In his new book, “2017. La crisis que cambió España” (Deusto), (“The crisis that changed Spain”), David Jiménez Torres, the historian, essayist and novelist analyses the Catalan autumn and its consequences: the rise and fall of Ciudadanos, the emergence of Vox, Pedro Sánchez’s pacts with the pro-independence supporters.
Interview by Daniel Gascón
16 February 2021
Historian, essayist, and novelist David Jiménez Torres analyses in his new book how the events of autumn 2017 and their consequences transformed the politics of our country in several directions. It was the moment when what he calls the Premise was broken: the idea that sub-state nationalisms would never break with the system, and that therefore their most radical declarations and acts were only rhetorical excesses halfway between negotiation and folklore. It was also the moment when a response to nationalist hegemony became visible in Catalonia. A divide was articulated, there and in the rest of Spain, between constitutionalists and non-constitutionalists; and then these positions also changed after the motion that brought Pedro Sánchez to power. The rise and fall of Ciudadanos cannot be understood without these events; nor can the crisis of the PP or the rise of a far-right force, Vox. It is a brilliant essay, written with narrative pulse, interpretative clarity, and analytical insight. We spoke on Thursday, a few days before the Catalan elections.
In many of our discussions Spain appears as an artificial nation and Catalonia or the Basque Country as “natural” nations.
One of the curious things is that research on nationalism in Spain has an extraordinary level of sophistication and knowledge that has failed to penetrate public discourse. The idea that Catalans are nationalists because it’s something in the water or something like that is still pervasive, despite the fact that we have been debating the cultural and historical construction of nationalist movements for some forty years.
Sometimes researchers who know that this is not the case, when they start to write speeches or newspaper articles, fall back on this because it is also their political culture. Podemos are an example. They are all willing to accept that Spanish national symbols are a historical construct. So why don’t you accept the same of sub-state symbols?
Or then there is the lazier version. We are all nationalists and, as we are all nationalists, we just have to accommodate. So, we say that what was at stake in 2017 were two conflicting nationalisms. This was not the case. One is a breakaway movement that tries to create a legality based on an imposition and the other is a defence of liberal democracy that is called Spain but could be called France or the United Kingdom. It is not true that they were two opposing flags, and this is the trap that is not only assumed by Podemos but also by the POSE when it comes to power in 2018.
2017 marks a before and after. You say that we are still in that time.
The shock was very great, deservedly so, because it is not every day that the leaders of an autonomous community declare themselves in rebellion and try to impose secession. Our way of living it and the postmodern nature of the coup have made us naturalise something very shocking. Some regional leaders decide to impose secession, against the will of the majority of their governed and certainly against any hint of international or comparative law or whatever. They tried but were defeated; unarmed but defeated. It is not possible that this shock would not have profound consequences. Of course, among them is the fragmentation of the centre right and the right and the subsequent animosity towards Sánchez when he tries to rehabilitate these people in order to come to power. But also, the “indepe” discourse itself, which is not the same as in 2017. If you go to Catalonia and see yellow ribbons, that is also a consequence. It seems that we haven’t finished processing that, that it was a before and an after. Part of the government’s strategy is to go back to the past and pretend it didn’t happen, to return to the magical world of the tripartite. I believe that this is impossible and that it will be seen in time. Esquerra and the Comunes are not the same Esquerra and Iniciativa that governed with Maragall. And then there is the question that there are hundreds of thousands of Catalans who believe that legitimacy lies with a Carlist pretender exiled in Belgium. No matter how much the independence movement was in 2016 or 2017, the rupture of this political community had not been assumed in this way.
It is also heard in Catalan nationalist voices… We have to go back to a point in the past, and from there the autonomy must go back to the State.
We have to go back to certain times, but what are they? When Pujol was stealing with his hands full and there was absolute impunity? When there was a spiral of silence among those who did not agree with the language immersion model? In the training of historians, we are encouraged not to be teleological and to think that things could have happened differently. There are decisions that were taken or not taken that helped make 2017 happen. 2017 was not predetermined since ’78. But what happened forces us to critically review what happened before; intellectual honesty is also that. We can identify the things from the good old days that while creating a fictitious stability led to the conditions for the subsequent rupture. To say that the Constitutional ruling bears more responsibility than Jordi Pujol’s entire government for the outcome of what ended up happening seems unjustifiable to me.
It is false, but we hear it every week, like the idea that the law has to be a little different for one or the other.
And that this is the “smart” thing to do. Of course, it can’t be smart that 2017 happened. The mistake is to think that this was a stable system that worked for everyone but there were a series of mistakes and irresponsible people on both sides that caused the magnificent system to derail. Well, that may have been the case, but it may also be that the mistakes were others. Perhaps the mistakes were to give Pujol the impunity he enjoyed, or to accept the premise: the idea that we are going to act in such a way that, however much the nationalists say, even if in ’98 they say in a declaration that their horizon is not autonomy but self-determination, we will understand that it is all toast to the sun. Prudent government action would be to act. The responsible thing for a ruler to do would be to act as if they were not toasts to the sun. It is like the conservative argument for stopping climate change. What they warn us may or may not be true, but the responsible thing to do is to act. And I think this encourages us to look at other things. Puigdemont has always been a CiU militant. It is not an adherence to the procés. It is something that was always there. The new stability cannot be achieved by reconstructing a system that in itself has been shown not to be stable.
This is something you portray in the book: the desire we have to believe that.
Like now. Junts and Esquerra are at loggerheads, they say. So are the PP and the PSOE, so what? Junts pel Sí were also at loggerheads. If we are at least minimally empirical we can see that the pro-independence supporters always agree and always do what they said they were going to do. To say otherwise is to deceive oneself, which seems to be the favourite sport of constitutionalists in the rest of Spain. Within Catalonia they see it quite clearly. And then there is another important issue. In the 1990s we thought that nationalism was a residue of the past. And the idea that they would be wiped out: the end of history, in short. In other words, we thought: if we don’t inflame them, if we don’t prick them, they will naturally fade away. This faith, not just Spanish and not just a mistake by Spanish elites, was in the spirit of the times. You had the Balkans, but it was justified: it is a backward region, if we integrate them into liberal democracy things will change, it is a consequence of the fall of communism. Also, in Spain we said: it is a consequence of the 40 years of dictatorship. But there has to be a vision that it is not only a problem of the past but of the future. And this did not happen until the application of 155.
In the election campaign Casado said he was sorry.
But what is he sorry about is the question. If it is very clear what the “indepe” narrative is about what happened in 2017, it is not very clear what the constitutionalist narrative is about what happened. We see it in the blind steps of Casado, of Illa. It is not clear whether we are going to apologise or say that action should have been taken earlier. That is a defeat. Stopping the assault on legality required years of explaining why it had to be done, and showing that it was legitimate and right. We have to say: We did it for that and it was well done for that. It’s been three and a half years without doing it. If you leave that field open, of course there will be Catalan children who will grow up with the idea that that year there was only a democratic attempt brutally repressed by the occupying forces.
The book’s summary of events is very good. And you see how quickly it all deflates with 155, with Rull’s ridiculous episode as the greatest act of resistance, and then all this martyrology.
One of the lessons is that the modern democratic constitutional Leviathan is very powerful. One whiff and all its challenges fall away. Independentism goes as far as constitutionalism will let it go, especially when you also show that you can take to the streets and that your people are willing to mobilise. I would also like to point out something that seems important to me: public opinion was far more mobilised and robust than the state institutions. The crucial week between 1 and 8 October the government is knocked out. You have the king, who is the pinnacle of the state, of course. But the mobilisation of the press is important. I don’t know what the future of the press is. But one of its moments of real influence were those weeks in October. All of us who lived through that moment will remember it. The urgency of those days. There was an adrenaline of the present that the media channelled.
Important articles appeared in many media. You had El Mundo, the digital media. The position of El País, very clear, was important.
With the initiative of translating into English, with a widely read text like “Los diez mitos del independentismo” (The ten myths of independence). The argument of the “indepes” and the third party that it was a people against a state is a lie. It was not only a confrontation in Catalonia but also a very mobilised public opinion to defend the values it believed in. Those of us who wrote at that time and those who expressed our opinions did not do so in defence of Rajoy or a flag, but in defence of a State in which we wanted to live, of the freedoms we wanted to see respected, and also in solidarity with the Catalans on whom we knew that they had tried to impose something that was not what they wanted.
It was also the time to articulate an anti-nationalist response. There were associations that had been doing a very meritorious job for a long time, without institutional support, but there had always been a problem of visibility, of attention.
It is more difficult to explain 8 October than 1 October. It is easy to see the line that goes from a government deciding to do this and then doing it. It is much more difficult to explain the people who take to the streets on 8 October. Where were all these people in a place where nationalism has been hegemonic for decades and decades? That’s why in the book I try to trace a genealogy, to talk about things that seemed latent but were present in many sectors, and also sectors that manage to organise themselves despite having practically no resources or media support. These are sectors with an inherited feeling that they are not being listened to, that this is going to happen. Their position is: We are not going to allow ourselves to be silenced any longer. These are issues that came to the surface during those weeks and it is important to take them into account in order to understand the Catalonia where this happened.
And when you leave, in your review, you also talk about the most serious cases, such as the attack on Federico Jiménez Losantos. Or episodes as tremendous as that of the 14,000 teachers expelled from Catalonia between 1980 and 1985. It is surprising that it is not better known, that we do not talk about it more.
Yes, moreover, it happens in a very brutal way. When we talk about reviewing, when we look at what happened in 1978 and the consensuses, one was not to question what had been done in Catalonia with the first law of linguistic normalisation. And I think it is precisely one of those moments when if you start to question that, you question everything. When we think about the reformist cycle, or whatever we want to call it, between 15-M and Sánchez’s investiture, many reviewed the agreements with the nationalists. 15-M happens and what happens is not only the revision of Monedero, Iglesias and all the others. The leap of Cs in national politics cannot be understood if it is not part of that review. Many wonder: was this happening in Spain in the 80s and the generation that was there then accepted it as part of the landscape?
And in fact, it was still happening at the time. And it will continue to happen. We see the shielding of immersion. The other day a study by the Foro de Profesores showed that communications from the Generalitat’s health department were practically only in Catalan.
Here too it is our fault. I understand that nationalists are nationalists. I start from the idea that I understand that someone who is a nationalist is going to behave like a nationalist, like someone who believes that Spanish is a foreign imposition in Catalonia and that Spanish speakers are not from here. Pablo Iglesias and Quim Torra are coherent, each in their own way. The problem is for those of us who live in the rest of Spain and for decades thought that it was bad form to say that the nationalists were doing barbarities, that they were going against the equality of citizens, that you shouldn’t stigmatise the mother tongue of the majority of the population. And even if it wasn’t, moreover: isn’t liberal democracy about respect for minorities? I don’t even mention if it was the most historically disadvantaged group, as is the case of Spanish speakers in Catalonia. There was the idea: don’t worry too much, this will inevitably disappear, and we won’t have to do anything about it. It was a lie that we told ourselves because it was more comfortable than rethinking that we could agree with nationalists on budgets, investitures and all this.
Is the horizon of every nationalist independence?
Like any ideology, nationalism has amphibious aspects. It is protean and infinitely adaptable. It is not true that it was a one-way street and that the 21st century would destroy it. It is very adaptable, we see it in Scotland, we see it in Russia, we see it in China. We see it in the United States. The question is to act in the knowledge that it has those potentialities. Just as you know that nationalism can produce wars and you try to avoid that, for rational reasons, if you know that nationalism can lead to an assault on constitutional legality, you should try to act to prevent that from happening. In that sense, we have to learn from the lessons of the past.
2017 has already happened and we have to learn. Nationalists are autonomous beings who make their own decisions. But I am not a nationalist. My responsibility, or that of those of us who are not Catalan nationalists, is not to wait for them to make the right decision, but to create the framework that guarantees at least the basic issues that we consider desirable in a liberal democracy.
One of the issues you deal with in the book is the rather symmetrical obsession, in constitutionalism and secessionism, with the foreign press, with how they saw us.
The validity of our arguments is not given by the arguments themselves but by the fact that the New York Times supports them. There is absolute homogeneity between independence and constitutionalism. This is a mystery of 2017. Why was what was written on page 34 a national trending topic by a correspondent who, evidently, if he is in Spain, is not one of the most important correspondents? However important we think we are, we know that Spain is not China, it is not Germany, it is not even Russia. And this phenomenon occurs because in Spain the greatest possible legitimising factor is still an Anglo-Saxon media. This is true for political ideas, personal projects, culturally. In 2017 there is a struggle for legitimacy through convincing foreign correspondents. It is clear that the work of foreign ministries was done well. Why do we think that the government did so badly on the foreign front?
A liberal democracy must also respect certain limits that an illiberal project such as the “procés” can ignore.
But I want to avoid the idea of “they are foreigners, what do they know? Unamuno’s “Let them invent it”. If he says something that makes sense, well said, if he says something badly said, then badly said. I vindicate the idea that legitimacy is based on the argument, not the sender. This is something we don’t seem to take into account. It seemed that the quality of our democracy was judged in the foreign press. If you are happy with the quality of our democracy, what do you care what the Times says? That doesn’t mean you don’t read it to see what they think, but if you read that they say, “Spanish Inquisition”, when evidently a trial is held in the Supreme Court with all the guarantees, well, that’s it, you know you’re right and they’re wrong. It’s funny: here the constitutionalists buy into the secessionists’ “the world is watching us” framework.
Another of the central themes of the book is that in 2017 a constitutionalist front was created, which then broke up with the motion.
I don’t know to what extent the defenders of the current government dispute that idea. There was a state of opinion in the first half of 2018 that favoured the idea that governability in Spain meant reaching agreements between the constitutionalists and leaving out the rupturists, and furthermore with the idea that this was something that the population wanted. That is why Ciudadanos was leading the polls, something that will have to be explained to our children in a few years’ time and may seem like science fiction.
Pedro Sánchez decided to take another path to power. That generates polarisation and animosity. I know that there are many PSOE voters who do not see this as a betrayal. But it would be good if they understood that many voters of other parties do. The betrayal is not to make the motion of censure but to support the pro-independence supporters, and not only to achieve power but to remain in power. One of the problems is that Sánchez does not call elections.
You could argue that the PP had to be thrown out of power and that people should go to the polls knowing what they already knew about the corruption of the PP. I think that is perfectly defensible and that many of us who are now more critical of Sánchez would have accepted it. The criticism is about the moment when he decides not to do that and also tries to rehabilitate the independentists as a way to get their votes for a budget. That generates the polarisation of the 18th, 19th, and 20th. So much did the government complain about the polarisation and tension, that it knows that it starts from that. The argument is repeated that the right never accepts that the left governs. Well: it accepted it for 14 years under Felipe González. I don’t know how valid that argument is. Instead of saying that, they could respond to the accusation of why they had to rehabilitate Esquerra instead of trying to reach agreements in the centre.
You include an article in the book with these arguments.
It was repeated: they don’t like Sánchez because they have a grudge against the left. One thing is that they want to govern Spain after 2017 and another is that they want to govern as if 2017 had never happened, with the idea that everything can be solved with dialogue, with meetings with Torra. If you do that, if you bet on that, at least you have to accept that there are people who find it fatal.
Concessions are made that are presented as symbolic but always become instrumental.
Starting with the term nation. You ask anyone in the ruling party what plurinationality means and they tell you: it’s a word, it doesn’t mean anything, it’s a trinket, let them amuse themselves. The nationalists say: it is the lever to achieve self-determination. The slogan: “We are a nation. We want a state”. There can be no such dissonance. It is clearly not just symbolic when you then accept the premise that there are historical rights attached to it. If we say, “as it is a nationality it has rights”, we enter the realm of the tangential. The idea of the fueros has never been a label or a flag; it has always been: here there are different rights. If you are born here, your positions, your living conditions, are different from if you are born there. And this is so because someone said it in the Middle Ages and for some reason in democracy someone thinks it’s good that things are still like that.
There was a lot of talk about communicative strategies, about the novelty of the procés. But it is also a classic nationalism.
I understand that there are people who have applied the tool of populism to understand what happened. But it is still a nationalist crisis. You can also see it in the consequences. We say: Vox is like Salvini, like Trump, like Brexit. Well, unlike all those things we compare it to, Vox is the only one of those movements that arises from a secessionist crisis in its country. Even if the message is similar, you have to accept the basic question of that difference: what is happening in society to make this party, which had been a minority, grow? The same with the independentists. We have people who for decades said: today patience, tomorrow independence. The decades of patience are just as important for understanding what has happened as the final acceleration.
In the book I use the metaphor of crossing the Rubicon: we can focus a lot on finding out at what point the red line is crossed. But it is possible because of the whole process of crossing France to get there, which is not a crossing through the desert but through the oasis. It is important to understand what is happening now. The big argument of the ruling party is: independence is on the decline, which shows that the strategy is having an effect. Well, the fact that there are now people who do not see independence as something feasible does not mean that it does not remain latent: the idea of Catalonia as something ontologically different, 2017 as a moment of illegitimate repression by the Spanish institutions, Puigdemont as a victim, Junqueras as a victim, that remains latent. Who’s to say that in ten years it won’t be activated again or that we’ll see a dramatic rise like under Rajoy?
The blocs don’t seem to be moving much.
I am not a fatalist either. We say: the blocks are rocky, and we all live in the bubble and there is nothing to do. Well, yes and no. Catalan constitutionalist associations such as the association for a bilingual school or so many others will give you a list of 30 things that could be done by the national institutions so that at least the nationalists do not have all the ground to themselves, to level the playing field in education, language, etc., rather than give up the battle, because we live in a very polarised era. For a start, let’s listen to the people on the ground who identify the problems in a more tangible and less vaporous way. Let’s try recipes that have not been tried so far. For example, education inspection, try to move to grand coalition equations at the national level that do not make every budget redound in concessions to the nationalists, if only for the sake of a change of habit.
You are not teleological.
I think one of the things that hurts us the most, and many of us have written about it, is the idea of compromise, one of the biggest shots in the foot we can shoot ourselves in the foot. Besides, we know that history is made by individuals and societies, we are not condemned to this conflict, to these eternal clashes. We could also have said that it was impossible for a liberal democracy to take root in Spain, or for the army not to play a role in politics. And it was achieved. We could have said that it was impossible for the French and the Germans to stop shooting each other. What we have to banish is the laziness of thinking that because it is difficult to do so it is irremediable. If you go into governing Spain, in parties or in public, it is to solve problems. We could have said the same about inequality or illiteracy at the time. “How are you going to end illiteracy in Spain, how are you going to create public education? Well, if you want to, you do it. The word we would have to resort to the most is “desirable”. Not the normal, which ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, but what we want. And if we want something, see what we need to do to get what we want.
Another word you say we have used in a counterproductive way is “fascism”.
Yes, and it is one of the consequences of 2017. It has helped to hide the consequences. Vox can only be understood as a reaction both to Rajoy’s handling of the crisis and to Vox and Sánchez’s rehabilitation of Esquerra. Vox appears as a reaction, the word fascism bursts into our debate, Iglesias declares an anti-fascist alert throughout Spain and that leads us to these absurd debates that hide what was the real reason for this to arise. There is a lot of division, historians and political scientists have been looking for years for a definition of what fascism is, and I think that after 1945 it became quite a minority issue. If you ask me what fascism is in Spain, the answer is: Well, it’s Falange. And Falange has been standing in elections for decades. We’ve all seen the ballot papers when you go to vote, but nobody votes for them. Vox is something else and we can enter into a nominalist debate. But we could ask ourselves questions: why is Vox’s message of abolishing the autonomous regions so attractive, which I think is something that is also an effect of 2017? And then it also shows some of the blind spots in the debate. We have the idea that we have to give something to the independentists because there are so many of them and they are so convinced. Well, there are more Vox supporters. If this reasoning applies to the independentists, I don’t understand why it doesn’t apply to Vox. And if it is fallacious to apply it to the “indepes”, it is also fallacious to apply it to Vox.
For me, what makes fascism specific to the moment it emerges in Europe are nationalism, xenophobia, autocratic leadership, the Roman salute, the belief in hierarchy. Is Vox more autocratic leadership than Sánchez’s PSOE? Let them prove it to me. Or the idea of violence, of force, an axiomatic idea: violence proves the will. That is not in Vox either. If there is anyone who believes in violence as a legitimate mode of political action it is those who call themselves anti-fascists today.
We once talked about your attempts to convince a pro-independence friend of yours, about the difficulties in reaching an understanding. Have you found a way?
Do we find a liberal democracy preferable to any other system? I do, and I think very few independentist would say otherwise. Then you have to accept that liberal democracy has a respect for processes and that they must be respected by all. And another basic point is that politicians cannot decide which laws they follow and which they don’t. If you want to change something, you follow the laws. If you want to change something, you follow the established mechanisms. The moment you don’t take that path, you are already deviating from what is desirable. And we are back to the same thing. You can be uncomfortable, but is the solution really what they did in 2017? You can be uncomfortable, but how many of us have attempted an assault on constitutional legality? Why do their grievances deserve any different attention than those of any other citizen with any other issue? Why are their grievances any more worthy than those of an Extremaduran who has a shit train? I resist the idea that the problems they have with the constitutional framework are so serious that they legitimise the solution they tried to give it in 2017 and say they would do again. It can be rejected on the level of principle, not even on the level of inevitability.
Rafa Latorre’s expression that you quote: “To be a nation among regions”.
The idea of: “Spain should be reformed”. Yes, but in what direction? Because there is a basic tension: either we are equal before the law (and again, I don’t think the “indepes” would dispute this) or we are all a kind of medieval heritage where it doesn’t matter if you were born in 86, what determines your status within the State is what happened in the Middle Ages. I don’t know to what extent a virtuous synthesis between the two is possible, or even desirable. But this is also part of the PSC’s idea. The idea that we must move towards plurinationality. In which all are nations on an equal footing, or in which some nations are more equal than others. And Spain, then, is it a part or is it the whole? Because in the United Kingdom an Englishman can never be Scottish, a Welshman is never an Englishman and they are all British together. Is Pablo Iglesias going to tell Albert Rivera that his nation is not the Spanish nation?
The comparison is used, although another difference is that Scotland had an independent existence. Catalonia did not.
That too. Although historicism doesn’t seem to me to be the way to look at it either. It is not important what happened so long ago, to people who have been dead for a long time. Let’s talk about what kind of political community we want to inhabit, and what kind of rights and duties are desirable. Let them argue to me whether they want politicians to decide which laws they obey and which they don’t. Let them explain that to me and not to me. Let them explain that and not talk to me about Wilfredo el Velloso. Let them explain whether they agree with Berlusconi’s arguments, with the idea that a leader with a certain level of votes can do whatever he wants and that there are cases in which the checks and balances of liberal democracy should not apply.
You also say in the book that the importance of the King’s speech for non-independent Catalans is sometimes forgotten.
It is useful for all of us to incorporate our emotional memory of that year. What was said about politicising pain: politicising the emotional memory of those events. I remember the feeling of importance when the king did that. It was something that had not been said until then. Something so clear. You are not alone. It forces us to rethink everything that had gone wrong before. I find the criticism of the king for that speech incomprehensible. A constitutional king could do nothing other than make that speech. Third parties say that a king should be a kind of secretary general of the UN, when in fact he is the ultimate defender of constitutional legality. And that is his usefulness, as it turned out.
It is a paradox that 1-O and Puigdemont’s escape took place in a country where intelligence and security services have dismantled more dangerous organisations.
We have to remember how mind-boggling they were. I receive the alert that Puigdemont had escaped and the idea that it could happen. The precedent, for people of our generation, is Roldán. You don’t understand why Soraya lost the PP primaries if you don’t understand the extent to which she was identified with the spectacular failures of the management of 1-O and the escape. The Spanish security services were the ones who defeated ETA, much more than any specific politician. Those who did the wiretapping, frank floors, professionalism. Very competent people. What happened can only be explained by a lack of decisiveness. I think it can be explained by the Premise. There was something in Rajoy and Soraya’s head that made them think that it was not going to happen.
If today, we were to see images of Trump supporters blocking highways we would think that American democracy is under threat. If the riots after the Supreme Court ruling had been in Washington DC after Trump had lost the election, or if he had been convicted in impeachment, we would be: My God, democracy in peril; that’s how democracies fall, etc. So, let’s not naturalise it here as part of the landscape. Just because it has been around for a long time does not mean it is desirable.
The Supreme Court ruling, you say, with the idea of reverie, has to do with the premise.
The rehabilitation of the premise: we went from “They’re not going to do it” to “They didn’t do it”. Of course, law is its own world, and we can’t judge the legal rationale and what the Supreme Court says goes. But it is interesting in terms of political culture what that ruling says about what happened in 2017. It was a coup, but it wasn’t a coup, it was an amphibious thing where it was really all language; they wrote it and said it, but it was language that can mean everything and nothing.
You have just published an essay on Ramiro de Maeztu, Nuestro hombre en Londres (Marcial Pons). It is a more academic work, but there are some curious connections with things we have just discussed.
This book is the result of seven years of discontinuous work. One of the things that interested me is: how the idea that public opinion has of other countries is created. People who have not lived there, to whom you mention that country and they have a series of images of what it is like. In Maeztu’s case, the United Kingdom. People who haven’t been to New York can tell you a thousand things. I like that a lot because it’s very intangible and difficult to decipher. Political history is very tangible. Cultural history, which the history of public opinion has a lot of that, shows that many of the things we have come from old legacies. Our obsession with the foreigner has to do with the fact that there is a moment in which Europe is constituted as the great ideal that legitimises the things that happen here. This love-hate relationship with Western Europe is still something we recognise. Even in relation to modernity itself. The question of whether we are a normal country or not has been around for a hundred and two hundred years. We ask ourselves what we have to do to be normal and who gives us the certificate.
Reading Jean-Claude Carrière’s Spanish memoirs, I see that he also talks about this.
When I was in the United States, in the Bush years, there was this kind of American who was very interested in knowing my opinion of their president. What they really want is someone from the outside to validate the opinion they already have. If you said something that didn’t fit with that opinion your role was less useful. In general, foreign countries and people from foreign countries have a peculiar function: people who validate but if they don’t agree with you, you say they don’t know anything.
In the book you talk about Spaniards fascinated by the UK. We often talk about foreign travellers in Spain and forget the other part of the embassy.
Much more research has been done on what foreigners have seen when they have come to Spain than what we have seen when we have left, which should be more interesting. This is not a minor issue because France as an element of cultural validation or element of rejection has been extremely important in our culture. The same is true of the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany at the time, not to mention the Soviet Union. We see it now with the pandemic: ah, well, if a lot of people are dying in the United Kingdom too, that means that we are not doing badly here. Why is normal what is desirable? We should expect the anomaly, to be the best.
You have published a political essay, a more academic essay, in a few months you will publish El mal dormir, First Prize Libros del Asteroide, which is a more personal and literary essay, you have published the novel Cambridge en mitad de la noche.
I like different types of writing. I don’t know if it’s the best way to build a professional career. It pays to focus on something. Now with this book I’m sometimes described as “the historian”, but historians wouldn’t recognise this as a history book, and I’m not just a novelist either. But I like different kinds of writing and I like the challenge. I can recognise that it’s very difficult to write a good academic paper, a novel or a column. It’s a bit like people who are attracted to speaking many languages. I’m attracted to those difficulties. They are really different languages even if the words are the same. Some people say: I’ve learned French, Arabic and English and now I’m going for Farsi. You say that and you sound like an amateur. And I don’t want to be an amateur, I take seriously how difficult it is to write competently in every register and I admire people who do it well. It’s all different ways of relating to language and reality, there are also communicating vessels between them, things you learn by writing columns that help you to analyse the story and in turn serve you for the novel.
I don’t worry that someone who reads two books won’t recognise the same author in them. I don’t care that by cultivating different genres you don’t have a personal stamp. I care that they are good books in themselves and within the genre to which they belong. If that blurs my specificity as an author, I don’t really care. I care much more that someone who reads essays reads this book and says: this is a good essay.