Issue 190: 2019 02 21: Quixote in Cataluña

21 February 2019

Don Quixote in Cataluña

The return of the Spanish archetype.

By Neil Tidmarsh

Just over a year ago, The Times chess correspondent Raymond Keene described the Catalan Opening as “a variation that is problematic for both sides.  The advantages and disadvantages are so subtly nuanced that the slightest inaccuracy by White can lead to the instant dissolution of White’s natural advantage from the opening phase, resulting in sterile equality. Conversely, any almost imperceptible slip by Black can convert a slight inferiority into a nagging permanent disadvantage.”

He was actually writing about the match between the UK’s Michael Adams and Poland’s Radoslaw Wojtaszek in the European Team Chess Championship then taking place in Crete; but – coincidentally – the Catalan crisis had just blown up, with White organising its illegal and misguided referendum and making that hesitant and foolish declaration of independence, and Black reacting intemperately.  Thus, hidden away on the MindGames page of Times2, Mr Keene inadvertently made that week’s best political comment (outside Shaw Sheet), and probably the best comment on the whole Catalan saga thus far.

Over a year later, however, Madrid and Barcelona are continuing to play their game of tactical blunders. It’s well past the opening phase now; the middle game saw the independence leaders fleeing the country or being arrested, Madrid reinstalling the regional Assembly in Barcelona and mass demonstrations throughout the country protesting for or against the Catalan cause.  And this week it looks as if the end game has begun; the arrested leaders have at last gone on trial, after more than a whole year in prison. The twelve defendants have been charged with rebellion, sedition, disobedience and misuse of public funds.  They could face prison sentences of between seven and twenty-five years.  The trial is expected to last three months.

Moreover, this week the Catalan crisis triggered a wider meltdown in Spanish politics.  Ever since Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez became prime minister last June, he’s been trying to ease tensions between Barcelona and Madrid.  He’s been urging and encouraging discussions and negotiations, even while tempers have continued to heat up and positions to harden – only to be kicked in the teeth for his admirable initiatives.  His minority government depends on the support of Catalan secessionists in parliament, but because he won’t allow discussions to include the issue of secession, they refused to vote for his national budget this week.  The government’s spending plan was defeated, 191 votes to 158.  The failure forced Mr Sánchez to announce a snap election, for April.  It’ll be the country’s third general election in five years.

In fact he’s being attacked from all sides for his sensible efforts to open communications between Madrid and the pro-independence regional government in Catalonia, particularly for his offer to allow the participation of an independent mediator.  His own Socialist party is angry with him.  The conservative opposition is enraged, going so far as to accuse him of high treason.  Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied in Madrid and elsewhere to protest against any kind of dialogue with Barcelona.  Across the country, nationalist opposition to Catalonia is strengthening the hard right.  The extreme right party Vox came from nowhere to win seats in Andalucia’s regional government last year (and is now polling at 11%), the mainstream conservative Popular Party is moving further to the right, and some protesters against Catalan independence have been seen making fascist salutes on Spanish streets.  The election at the end of April will probably be won by a hard-right coalition of Vox, PP and a third right-wing party, Cuidadanos.

Such is the growth of a reactionary, intransigent and vindictive spirit in Madrid politics and in much of the country outside Catalonia, that many commentators are suggesting that Spain is returning to its traditional, authoritarian and nationalistic intolerance, that the Catalan crisis has woken the spirit of General Franco and given it something to feed on after a forty-year slumber, and that it is Spanish democracy which is now in danger of going to sleep.  “The Spanish political system has gone berserk” wrote John Carlin in his brilliant essay in The Times last Saturday, “reviving authoritarian tendencies of the not-so-distant past, setting the stage for a battle between ancient and modern, authoritarian and open-minded, for the soul of Spain’s young and not yet fully formed democracy”.

Listen carefully and you can indeed hear the echo of a traditional and ancient Spanish archetype behind the sound and fury of the Catalan crisis.  But it isn’t the stamp-stamp-stamp of El Caudillo General Francisco Franco’s fascist jack-boots.  It’s the plodding clip-clop-clip-clop of Rosinante, Don Quixote’s old horse.

For four hundred years, Don Quixote de la Mancha has been recognised as the Spanish archetype.  Miguel de Cervantes’ immortal creation is a noble idealist, an individualist, not a realist or a materialist but a dreamer of wonderful dreams, clinging to his aristocratic identity as a member of a decaying gentry, too proud to concern himself overmuch with the mundane and humiliating business of work and money, sustained yet warped by the chivalric glories of a legendary past, nostalgic, stubborn, blinkered, and dangerously subject to delusion, exaggeration, fantasy and fanaticism.

Madrid’s belief that the Catalan fiasco of October 2017 was a “rebellion” is the modern equivalent of Don Quixote’s mad belief that the windmills were fierce giants.  The charge of rebellion is defined in Spanish law courts as “rising up in a violent manner”.  But how many armed secessionists took to the streets? None.  How many shots were fired?  None.  How many people were killed?  None.  How many Spanish troops had to be mobilised?  None.  How many central government officials were detained, forcefully or otherwise?  None.  How many people were injured?  Well, none, according to the Madrid government, ironically, though the secessionists claim that hundreds were injured not by revolutionary violence but – equally ironically – by police violence.

And the claim by Pablo Casado Blanco, the leader of the opposition Popular Party, that prime minister Pedro Sánchez should be tried for “high treason” for encouraging dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona is the modern equivalent of Don Quixote’s mad belief that a group of holy friars was a coven of evil sorcerers guilty of abducting a noble lady.

Strictly speaking, Don Quixote is a specifically Castillian archetype rather than a generally Spanish one. The Catalans have the own archetype; other Spaniards would say that the Catalan is a peasant type, an earthy and practical realist, a crude but cunning materialist who can rise to become a hard-headed businessman, a bourgeois, but who has none of the spirituality or imagination or wild individualism of his Iberian neighbours.  Catalans would defend themselves by pointing out that Barcelona has a world-class opera house and is the literary and publishing capital of the Spanish-speaking world, that they have a fine history as sea-going merchants, and that it is their enterprise and hard work which is keeping the Spanish economy afloat.

And yet, paradoxically, their actions in October 2017 defied their own archetype.  They proved themselves to be just as “quixotic” as their Castillian opponents in Madrid.  The word “quixotic” could have been invented for their referendum and declaration of independence.  The hopeless Catalan adventure was not the work of practical, hard-headed, pragmatic, materialistic realists – it was the work of unrealistic dreamers.  The well-known song from The Man Of La Mancha (the 1965 musical of Cervantes’ novel) could have been written for them: “To dream the impossible dream / To fight the unbeatable foe / To bear with unbearable sorrow / To run where the brave dare not go… / To reach the unreachable star…”  They’ve proved themselves to be as stubborn as Don Quixote (in rejecting dialogue unless secession is on the table), as nostalgic for a mythical past (has Catalonia ever been a sovereign political entity?) and as unrealistically idealistic (it’s unlikely that Catalonia has a future as an independent state, except perhaps as a province of a united Europe just as subject to Brussels as it now is to Madrid) and as blinkered (for the last forty years, Madrid has not been an oppressive mini-Franco but has protected democracy by giving regional governments a huge amount of autonomy).

So if both Madrid and Barcelona are Don Quixote, who is Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s ‘squire’, his companion and his opposite, the down-to-earth, realistic, practical voice of common sense, the man-of-the-people peasant to Quixote’s fanatical aristocrat?  Prime minister and socialist Pedro Sánchez, of course, the man who is trying to get both sides to talk to each other, who is constantly reminding both of them that democracy is a matter of dialogue, compromise and tolerance.

Whether they or the country as a whole will listen to him any more than Don Quixote listened to Sancho Panza remains to be seen.  But those elections are due for the end of April, and the court’s verdict on the Catalan ‘rebellion’ is due for the end of May, so we’ll know soon enough.


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