Isabel has spent the whole day reading my beloved book by Robert Elms. I asked her to interrupt me and let me know each time that she found a paragraph or passage well above or below average. I mentioned in my earlier post on this topic that I had the idea that the book was quite decent once we forget about the little incident with Galicia.
Well, my conclusion is that the book is as bad as the chapter on Galicia.
First of all, Mr Robert Elms is terribly misinformed. El Cid was not from Galicia but from Burgos. Picasso’s city is Malaga, not Barcelona. These are general knowledge facts, nothing hard to find in any brochure or booklet about the respective places. Mr Elms goes beyond little facts into a “deep” discussion of the Spanish politic panorama in the early 1990s. He says that the PSOE (the Spanish socialist party) ruled the country as an unopposed force, as a de facto single party, with a bunch of people at the top making all the decisions. Perhaps Mr Elms has not heard about the PNV (Basque nationalists), who had majority in the Basque Country, or CiU (Catalonian nationalists), also with majority in Catalonia, or the Bloque (Galician nationalists), with strong support in Galicia, or the PP, with a significant slice of the votes in every election for the last 25 years.
Secondly, I don’t think you can understand a culture unless you speak the language. Actually, Mr Elms admits having a quite limited Spanish in his book. He explains how he and his mate had communication problems with the cleaner because of her poor English. I wonder whether he has even considered that it could have been because of his poor Spanish… If you don’t speak the language, you are doomed to miss little details and then have all of them wrong when you write a book and try to be smart. Details such as these:
- Spaniards do not love Julio Iglesias. Some do, of course. Some English people like Jerry Springer and Ozzy Osbourne. That does not mean that the English love Jerry Springer and Ozzy Osbourne. Actually, many Spaniards use Julio Iglesias’ character as a symbol of the tackiness of past times.
- Spaniards are not prudish and reluctant to speak of sex and other taboos. Religion affects some people, but fortunately only a small fraction. Quite the opposite, Spain is the third country in the world to pass a law allowing marriage and adoption for homosexual couples.
- The slang word “desfase” (literally, de-phase or out-of-phase) is not related to the tension between the religious ethics of yesterday and the modern values of tomorrow. It makes reference to the difference between what you can see and what you would expect to see. It means “exaggeration”, “over the top”. If you get drunk and run naked across the street while yelling obscenities, that’s “desfase”.
- The people marching on parades in Easter are not wearing Ku-Klux-Klan gear. Probably, some of them have not ever heard of Ku-Klux-Klan, and they don’t care. Mr Elms may not be able to help it but interpret each manifestation of a different culture through his own perspective. That’s a JOVFAAPOV.
Then we have the generalisations. If you write a book about a place, I would imagine that you need to discuss the most relevant, applicable and interesting issues about that place with certain amount of rigour. Mr Elms, however, focuses on anecdotical episodes with a suspicious tabloid flavour. For example:
- In order to have your phone connected, in Spain you need a lot of networking, string pulling and secret meetings. Excuse me? I am sure that you can find somebody in Spain who has had a bad experience connecting his/her phone. Where not? I don’t think that is representative, though.
- “Sitting in a bar watching the world go by is a national hobby” (sic). Excuse me? Maybe you were living in some area of some city, and frequented some bars where some people liked to watch the world go by. I found a bar like that in a little town close to Dereham in Norfolk, UK. People just sat there for hours sipping beer and doing nothing. I wouldn’t say that sitting in a bar watching the world go by is a national hobby of the English, though. That’s called rigour.
In his book, Mr Elms interviews Juan Luis Cebrian, a well known Spanish journalist and intellectual. Cebrian explains to Mr Elms how these people that go to bed so late every night get up in the morning very early and go to work. He explains that this is how the big social and economic changes in Spain are happening. But Mr Elms is looking for pubs and is not listening. He still believes that these people only work a few hours per day and sleep or party the rest of the time.
But I know what his problem is. He admits that paella and bullfighting are what he most enjoys in Spain. He says that bullfighting was what bonded him to Spain. He says that “for those who know a love of Spain, Andalusia is at the core of that love” (sic). Excuse me? Andalusia is not at the core of my love for Spain whatsoever. And I bet I know much more about Spain than you, Mr Elms!
Mr Elms is saying what people want to hear. He wants to sell books, and you need to say nice things if you want people to spend their money in your book. He is portraying Spain as an osbcure, backwater, exotic place where gypsies and bullfighters are the norm, where Catholic values make people behave in ancestral ways. This is the exotic myth that many people outside Spain host in their minds. But it is fiction. And it must sell well.
Therefore, I have decided to take this book (and perhaps other books of the same ilk) as fiction works. They depict a country in a parallel universe that, surprisingly enough, is called “Spain” too.