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Hell, or Catalonia

Jordi Ibáñez Fanés plays Dante to Spain’s autonomous region

In the fall of 2014, in the run-up to what began as a “declaration of sovereignty,” or, in layman’s terms, a referendum on Catalan independence, and was downgraded, for reasons deferential to the letter if not the spirit of the law, to a “citizen participation process,” I was living in Girona, thought by many to be the heart of the authentic Catalonia, in contrast to Barcelona, with its Spanish-speaking majority and its hordes of tourists and Argentine and Italian transplants. One day my landlords—he a Mosso d’Esquadra, a member of the Catalan autonomous police, as opposed to the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard, and she a functionary in the local administration—invited my wife and me to their country house for a calçotada, a traditional celebratory meal of grilled green onions and meats. Over wine, I asked them what they thought of the turn the independence movement had taken under then-president of Catalonia Artur Mas. They didn’t hesitate to affirm they would be voting “Yes/Yes” to the two questions to be featured on the ballot: “Do you want Catalonia to become a state?” and “Do you want this state to be independent?”

When I asked their reasons, the wife answered, “We didn’t always feel this way, but now it’s just too much. We just can’t take it anymore.” Never clearly specified that afternoon was what it was. For me, it was evident that the surge in pro-independence sentiment over the past three years was the fruit of la crisis, the spectacular implosion of the Spanish economy in 2008, made worse by the mismanagement of the venal and scandal-ridden Popular Party, which had followed the EU script of munificence for the banks and austerity for the common people. Catalonia is a wealthy region, though not as wealthy as it pretends—its GDP is about that of the Detroit metropolitan area—and many had gotten the idea that rather than forking over tax dollars to bail out corrupt lenders, they could pack their bags and go it alone, in the process protecting a language and cultural heritage that has rarely enjoyed respect or legitimacy beyond its borders and has more than once been threatened with extinction.

Catalonia is a wealthy region, though not as wealthy as it pretends.

Surely this was the case of my landlords. Both had government jobs with much-coveted indefinite contracts; both had rental properties, a typical mark of wealth in this country of declining birth rates and scant opportunities; they had their own apartment in the city as well as a house in the country, and they were considering taking out a loan for a third place in the Pyrenees. When I asked if the crisis motivated their newfound yearning for sovereignty, they seemed almost offended: “No, of course not,” they replied. It all had to do with other offenses, ones they couldn’t quite name or describe with any clarity, though they did voice the perennial complaint about the poor state of the regional train system in Catalonia in comparison with the one in Madrid—there is truth to this, but the situation is far more complicated, and the blame more widespread, than the tried-and-true slogan Espanya ens roba (Spain is robbing us) conveys.

The buildup to the referendum was fishy, to say the least, with acrobatic levels of prevarication to give it the sheen of legality after the Spanish Constitutional Court declared it unconstitutional. The mood was chiliastic among the pro-independence chinwaggers, while the vociferous antis tended hysterically rightward, with one semi-prominent writer telling me, “This is exactly what it felt like in Sarajevo.” Polls seemed to show the majority of Catalans favored the right to choose but opposed independence. Polling in Spain, though, is partisan enough to be of limited utility at best, and the entire question of what the Catalans thought or felt—putting aside the more awkward question of what a Catalan even is—ignored the, to me at least, somewhat salient possibility that the thirty-nine million other Spaniards might have some legitimate interest in the fate of the country’s second-most populous region.

Forward-thinking friends outside the country, to the extent that they knew what Catalonia was, were universal in their embrace of its admittedly fine-sounding “right to choose.” This is to be expected. Progressivism is less a coherent doctrine than a mode of vanity, a wanting-to-be-seen-thinking-the-right-thing, and “linguistic minority,” “oppressed culture,” and “self-determination” all have a rousing sound to them. True, the Catalan language was not only thriving but had become requisite for entry into many professions and spheres of society; true, the people who looked most oppressed in Catalonia were not the Catalans themselves, but the Africans and Maghrebis working for peanuts in the fields or slaughterhouses, or the Latin American cleaning women and caretakers; true, the logic of self-determination had been used to justify Russian military intervention in South Ossetia and the Crimea, not noted liberal causes, and taken to its extreme could just as well rationalize Texas secessionism or white-majority Buckhead’s current scheme to break away from black-majority Atlanta. But beyond all this, it is curious that a movement led by Artur Mas, a conservative whose major policy initiatives had been the opaque privatization of Catalonia’s health care system and parts of its water supply, could be seen as an embodiment of progressive values––the same Artur Mas who had been hand-picked by Jordi Pujol, Catholic founder of the scandal-plagued center-right party Convergència Democràtica de Catalunya.

Though in bad odor just then after confessing to having several million euros tucked away in Andorra outside the taxman’s reach, Pujol had been the living symbol of Catalonia for decades. The son of a black-market currency trader, Pujol fell under the sway of Catholic reformists closely aligned with the arch-conservative Opus Dei when he was still a student and saw the church as the most plausible vehicle for a revival of the Catalan spirit. Under Franco, who reigned as dictator from 1939 to 1975, reform inevitably came from the right: major left-wing figures had all been shot, imprisoned, or exiled, and political parties were effectively suppressed. But the historical foundations of Catalanism, which Pujol sought to revitalize and extend, drew from a fairly militant fringe that included figures like the conservative politician Enric Prat de la Riba or Bishop Josep Torras i Bages; during the war, despite the conflation of the Republic with Catalonia in the eyes of over-enthusiastic readers of Orwell, Catalan notables like Eugeni d’Ors and Josep Pla rallied the masses on Franco’s behalf, and even the nominally Republican Miquel Badia devoted himself as Chief of Public Order to torturing and persecuting strikers and anarchists.

These peoples’ names are remembered, and adorn streets and plazas all over Catalonia, but few recall the uglier parts of their thinking. When Pujol was jailed in 1960 for authoring anti-Francoist pamphlets, the motto Pujol = Catalonia was spray-painted around the country, and years later, as the Spanish government investigated irregularities at his failed bank, the Banca Catalana, many viewed this as a neo-imperialist insult. Now, when Pujol’s corruption is no longer up for debate, he, too, has been largely expunged from the nationalist narrative. The damp squib of the 2014 referendum—a resounding victory for the pro-independence side, since its irrelevance meant the opposition stayed home—spelled the end for Pujol’s successor, Artur Mas, who was ejected from office in a tail-wagging-the-dog scenario by the small far left party Candidatura d’Unitat Popular. They helped install in his place Carles Puigdemont, a man I best remembered as the mayor of Girona who put locks on the trash containers outside supermarkets so poor people couldn’t dig through them for food.

It has become a place where drab, government-sponsored culture pushes out diversity of opinion.

Puigdemont announced another referendum—but this time, for real—for October 1, 2017, and again, the court declared it unconstitutional. Turnout was once more anemic, as non-independence parties had encouraged their voters not to go along with the farce, but the 90 percent yes vote sufficed for Puigdemont to declare Catalonia well and truly on the road to independence. Apparently he was less confident behind the scenes, and for the next month, he wavered in talks with the Spanish central government about whether he really would or wouldn’t try to break away. On October 27, the Catalan parliament forced his hand with an official declaration of independence, whereupon the Spanish senate dissolved it and dismissed Puigdemont, who fled to Belgium with a small band of ministers a few days later, leaving others to take the rap.

This spectacular flop had been preceded by a propaganda campaign of extraordinary mendacity. The motto “We’re the richest region” had been repeated so many times that true believers were convinced Spain had to buckle to Catalonia because it couldn’t live without it––I remember an otherwise rational acquaintance asking where the Spanish would shit if they couldn’t get toilets made by Roca, a brand headquartered in Barcelona. European leaders made it clear an independent Catalonia would be ejected from the EU, and that Spanish pressure might mean it would never be permitted to join, but separatist politicians assured their voters this wasn’t the case, just because. In ways never lucidly explained, an independent Catalonia was supposed to become the Denmark of the south, though Denmark is more than twice as rich per capita as Catalonia and somewhere around a tenth as corrupt. Vice President Oriol Junqueras said there would be no massive outflow of businesses as a result of the independence, but as of 2021, the net loss of firms is just shy of five thousand. Just as with Brexit and the 2016 election, troll farms spread inflammatory messages with hashtags like #Spainisafasciststate on Twitter, and Nigel Farage, Marine LePen, Alex Jones, and Russia Today all developed a sudden, vocal interest in Catalan sovereignty.

The results of this are difficult to quantify. The right-wing press has adduced dubious figures painting the referendum as an economic and social disaster, but the picture is complicated, especially now, taking into account the economic effects of the pandemic. What is beyond doubt is that Catalonia’s competitiveness has declined, that it is less attractive for visitors and businesses, that it has ceded a great deal of cultural ground to Madrid and Valencia, and that it is a more hostile environment for foreigners than it was a decade ago. Looking outward, Catalonia continues to present itself as ecumenical and European, in contrast to provincial Spain with its Francoist residues; on the ground, it has become a place where drab, government-sponsored culture pushes out diversity of opinion, where no one is too mediocre to find a place in the system as long as they speak the right language and hold the right views, and where deep social injustices arouse less indignation than whether restaurant menus and signage are written in Catalan.

The procés, as the developments surrounding the independence movement are known, has long cried out for a treatment in fiction, but art often fails in confrontation with major turning points in culture, as anyone who’s read much 9/11 fiction can attest. Then again, the literary field in Spain is unusually cozy, precarious, and calculating, so it has taken four years since the referendum for a proper examination of Pujolism and its consequences to be published, one with sufficient rigor to grasp the phenomena in their complexities and the sensitivity and talent to reconfigure them in art. It’s unusual to review an untranslated book, one that, moreover, isn’t likely to be translated, as the challenges it presents and the depth of its cultural references make it hard to chew on for the uninitiated, but Jordi Ibáñez Fanés’s Infierno, Purgatorio, Paraíso is a triumph too significant to ignore.

In principle, Ibáñez would have been a perfect candidate to become a semi-official intellectual of the kind that abound in Catalonia, with a subsidized post at a government-funded institution or the white elephant public station TV3: he’s a Catalan de soca-rel, the son of one of the most influential Catalan journalists of the twentieth century, Manuel Ibáñez Escofet. Not milking this for political benefit has left him somewhat in the shadows. In a country where there are more prizes than writers, where virtually anything slapped between two covers is a cause for dozens of interviews, profiles, and orgiastic encomia, Un Quartet, his incomparable 2019 meditation on family and self, duty and spirit, passed almost unnoticed. It was a book that asked too much of a readership accustomed to skimming—and the quality of literature in Spain (including Catalonia) has so declined in the past thirty years that skimming is the only way to bear it. With Infierno, Purgatorio, Paraíso, Ibáñez besieges the founding myths and baleful consequences of Catalan nationalism, and again, many readers and critics are looking away.

The structure, of course, comes from Dante, with a taxi driver standing in for Virgil (haunting taxi trips are a constant across Ibáñez’s writing):

I was singing something or other, I don’t remember what, sprawled out, lurching in that taxi. Everything begins with a taxi trip, the continuation of a journey from who can say what prior world. Driver, take me to Paris! Take me to Heaven, or better, to Hell! But first of all, take me to Bellesguard, to the home of Clotas, to plenitude . . .

The scene picks up from the end of Ibáñez’s 2004 novel, Una vida al carrer, in which the same protagonist, Jordi Martínez, gets progressively drunker as he wanders around the heart of Barcelona meditating on Henry James, listening to the tale of woe of a poor guitarist begging for change, and trying and failing to make it to dinner at his friend Clotas’s. Already here, well before independence fever, Ibáñez’s politics were clear:

All this talk about Country and Party is a way of saying: the only thing that interests me is nothing, the inhuman vacuity of grandiose words, infatuation with abstractions made to the measure of my dreams (which are most often a nightmare for those who don’t think as I do), and the inhumane realization of powerful interests and enterprises (which most often mean hunger and poverty for those who aren’t my friends).

Hell, for Ibáñez, is divided among a crowd of benighted outsiders, witnesses, and actors. Clotas is the epitome of the second category. Martínez finds him in his bedroom atop a literal mountain of old newspapers, remnants of an archive he kept painstakingly in life, a “journalistic Golgotha” of press clippings he refers to as The Grand Natural Theater of Memory. At first, Martínez remembers nothing, and cannot seem to adjust to this new, stagnant world. Cellphones no longer work, there is no food to speak of, everything is crumbling, dank, and dirty. Dejected, Martínez asks Clotas if he can’t give him any good news. “Of course!” he replies. “The world has ended, the great broom of nature is sweeping away the iniquities of man.”

In his attempts to illuminate the nature of this perdition, Clotas offers Martínez a lesson in twentieth-century Catalan history. But over and over, Martínez repeats that he doesn’t understand, until Clotas guides him to what resembles a TV room in a nursing home, where figures representing four of Catalonia’s presidents are playing cards. Their names have been changed to cruel effect: José Montilla is Puntilla, the last straw; Artur Mas is Gas, in honor of the megatons of hot air expelled on behalf of his cause; Maragall is Capavall, downward or, more poetically, crestfallen, in allusion to his fraught legacy or his affliction with Alzheimer’s, which caused his retirement from public life in 2007. While Pujol’s stand-in Capgràs (literally “fat head,” but also a reference to Capgras syndrome, the delusion that a familiar person has been replaced with another) tries to grab everyone else’s coffee and soup, Gas prepares for an announcement of his imminent return to politics. They are condemned to repeat this scene every day, interminably.

The tone changes in “A Christmas Story,” the second section of the book, which describes a murder-suicide committed by Alfons Quintà, a sociopathic journalist who had been a gadfly to Pujol before being bought off, or coming to a gentleman’s agreement––no one has ever known the truth––that placed him at the head of the first Catalan TV station. Quintà contributed to the channel’s success, but at immense cost to his employees––abusive, grating, a serial harasser, he was known to make employees piss themselves with fear. After his inevitable firing, he tried to start a paper intended to be the Catalan New York Times but was let go after burning through a medium-sized fortune. Eventually, he found himself at the right-leaning El Mundo inveighing against the separatist movement many of his former friends and employers embraced. His heart began to give out––as he lay in the hospital, his partner, a doctor, came to visit him despite their separation some time before. He repaid her kindness by entering their apartment in the early hours of December 19, 2016, shooting her in the head as she slept, then killing himself.

Ibáñez besieges the founding myths and baleful consequences of Catalan nationalism.

Ibáñez’s fictional detective, Carles Blasi, arrives at the apartment ten or twelve hours later. The case seems open-and-shut: ample testimony exists as to Quintà’s brutal instability, and there are no signs of forced entry or of anyone else’s presence. But a missing slipper tells Blasi all is not as it ought to be. Quintà can’t be identified with certainty because his face is blown off, and his fingertips are smooth––adermatoglyphia, a rare genetic condition characterized by a lack of ridges on the skin of the hands and feet, Blasi’s partner suggests. Soon a call comes in from headquarters: Blasi is to locate a blue folder. No details are given, but the command is from high up.

What follows is a self-conscious parody of the traditional detective story in the interim between Artur Mas’s referendum and the declaration of Catalan independence. Blasi sinks into “the sludge of calculation and sloth on which was built this place that had once been thought an oasis in the supposed wasteland of Spain.” Doubts keep cropping up, details are hard to square with the version of events Occam’s razor carves out, and Blasi chases down false leads in the purgatory of “a country divided between one side that inhabits a parallel reality and another that is functionally illiterate.” Eventually, as in any good B movie, Blasi’s doggedness lands him in a trap in the office of ex-President Capgràs. This is the moment when the cartoon villain decides to reveal his motivations before his apocalyptic deed. But nothing happens, the motivations are unclear, and the truth is never more than partial, as fits the chronic uncertainty surrounding virtually every aspect of Pujolism, the Catalan crisis, and the darker sides of Spanish politics as a whole––“institutionalism disguised as legality,” in Ibáñez’s term.

After this noir intermezzo, the book shifts further back in time to July 25, 2014, the day Jordi Pujol confessed to his hidden fortune in Andorra. The world of the book’s opening is presented here intact: Clotas’s archive of newspapers is scrupulously organized; Tana, the lover who appeared to Jordi Martínez previously as a shade, is now present in the flesh; and Martínez himself is still young, “or at least still drinking the dregs of the liquors of youth, if sometimes from other people’s glasses.”

The guiding metaphor of this final section is Kythira, traditional seat of Aphrodite, the goddess of love; but Ibáñez, an author of rare erudition, can’t content himself with a single allusion, and adds nuance through a contrast of Antoine Watteau’s Pilgrimage to Kythira and Baudelaire’s poem, “A Voyage to Kythira.” Watteau’s painting is a fête galante in which a band of lavishly dressed aristocrats are urged toward a boat by grotesquely plump putti that whirl around them like horseflies. In the poem, a man on a boat glimpses the “banal El Dorado of aged rakes” and finds it to be a parched, rocky isle where a gibbet stands and birds pick at the organs of a condemned man’s rotting corpse. “Be careful what you wish for” is a cheesy distillation of the author’s intent, but it’s not wrong, either, and he draws a connection between these works of sensuality and decay and an episode toward the book’s end in which Giacomo, Clotas’s estranged son, asks Martínez to help him find a dominatrix specializing in hardcore humiliation. In an email exchange, the author told me he saw masochism as an attempted recreation of the Freudian “primal scene”; but more convincing to me, and more germane to Giacomo’s longings, is Roy Baumeister’s theory of masochism as “a means of escaping high-level self-awareness.”

While Martínez waits in a bar outside the brothel, rereading a newspaper from days before to avoid yet another account of Capgràs’s confession, the latter is on his way to Bellesguard. He and Clotas are old frenemies, and he is obsessed with Clotas’s Grand Natural Theater of Memory and what pernicious information about him it may hold. Martínez has his phone on silent and lingers after Giacomo returns, listening to the details of his assignation, which is less erotic than purgative and a slight bit pathetic. Eventually he sees a series of desperate text messages summoning him. He arrives back at the house to find Clotas sedating himself with whiskey while an enraged Capgràs stuffs his face with cookies and vacillates between resignation and fiery self-justification during a debate on the history of the relations between Catalonia and Spain: whose sins came first, whose were worse, to what extent the one can be disentwined from the other. Blame isn’t laid with either––the truth is there, in some form, in Clotas’s archive, and the heaven of depersonalization Giacomo seeks through his masochism is embodied at Bellesguard in the hope for truth: a truth which, at the deepest level, transcends the personal and becomes, to quote Benjamin, “a single catastrophe that incessantly piles ruins upon ruins” and hurls them at the Angel of History’s feet.

Marx’s famous revision of Hegel—of a phrase Hegel seems never to have written—that all great world-historical facts and personages appear twice, “the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce,” leaves open the question of what happens on the third and fourth go-round. There is certainly tragedy in the beginnings of Catalan nationalism in its modern sense, trapped between politically companionable but culturally retrograde fascists and a Republic torn apart by doctrinaire infighting, with both sides great enthusiasts of taking dissenters for a walk, the contemporary euphemism for a bullet to the head on the outskirts of town. Pujolism was a farce, but one that took decades to unfold. Pujol must have been sincere in the early days; and while national spirit of the kind he sought to stoke among the Catalans can’t be judged in terms of good or bad, it was part of a legitimate political project hardly conceivable without him. Perversity intruded when he identified himself with the Catalan nation, and, for reasons hard to elucidate, much of the Catalan nation identified itself with him. This was the key to his transition from paragon to plunderer.

The exposure of the farce of Pujolism laid the groundwork for a series of lesser ones, more radical than anything Pujol himself proposed and to that same degree, more risible. At least Pujol’s successor, Artur Mas, still merited his own -ism, however hard to define it might be; not even the most hardened separatist could discern a creed or method in Carles Puigdemont’s hightailing it to—no irony intended—Waterloo, where he now works as a deputy in the European Parliament, netting eight thousand euros a month and enjoying parliamentary immunity. Next out of the Whac-A-Mole came the virulently anti-Spanish Quim Torra, whose main accomplishments were criticizing Spain for not doing enough about the pandemic and criticizing Spain for overstepping its authority during the pandemic. When his turn for defenestration came—for refusing to remove partisan banners and symbols from government offices during elections—he defined his own administration as a “presidency of impotence.” He was replaced in 2021 by Pere Aragonés, but I’m not sure anyone noticed. Covid and its economic effects, especially painful in a part of the country so heavily dependent on tourism, have distracted all but the most zealous from the cause of national sovereignty. Some have even recognized the utility of belonging to a large EU-member country in times of crisis, and support for separation is lower than it has been since 2011.

I doubt the decline will be permanent. Contemporary radical posturing, irrespective of ideology, is closely linked to boredom, to the pathological FOMO and yearning for action borne of watching too much news and spending too much time online. Journalist Albert Soler entitled his tongue-in-cheek account of the schismatics’ foibles We Got Tired of Living Well, which is as good a formulation as any to describe the 1914-esque malaise and ardor common not just to Catalan separatism, but to the gilets jaunes, Brexit, QAnon, and any number of adrift populist movements whose appeal goes no further than the opportunity to be a protagonist, rather than a subject, of something.