulfilling a moral, political, and sentimental commitment to the Spanish and Portuguese people by opening this debate.
-If we ask people in the street what Iberism is, surely few would know how to answer.
-And that is a pity, because this idea was fervently defended by such illustrious figures as Unamuno, Pessoa, Giner de los Ríos, Joan Maragall and Ignasi Ribera i Rovira. The latter acted as a bridge between Portugal and Catalonia for many years and in 1907 wrote a book in which he explained the advantages that the union would have for both countries. They were all pained by the lack of affection between Spain and Portugal and were in favour of the Iberian Peninsula as a political and cultural project.
-What advantages would such a union have?
-The Iberian Peninsula is a unique place in the world, a multitude of civilisations have passed through here and languages are spoken that are mother tongues in half the world. This cultural wealth could be better exploited through a political identity that would do away with localisms and carry more weight in Europe and Latin America. It is a waste that Spain and Portugal remain separate.
“How is it possible that monolingual Spaniards know nothing of Catalan, Basque or Galician?”
-Separated and disdainful. Why do you think we live with our backs turned?
-In Portugal there were always misgivings about the feared absorption of Castile, and in Spain, the neighbouring country is directly despised. There is not even a proper train linking Madrid and Lisbon. The only one that does exist travels at night and does not allow us to appreciate the richness of the landscape shared by the two countries. The Iberian Republic should start by getting to know the other. It is inconceivable that Portuguese is not studied in schools in Spain, although given the disastrous way in which this country manages its linguistic heritage, I can understand it.
-What do you mean?
-Spaniards are divided into monolinguals and bilinguals. Every time I talk to a Catalan, a Basque or a Galician, I feel envious, because I know how hard it is to learn one language and they have grown up speaking two. I think it’s fantastic. However, most Spaniards have the luxury of being monolingual when they can be bilingual without leaving home. Who reads novels in Catalan in Madrid? How is it possible that monolingual Spaniards know nothing about Catalan, Basque or Galician, or that these languages are not taught in all the schools in Spain? It is not so difficult. I learned Catalan by reading Josep Pla when I wrote my book on Dalí.
-Would the Iberian republic you propose correct these flaws?
-It would be a perfect opportunity because culture is what gives meaning to this project. Of course, its political expression should be the federal republic. With fraternity and mutual support among the territories, but without hegemonic domination. Before reaching that scenario, of course, Spain should declare the Third Republic.
“Independence is madness, but a Catalonia integrated into a Spanish or Iberian federal republic does make sense”.
-There is increasing talk of this political formula. What do you think of this debate?
-I am a republican. I have nothing against the person of Felipe de Borbón, but I don’t understand what Spain has to gain, at this point in its history, from maintaining a monarchy imposed by Franco. It is high time to ask the Spanish people: monarchy or republic? I am clear about what I would vote for. After fascism overthrew the Second Republic, I dream of the arrival of the Third. It would solve many of Spain’s current problems. Among others, Catalan separatism.
-How would it affect you?
-It would take away arguments for independence, which seems to me to be a mistaken project. Catalan independence is madness, it’s not going anywhere. On the other hand, a Catalonia integrated into a Spanish or Iberian federal republic makes a lot of sense and would be better for the Catalans. If only the pro-independence supporters would be magnanimous and opt for this path.
-So far, in the last elections they have increased their presence in Parliament. How do you see this movement?
I see so many pro-independence parties and so many different ones that I doubt they all have the same idea of an independent Catalonia. The Catalans have always prided themselves on their seny (sanity), although they also have the rauxa (madness). I hope there will be dialogue, negotiation and understanding. This situation is the result of many years of neglect by the PP towards Catalonia, but independence is not the solution. What is clear to me is that at some point the Catalans will have to vote, although referendums do not always solve problems. Sometimes they complicate them, as has happened with Brexit.
“In Spain there is a lot of talking and little listening, it is the country of noise. They have a lot to learn from the Portuguese”.
–Why is it so difficult to solve Spain’s territorial fit?
-Because the right is reluctant to recognise that this country is plural. Instead of seeing this as a richness, they see it as a weakness and remain obsessed with the idea of a single, united, and sacred Spain full of false myths. They even deny something as obvious as the fact that Christian, Arab and Jewish blood runs through the veins of Spaniards. It is madness, they deny the history of the country they claim to love so much.
-What do you think of the emergence of the far right?
-Vox worries me, but I would rather see them outside the PP than inside. I want them to put forward their ideas in Congress, which is where we have to talk. Parliamentary life requires dialogue and negotiation, sometimes in the corridors. This human contact with those who are different will make them clarify many of the things they say. The PP has an opportunity to be the cultured, modern, and European conservative party it should have been for a long time.
Imagine you meet the Ian of 1978 and he tells you that today King Juan Carlos is on the run and has debts with the Treasury, the ultra-right is in Congress and half of Catalonia wants to become independent. How would you react?
-He would tell me I was exaggerating. I have a positive view of Spain’s evolution. Its integration into Europe was a stimulus and since then it has come a long way. I’m glad to see that environmental concerns have grown, and that young people are travelling the world without complexes and with languages. But there are still unfinished business. One has to do with historical memory. Spain cannot continue to live with 100,000 executed people buried in the ditches. The other has to do with the way Spaniards understand dialogue. Here there is a lot of talking and little listening, it is the country of noise. They have a lot to learn from the Portuguese, who are less noisy and listen more.
A philologist in love with birds
Raised in a Methodist Protestant family, when it came to choosing a second language at Trinity College Dublin, he opted for Spanish because of his love of ornithology: he dreamed of visiting the marshes of Doñana. In the end, it was his interest in Lorca, awakened by a copy of the ‘Romancero Gitano’ he found in a bookshop, that brought him to Spain.
A philologist by training and a writer by vocation, he does not like to be called a historian, although he has published essays on the Spanish Civil War. He prefers to be known as a biographer, as evidenced by his books on Lorca, Dalí, Buñuel, Cela and Antonio Machado.