A xenophobe’s guide to the Spanish

I’ve finished reading “Xenophobe’s Guide to the Spanish” by Drew Launay, in my search for external views of Spain (see past experiences here and here). It is a 1993 book so I need to be benevolent with out-of-date issues, since Spain has changed a fair bit in the last 12 years.

The good news is that this book succeeds in pointing out a few things that I’ve never seen in any other book on Spain written by non-Spaniards. The bad news is that most of the book, even the good points, are (surprise, surprise!) heavily misunderstood.

For example:

  • Already in page 7, the author clarifies that Spain is an aggregation of different cultures rather than a homogeneous country, and describes how Galicians, Basques and Catalonians speak different languages and exhibit different nationalisms. Thumbs up for Mr. Launay here. What a pity that the author badly embarrasses himself by saying that most people are indifferent to nationalism and do not talk about it; and those who do are only politically orientated students or intellectuals. This demonstrates an extremely shallow experience with regard to living in Euskadi, Galicia or Catalonia. He also demonstrates a sizeable ignorance of Spain’s history when he says that as one goes south and the weather gets hotter, people get more interested in siesta and less in “bringing out new dictionaries” (meaning, speaking different languages). Perhaps this will surprise Mr. Launay, but these “dictionaries” are not new but old. Actually, as old as (if not older than, in the case of Euskera) Spanish. Galicians, for example, are not trying to bring up a new language but to keep speaking the language that they’ve always spoken, way before Spain was invented as a country. Perhaps Mr. Launay would understand this if his home country were conquered by, say, the Chinese, or the Russian, and forced to speak Chinese or Russian for some time, and kids slapped by the teacher when they “spoke weird”. Ignorance is so daring!
  • The author stresses ladies’ liking for dressing in very tight clothes that expose most of their skin. Well, this must be in mediterranean Spain in summer, because nobody would be exposing mush skin in the middle of a downpour at 2 degrees Celsius! Anyway, has Mr. Launay ever visited Sydney? That’s tight, revealing clothes!
  • Then we come to the issue of “sorry” and “thank you” being non-existing words in Spanish. Come on! Mr. Launay is comparing Spanish to English (perhaps he can’t help but doing it), and English, to a Spaniard’s ears, is ridiculously pompous with its overload of “sorry” and “thank you”. Thank you for inviting, oh, no, thank you for coming, sorry for being so, sorry for not doing that… You cannot take a language out of its cultural context and judge it against a different one (especially your own); Spanish is just more pragmatic than English in terms of the amount of speech adornments. That does not mean that Spaniards are rude.
  • The issue of punctuality comes then. Bullshit. I’ve lived in Spain for 34 years and 3 years in Australia, and I can find no difference in the average punctuality of people. Honestly.
  • Spot on about religion. “Contrary to the general belief, Spain is not a religious country.” Some frivolous, useless elaboration follows, but the author is damned right about this.
  • Culture-wise, I need to say that Garcia Lorca was not killed by “his romantic efforts” but because he was smart, cultivated and gay. Also on culture, the author is puzzled because (he says) Spaniards tend to read English authors writing about England, while English people tend to read English authors on Spain. This does not puzzle me. It is completely logic. Who would offer a better picture of a place than the people who live there? If I want to read about England, I pick English authors, not Spanish authors who are probably missing the point of the English culture by staring to the lights in Piccadilly Circus. Perhaps the English should drop a bit of their prevalent imperialist mentality and realise that Spaniards are who can best write on Spain. As soon as the author realised this, he would have to stop writing about Spain and start reading about it!
  • I hate bullfighting, as do many other Spaniards. I think bullfighting should be stopped altogether, as public executions in the town square were stopped a few centuries ago. Thumbs up to the author, once more, on the comparison between Spanish bullfighting and English fox hunting. Enough said.
  • “The siesta is undoubtedly the major Spanish obsession.” Again, I bet this guy has not spent much time in the northern half of Spain. Or looking at the daily life of the average Spaniard. I mean, outside holiday resorts and touristy spots on the southern coast. No wonder he is so wrong.
  • Another thumbs-up for “Machoism is not a Spanish obsession but a foreign obsession about the Spanish male.” I couldn’t have said it better.

In summary, I think that Mr. Launay is falling in the same trap as many other Anglo-Saxon authors writing about Spain: they feel attracted by the exotic, mysterious, southern/mediterranean myth of Spain and they end up finding it. Have you ever read about statistical sampling? Well, you get the idea. All the Anglo-Saxon authors I’ve ever read writing about Spain invariably love mediterranean Spain, the heat, flamenco, siesta and Andalusia. None of them live in Galicia or Euskadi. Mr. Launay, for example, lives in Granada. Nothing wrong with this, but this is not “Spain”. It is only a small fraction of it. And the remaining of it is so different! Consider, for example, that the three strongest historic communities in Spain are on the northern fringe. Southern Spain is oblivious to their existence.

At the same time, the author is not able to fully distinguish between the Spanish and the Latin-American, something that, by the way, I find everywhere in Australia, for example. The little blurb of information on the author at the end of the book has a wonderful example: it says that the author married a “mad-as-a-sombrero Andalusian”. Dear author, the word “sombrero” in English refers to the Mexican hat, which is nothing to do with contemporary Spanish culture. The very phrase “mad-as-a-sombrero Anadalusian” is a beautiful example of how things get usually mixed up!

Finally, the book cheats the reader in a very annoying way. Reading the blurb on the back and the introductory stuff, one comes to the conclusion that the book is a humorous depiction of the Spaniards and, therefore, picking on their idiosyncrasies is the thing to expect. However, when you read the book, it keeps constantly moving between the fictitious, humorous side and the supposedly rigorous, documentational side. Which gives the author a green light to write all the garbage in the world with the excuse that this is just a fun book. Well, is it?

Another shameful example of lack of rigour and poor documentation, with a few decent points.


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