Manel Manchón, 4 March 2023
Javier Cercas, winner of the 2019 Planeta Prize / EP
The writer brings together in ‘No callar‘ his articles and essays with a common characteristic, that of “an ordinary Catalan” who clings to reality and assumes the dream he has achieved.
A citizen, someone committed to his immediate community, who writes, who plays tennis, and who has achieved the dream of being a recognised writer, perhaps the most international Spanish narrator, and who is still capable of showing his perplexity at what surrounds him and at the actions of people he believed to be as rational and “common and ordinary” as he is. He is Javier Cercas, author of such decisive books as Anatomía de un instante – Jordi Pujol said of this work in front of a group of journalists: “If you want to know and understand the Transition, you must read it”-, Soldados de Salamina, El monarca de las sombras and El impostor. There will be literary tastes, of course, but Cercas has already achieved a place of honour in Spanish literature. However, must the writer battle in the mud and raise his voice when he deems it appropriate? In this Cercas, who defines himself as “an ordinary Catalan”, – it will be seen later in what context – has had no doubts. He has acted as a committed citizen and intends to continue to do so.
There is nothing better to prove his civic mission than to bring together all his non-literary work, which he has published mainly in the newspaper El País, but which he has also disseminated in conferences and essays. Cercas now publishes No callar, crónicas, ensayos y artículos, entre 2000 y 2022, published by Tusquests, with the selection and arrangement of the texts by Juan Cerezo and Josep Maria Ventosa. The result, with all the material classified according to nine major themes or perspectives, confirms Cercas’s desire to apprehend the sign of the times from his own generational perspective. In the manner of Canetti – when the 1981 Nobel Prize winner claimed that he wanted to grab the 20th century by the throat with his monumental work Masa y poder (Mass and Power) – Cercas also follows Borges, in order to navigate between dualities, astonishments and paradoxes.
And Cercas establishes some lessons, at a time when everything is relative, when everything is questioned, and where nobody, it seems, was up to the task. His position on the Transition is clear, and Cercas could show it off, because he has presented its lights and shadows, with a premise that, from the point of view of honesty, there is little to dispute. In one of his articles, “La transicion, papá y mama”, he states what he will repeat in a thousand ways throughout his journalistic and literary work: the transition was done as it could be done, and more well than badly. It provided the foundations for a nascent democracy. The problem came later, not with the Transition. It was the lethargy that followed, the “siesta” of many, who believed that everything had been done. And Spanish democracy needed to be pampered, strengthened, improved in different aspects. A democracy that suffered, for Cercas, a great blow with the economic crisis of 2007 and 2008, and which generated ways of doing and understanding politics – “left-wing kitsch” – that have not been better. On the contrary.
Like the best political scientist, Cercas delves into the great problem of Spanish democracy, understandable in the Transition, but without any attempt to remedy it afterwards. What is it? The power of the political parties, which they had to have at the end of the 1970s to establish a democracy after forty years of dictatorship, but which, with the passage of time, have occupied all the institutions. It is a partitocracy that has nullified the potential of a still young democracy.
The other big question that Cercas explores, because he recognises himself in this tradition, is the political left: how could it accept the hegemony of nationalism in territories like Catalonia, and how could it, in Spain as a whole, go against its own merits, attacking the very work of the left – the Transition – in which it worked harder and sacrificed more than the right? This is exemplified by Cercas – although there are many articles in the book on this question – in the article entitled “Contra Felipe González” (Against Felipe González). He does not defend his figure uncritically, on the contrary, but Cercas points out “a fact”. He concludes: “In any case, what is certain is that he has contributed infinitely more to improving the lives of his fellow citizens than those who, from all sides of the ideological spectrum, continue to abominate him on a daily basis. This is not an opinion: it is a fact”.
A large part of what Cercas has inside him, of what he assimilates and wants to express as a citizen -always, of course, from the platform offered to him as a successful writer- is expressed in “¿Qué significa hoy ser español”, published in 2017, in the heat of the whole independence process in Catalonia. That article is vital, because it flees from the essences and states that criticism of what happened in Catalonia can in no way be assimilated to the defence of a diametrically opposed political project. No, by no means.
Catalan language and power
He himself bares: “I was born in 1962 in Extremadura, in the southwest of Spain, but when I was four years old my family emigrated to Catalonia. I am, therefore, an ordinary Catalan, because the Catalonia of the 20th century was built by a massive transfer of emigrants from the poor south of Spain to the rich north. I would add that I feel neither particularly Spanish nor particularly Catalan; or perhaps I feel both, and of course in my house Catalan and Castilian are spoken, as in so many Catalan houses”. (…) “I simply do not like living in a place where the rulers flagrantly violate, in the name of an illusory oppressed homeland and of course of democracy, the most elementary democratic rules, in order to obtain all the power and all the pomp, and they do so when the country was beginning to emerge from an atrocious economic crisis, without caring in the least about the obvious damage they were causing to the welfare of their fellow citizens”.
For stating this position, Cercas was the target of furious invective and rejected as part of a community that has identified Catalan language and culture with nationalism and independence. Taking a leap backwards, Cercas wrote in 2011 his article “El fracaso de la izquierda en Cataluña”, collected in the book, in which he highlights how it has not been possible to separate the political project from the defence of Catalan language and culture. Has it been impossible from the outset?
Each reader will find his or her ideal article, the one with which he or she most identifies with the writer. But he or she should focus on one in particular: “If I were a writer in Catalan”. On the basis of an assignment, a meeting between writers, in which Cercas is asked to imagine how he could work and feel as a writer in a minority language and not in the powerful Spanish language, the author fulfils the mission and develops a theory about power in Catalonia, with the pretension that the problem is also understood in Spain as a whole.
Attacking Catalan, or questioning – something that can be improved and could be relatively easily remedied – the way in which it is taught in schools – the Spanish right wing does this constantly – is, in Cercas’ opinion, a victory for the nationalist-independentists, who assume one fact: Catalan and independence go hand in hand. The writer revolts, not only against the independentistas, but also against those who deny plurality in Spain: “Don’t fool yourselves: what is happening right now in Catalonia is not a question of languages; it is a question of power: In fact, contrary to what many of my Catalan colleagues who write in Catalan believe, there is no reason to think that, if Catalonia achieves secession, the next day the secessionist politicians will not start to forget about Catalan”, says Cercas, who takes the case of Ireland and its independence as an example, alluding to the Gaelic language, which was pushed into a corner in favour of English.
Let us return to the tennis player Cercas to tackle the book as a whole. It is the most beautiful article. In Los sueños cumplidos, the writer recalls that, perhaps -those things that one always remembers as one grows older- he could have been a tennis player. He says he was not very good, but he loved the game, and could spend hours and hours on a tennis court. In a children’s championship, the young Javier met Juan Aguilera (also born in 1962). He was a player of some success, winner of several ATP tournaments. Playing with his son, already an amateur tennis writer as Cercas, the author of Soldados de Salamina recalls that distant tournament. From the ground, after falling down in search of an “impossible” ball that his son had just thrown him, Cercas, looking up at the sky, thinks that his tennis dreams were fulfilled with Aguilera, although he had a fleeting success. And he remembered that the young Juan liked rock and literature more than tennis itself. So, now upright, ready to serve for a new game, with his son at his side, Cercas thinks: “I wonder what has become of Aguilera and I also wonder if it is true that he wanted to be a writer and I answer myself that, if it is, maybe I am still in time to try to fulfil his dream”.
Written in 2010, readers will say whether Javier Cercas, in 2023, is already that enormous writer, but, above all, whether he is a committed citizen, which, of course, one can disagree with.