09 d’octubre 2007

The Frankfurt Book Fair opens. Catalonia, the guest of honour

This is the great opening speech of the Frankfurt Book Fair where the Catalan culture is the guest of honour, made by the Catalan writer Quim Monzó:

Ladies and gentlemen,

Since I have never been one for making speeches (and I’m not sure I’d know how), I’m going to tell you a story. The story is about a writer (a writer who always speaks very fast) who is invited one day to make the official opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

This happens the year in which Catalan culture is the guest culture of the Fair. A year that could be, let’s say, 2007. The writer in question —Catalan himself and, hence, on his guard— hesitates before accepting the assignment. He thinks, “Now what should I do? Accept the invitation? Not accept it? Should I decline with a pleasant excuse? If I accept, what will people think? If I don’t accept, what will people think?”

I don’t know how these things work in other countries, but I can assure you that in my country people tend to think many thoughts, and to draw many conclusions. If you say one day that, when the tailor takes your measurements for a suit and asks, “Do you dress right or left?”, you answer that you dress right (or left), people draw conclusions. If you go to the fruit store and order apples they draw conclusions. If you order oranges, they draw them as well. Whatever you do —dress right or left, buy apples or oranges— people have a very high degree of perspicacity. People are practically clairvoyant, and they always deduce one thing or another, right down to seeing cities that don’t appear on any map. If you step forward, you should have stood still. If you stand still, you should have stepped forward. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But as it happens the writer in question feels he doesn’t owe anyone an apology for forming part of the culture they have invited to be the guest at Frankfurt that year, so he decides to accept. Obviously they will never propose to him that he make the official opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair the year they invite the Turkish, Vietnamese, or N’gndunga culture. So he says yes, he’ll do it, and he sits right down at a table, gets out a ball point pen and a notebook, and starts ruminating on what he should say.

He feels a bit perplexed. Throughout the years, history’s largesse has not been on the side of Catalan literature. Languages and literatures should never be on the receiving end of geopolitical strategies, but they are, and in a big way. This is why he is surprised that an operation like this —the Frankfurt Book Fair, dedicated to the greater glory of the publishing industry— has decided to invite a culture with a fragmented literature, divided up among several nation-states in none of which it is really an official language (even though one and a half of them proclaim that it is, just so long as this proclamation doesn’t irritate the tourists, the skiers, or the butane gas deliverymen).

This is why he has his doubts regarding the invitation to Frankfurt. Has the world suddenly become magnanimous with the Catalans, when there are so many who would prefer them to be perpetually on the periphery? He remembers, moreover, another literary operation, now more than a century ago (in 1904) —more Nordic and a good deal more pompous—, in which the jury of the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded the prize to Frederic Mistral. Frederic Mistral was not Catalan. He was Occitan. But the reference serves —not only for some Catalans and some Occitans to feel a bond— but also because the award so irritated the Nation-State purists (“Soyez propre, parlez francais!“) that never again in our lifetime has any stateless literature been awarded a Nobel Prize.

Beyond the feeling of perplexity, the character in our story feels a sense of justice. Perhaps “justice” is not the precise word. Something like that. Even though —not to repeat himself— the political avatars have not given us much cause for joy, Catalan literature is clearly one of the cornerstones of European culture. No stateless literature in this Europe (which they now claim we are building together) has produced such a solid, ductile, and continuous literature. Should he explain all of this in his speech?

Maybe he could begin by saying that the initial impetus that gave Catalan literature a preferential place in Europe during the Middle Ages was born of Ramon Llull (Raymundus Lullus, Raimundo Lulio, Raymond Llull, Raymond Lully: whichever you prefer). Ramon Llull was a philosopher, storyteller, and poet. He was from Mallorca, this Mallorca that has now turned into a geriatric-tour-operated ‘Bundesland’. Born long before tourist agencies, low-cost airlines, and the invention of “Balearization” came to dictate the rules of life of those coasts, centuries before the arrival of Boris Becker and Claudia Schiffer, in the mid 13th century Ramon Llull constructed a rigorous and shapely language, the same language we still speak and write, in a vibrant and corrupted way.

But the writer still has doubts. Since he will be speaking in Frankfurt, should he dress it up with details that might interest the German-speaking public? Should he mention the Archduke Louis-Salvador of Austria-Tuscany, S’Arxiduc, as he was known? Should he mention Messrs. Damm and Moritz, beer brewers of Germanic origin, founders of two of the brands of beer still drunk nowadays by Catalans? It is clear that, if he did, they’d call him frivolous, and this gives him all the more reason to do it. While he’s at it, he could mention Mr. Otto Zutz, the great ophthalmologist —“certified in Spain and in Germany”— whose name ultimately graced a splendid Barcelona discotheque, and who, in his lifetime, tested the eyesight of many a citizen of Barcelona. Some members of the family of Carles Riba, the poet, for example, as can be gleaned from what his grandson —Pau Riba, a poet in his own right, as well as a singer— says in the text accompanying his record “Dioptria” (“Diopter”).

Nor does he know whether he should cite the greatest names that have spun the literary thread that brings us to the present: Bernat Metge, J.V. Foix, Narcís Oller, Anselm Turmeda, Joan Brossa, Joanot Martorell, Llorenç Villalonga, Jordi de Sant Jordi, Jaume Roig, Josep Carner, Jacint Verdaguer, Isabel de Villena, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Angel Guimerà, Santiago Rusiñol, Joan Maragall, Eugeni d’Ors, Josep Pla, Joan Sales, Mercè Rodoreda… And, should he do it in this disorderly way or name them in chronological order?

Or maybe it would be better not to cite any of them? Won’t reading the names of all these writers (most of whom are unknown to the literary world that circulates in Frankfurt) just be tedious for the audience at the opening ceremony who will have to listen to so many unfamiliar names? Won’t they be looking at their watches and thinking, “What a bore!”? And so he decides he won’t mention any names (even though, in fact, he has already mentioned them in the very process of describing his doubts as to whether he should mention them or not). What’s more, he’s read that at the Frankfurt Book Fair there will be an exhibition that explains all this. Although —to be frank— how many of the persons who attend this inaugural event will later visit this exhibition with any more interest than a merely official show of etiquette? Let us be frank and optimistic: very few. Even if this is a Book Fair, where the least-known authors ought to be the ones who would most pique the reading appetite of those who were interested in discovering literary gems and not simply following the commercial drumbeat of what is in vogue at the time.

But the more he ruminates on it, the less clearly he sees how the speech should be. Since many people have formed their idea of the world from the vantage point of the current politico-cultural power geometry, perhaps he could tell them that in Europe—once Latin had been shredded into the vulgar Romance languages—, the first treatise on Law was the Catalan “Consulate of the Sea,” which established the rules for maritime relations in the Mediterranean. Perhaps he could add that some of the first European treatises on medicine, dietetics, philosophy, surgery, or gastronomy were also written in the Catalan language.

But what use will all these facts be? What have other writers in previous inaugural speeches at this very same Fair said before him? The writer then tracks down a few of these opening speeches and reads them. Almost always, in all of these speeches, there is a grand exaltation of the writer’s own culture, and he sees clearly that to those who do not belong to the culture being exalted all the speeches sound distant, like the sound of a river flowing to the sea without our noticing. These speeches are not unlike the one made by Pau Casals, the cellist, at the United Nations in New York, during the Franco dictatorship. That was a speech that moved Catalans with the same intensity that it left the rest of the inhabitants of the planet indifferent: “I am a Catalan. Today, a province of Spain. But what has been Catalonia? Catalonia has been the greatest nation in the world. I will tell you why. Catalonia had the first Parliament, long before England. Catalonia had the first United Nations…”

He also observes that other writers who have delivered the opening speech at the Book Fair have interspersed poems in the text. Maybe he should do that, too. He could, for example, read the tongue-twister that the great Salvador Dalí read one day (in a phenomenal parody of a military speech), as if it were the most sublime poetry in this world:

A teeny-tiny mommy lousie, itchy, screechy, bowlegged and beachy,
had six teeny-tiny baby lousies, itchy, screechy, bowlegged and beachy.
If the mommy lousie hadn’t been teeny-tiny, itchy, screechy, bowlegged and beachy,
the six little lousies wouldn’t have been teeny-tiny, itchy, screechy, bowlegged and beachy

In truth, if the speech is part of a ritual and, as in all rituals, what really matters is the form, the protocol, the suit jacket, the tie (or the absence of a tie), does what is said, exactly, matter that much at all? In a religious ceremony celebrated in a dead language (a mass in Latin, for example), does it matter all that much if some portion of the faithful doesn’t understand the text? Even more to the point: must anything concrete be said at all? Politicians are great jugglers, and hence their speeches are exemplary: full of stock phrases which —so as to be perceived as responsible individuals— they apply with great mastery at the right moment even if, in truth, they are nothing more than smoke: letters that form syllables that form words that do the deed.

Years ago, Carles Santos, the extraordinary musician, recorded a splendid piece that fell somewhere between a declaration of love and a political speech. It is a text in which vacuous phrases and promises have been replaced with the constant repetition of the word “Sargantaneta,” “little lizard,” seasoned with exalted adjectives. (“Sargantaneta,” with a slight alteration, “Sagrantaneta,” is the name of his fishing boat.) Wouldn’t the ideal speech for an event like the opening of the Book Fair be, in fact, a text full of stock phrases, of “little lizards”? A text so abstract and so empty that, without changing a single word or phrase, it could be used just as well at a literary, sporting, hunting, or stamp-collecting event? A text that would serve just as well to present a new book of lyric poetry as to inaugurate a train route. A speech so ambiguous that it would be all rhythm —rhythm, rhythm!—, but in truth would mean nothing: absolutely nothing.

This is what the writer who always speaks very fast (and who is invited one day to make the official opening speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair), wonders whether or not he should say. He also wonders whether —if he says it— his listeners will take much notice. He also wonders whether —if they take notice— they will understand much of what he means. He also thinks that, in fact, he could say any other thing without changing things all that much so long as he adheres to ceremony in all the rest of the details. One of the most important features of which, by the way, is time.

And this he is clear about, indeed. When the time comes to finish— the maximum number of minutes stipulated is fifteen— he will look at his watch [he looks at his watch] and say:

—That’s all. Thank you very much. Good evening.