Sunday, 18 November 2012

Legging it

When I arrived in Spain, knowing not a single word of Spanish save either words (like matador) that everybody knows or words (like fútbol) that it shares with English, I decided to teach myself the language by reading Luis Buñuel's autobiography, Mi Último Suspiro. My theory was that the amount of work and learning that such a task would involve would be so great, by the time I reached the end of the book I would be able to read Spanish fluently.


So, I began to read, aided by R's little Collins Gem Spanish-English dictionary and the same publisher's guide to Spanish grammar and the conjugation of irregular verbs. I also had a rail ticket on which I wrote down words that Buñuel used for which I could find no entry in the dictionary, words which I would occasionally, and often unsuccessfully, look up later in a larger one.

I kept this up, on and off, for a couple of years until I finally gave up having completed maybe a quarter of the book and not yet reached the Civil War. What caused me to curtail the project wasn't so much that I was struggling to understand, but that I was struggling much less than when I started, and had developed enough comprehension to find tiresome Buñuel's habit of claiming he was best mates with practically every member of Spain's artistic community in the period before the Second Republic.

Still, by the time I finished I must have been about a quarter of the way towards achieving reading fluency, so perhaps my theory wasn't so ludicrous. And although Buñuel eventually got on my nerves, having read him so early in my time here I still find it hard not to think of him when I am in Teruel province, where he was born and brought up and where I will be working in the coming week.

Buñuel was from Calanda, host (as he relates) to the Miracle of Calanda and a place I have passed through several times, which, like having your leg miraculously restored by the Virgin, is more than most Spaniards can claim.


He has a good story about summers in Teruel, when the sky was so clear and the weather so dry that - according to him - on the rare appearance of a single cloud, neighbours would clamber up onto his father's roof and follow the cloud's progress, commenting to one another that nothing would come of it and it was bound to be headed for somewhere else.

Be that as it may, I've only ever been there in winter, where it is cold and bleak, even though, not far south, oranges are growing in Valencia province. Cold, bleak and foggy, and when travelling back from Bajo Aragón during the winter months you don't have much idea what is going on around you. You just have to stick to the road and trust that it takes you to the place you want to go.

This will not necessarily work as a metaphor for contemporary Spain, since although we know precisely where we are going, the most important thing is to get off the road we are presently on. However, since there have been marches this week, in connection with the well-supported general strike last Wednesday, we could take that, the path of strikes and resistance, as the path we are on. Even though we do not know where it will take us.

I did say it wouldn't work as a metaphor. Still, one of Buñuel's most famous images is of people walking apparently to nowhere, as they do in The Discreet Charm Of the Bourgeoisie and this week people have been walking with greater purpose and in greater numbers than that. You probably saw the march in Madrid:


it wasn't everywhere so large and well-supported as that, though it was apparently well-supported in Bajo Aragón, the comarca which includes Calanda. There are longstanding traditions in that area, which saw some of the most radical egalitarian experiments during the Civil War, and which, perhaps for that reason, continue.

Andorra, for instance, west of Calanda (and not to be confused with Andorra La Vella) votes for the hard left, which we would not expect from a small rural town in England. Nevertheless, the countryside is the countryside, and even in the provincial capital, the march wasn't quite as sizeable as the one in the national capital.


I didn't march. Our friend P offered me a lift to Huesca for the march at lunchtime, but I declined: "estas cosas", I said, "yo hice como joven", I did these things as a youth. But somebody has to do it, and to keep on doing it. We have to run, or fight, or hide: and while, for the moment, I have chosen to hide, I do know that there is no option but to fight.

Like Buñuel, I was brought up a Catholic, and I still appreciate a sermon for a Sunday morning. And today's sermon is that we have to march and keep on marching. Even if, like Buñuel's bourgeoisie, we do not know where we are going.


[Madrid: Digital Journal]
[Teruel: Diario de Teruel]

3 comments:

  1. I've never read My last breath (in any language) and I learned Spanish at school - courtesy of a rather dashing young guy called McDonald, who took rather more relish in his Franco stories than I'm happy with in retrospect. But I did teach myself Italian by exactly the method you describe, and that's worked out all right. I tried it later with German a couple of times and couldn't hack it - possibly I didn't pick the right books.

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  2. Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace el camino al andar.-Antonio Machado

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  3. I should probably have a look and see if Buñuel was best mates with Machado and all...

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