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"A European, Catalan-language writer says "


Biel Mesquida


The writer Biel Mesquida, winner of the National Literature Prize in 2006, gave an introduction to Catalan literature in a talk entitled “A European writer in Catalan says", during the event to unveil the outline programme for Catalan Culture as Guest of Honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2007.

Biel Mesquida
A European, Catalan-language writer says

Ladies and gentlemen, permit me to introduce myself. I am a Catalan writer or, rather, a European, Catalan-language writer. And I wish to say this now, at the Frankfurt Book Fair, because I consider that, as I writer, I must stand up for my language and the literature that is written in it as two essential strands of our identity as a people.

I should like now to recall very briefly that Catalan emerged from Latin a thousand years ago, and in its long, popular and everyday life, its magnificent and creative, harsh and battling life, it has been, in some historical periods that were always too long, well on the way to annihilation and extinction. In Germany, there are university chairs and departments that teach all this. In the second half of the twelfth century, Catalan went from its first spoken-language form to its earliest written form in the sermons known as the Homilies d’Organyà, and also in translations from Latin texts. In the thirteenth century, a Catalan from Mallorca was to become the true inventor of the Catalan prose on which we base our language today. This was Ramon Llull, who wrote texts that were both rich in words and that offered a brand-new, well-founded and clear syntax, which was a long way from the strictures of Latin syntax. His writings, a polyphony of different kinds of verbal music full of ideas, make up hundreds of volumes of an œuvre that is beautifully wrought in bell catalanesc, the fine Catalan that has come to be the classical fount of Catalan literary language. This Himalayas of language constructed by Llull might constitute a good metaphor when it comes to demonstrating how some texts written in the common language of a small European territory can become literary, religious, philosophical, mystical, wise and functional material that moves, highly charged, throughout Europe. The case of Germany would be canonical because German Catalanophilia flows through the translation, study and publication of Llull’s works. This love for Llull’s writing has even appeared in the name of one of your university institutes, the Raimundus-Lullus-Institute at the Freiburg im Breisgau University.

From the Middle Ages through to the nineteenth century, the Catalan language went through several different periods, some of them very difficult, and yet we have produced authors who managed to write works of both local and universal significance, for example Bernat Metge, Ausiàs March, Anselm Turmeda, Joanot Martorell, and the anonymous author of Curial e Güelfa, and we also have a literature of wide popular appeal that constantly reworks and expands the tradition in a perpetual revitalisation of the words we love. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan, declare those who love the language. It must also be said loud and clear that political events, especially those of the early eighteenth century, created circumstances that have been hostile to our culture. Catalan was prohibited in teaching and expelled from the public institutions in order to reduce it to a poor and shame-faced usage.

Catalan survived because the society of the territories — the països catalans — whose people were raised on the tender, delectable, and wise milk of this mother-tongue, the Catalan language, never stopped speaking and writing it behind closed doors. The nineteenth century is marked by the Renaixença (Renaissance) romantic movement, which coincided with other European projects for national recovery and aimed to bring about a renewal of Catalan culture and, above all, of the language. This rebirth bestowed new social dignity on our language, enabling the emergence of quite a solid group of writers who would start to use it again, proudly and very well. Notable names among them are Joaquim Rubió, Tomàs Aguiló, Tomàs Villarroya and Jacint Verdaguer.

The end of the nineteenth century and the twentieth century until 1939 was a period of flourishing literary and cultural life and vigorous movements — Noucentism, Modernism and the avant-garde tendencies — along with the First International Catalan Language Congress in 1906, which was attended by linguists from all over Europe, and the appearance of a very significant body of writers (Miquel Costa i Llobera, Joan Maragall, Eugeni d’Ors, Josep Carner, Caterina Albert, Carles Riba, Josep M. de Sagarra, Josep Pla, J. V. Foix, Mercè Rodoreda, Salvador Espriu, etc.). And what Catalan did they write? It is a codified Catalan, thanks to the fervent and devoted work of a group of philologists who produced viable norms that enabled its use as a modern language of culture. What other languages of culture took centuries of collective labours to produce was achieved with Catalan in a single generation. In 1907, the Institut d’Estudis Catalans (Institute of Catalan Studies) was founded as an academic body devoted to studying all elements of Catalan culture. Two very different philologists, Pompeu Fabra and Mossèn Antoni Maria Alcover, produced great and extremely useful works. The fixing of orthographic norms is essentially the work of Pompeu Fabra with his Normes Ortogràfiques (1913), the Gramàtica catalana and the Diccionari general, and they have been given official normative recognition. Pompeu Fabra gave order to a disperse and anarchic language and made of Catalan an appropriate tool for thought, expression, literature, science, technology and for all kinds of ideas, a contemporary, orderly and flexible language that was normatively well structured and a first-rate tool in all domains of knowledge. Mossèn Alcover devoted a considerable part of his life to travelling in Catalan-speaking territories, collecting and safeguarding their extremely rich vocabulary and, with the help of the philologist Francesc de Borja Moll, he has left us the Alcover-Moll dictionary, which is a huge and unique reservoir of words, another fount of wisdom. Finally, I also wish to recall two verbal monuments that were produced by the colossal and passionate labours of the linguist Joan Coromines, the Onomasticon Cataloniae and the Diccionari etimològic, which are replete with essential information about the life of the Catalan language.

The twentieth century brought yet another cultural catastrophe. The Franco dictatorship lasted forty years during which it prohibited the use of Catalan and any other symbol that might have served to identify Catalan culture. Internal or external exile, prison, repression or even death was the lot of most Catalan writers. We post-war writers had to learn the language clandestinely and we were persecuted and imprisoned for the mere fact of struggling for and trying to defend our language and our culture. The writer, in particular in the case of languages that have been forced into minority use, is an ethical conscience, a critical conscience. Catalan writers know a great deal about struggling to defend a national language, literature and culture because this was a constant factor for us throughout the twentieth century.

Since the coming of democracy and after further battles (that are not yet over) to conserve our language, more than six million people speak Catalan today — although not all of them write it — and Catalan is taught in the schools and universities with different degrees of enthusiasm depending on the area, while it is the co-official language along with Spanish in Catalonia, the Land of Valencia, the Balearic Islands. It is the official language in Andorra, and a non-official language in the Franja de Ponent — the strip of Aragon adjacent to Catalonia — in Capcir, Conflent, Cerdagne, Roussillon and Vallespir in Languedoc-Roussillon within the now French Département of Pyrénées-Orientales, and in Alghero in Sardinia.

However, we live in a globalised world that tends to look down on minority languages, and in a society that has little awareness of the value of literature and humanistic culture in educating people. Furthermore, in the society of the Catalan-language territories, there are still policies that do not work in favour of the social use of Catalan, either among original citizens or immigrant citizens. We are faced with serious difficulties in making Catalan literary and cultural products known outside the country because the dominant market promotes uniformity and assimilation by the hegemonic cultures, and the shattering of national cultures, etcetera. This is where we writers become double agents for the Catalan language. On the one hand we shape the language, enrich it and contribute towards national construction thanks to the creation, with our writings, of a collective imaginary, while on the other hand we are still fighting for the maintenance of our language, its dignity and its public use in every sphere. Catalan, in the twenty-first century, is a useful tool in all the spheres of language needed by an open contemporary society that is asking for full recognition in Europe: from public institutions to the mass media, from science to technology, from arts to economics and especially in literature, while also having, it should be stressed, its longest-ever list of writers, with numerous books of a quality that would be recognised anywhere in the world.

The Frankfurt Book Fair invitation to Catalan culture is a great honour and source of pleasure for us. I am sure that it will be a good catalyst for promoting Catalan literature and culture and creating networks of translation and communication with other languages and cultures of the world. As a Catalan writer, I hope that many of the seven thousand books that are published in Catalan every year find in the Frankfurt Book Fair publishers, agents, translators and, in particular, readers. I love my language because, since I was a small boy, I have experienced and thought about the world through the words of the members of my family, country people and city dwellers who spoke with the words of Llull, teaching me thus the names of things so that, later in life I have learned, thought, felt, seen, loved, written and lived in Catalan. I love the Catalan language as a tool that has helped me to live, as a unique and fragile treasure that must be invigorated and preserved because, as we know, even scientifically, a diversity of tongues makes us more open, more sensual, healthier and much wiser.

Telloc, Mallorca, Balearic Islands, Països Catalans
September 2006


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