THE IDEA OF EUROPE: CONTINUITY AND CHANGE. EUROPEAN CULTURAL FOUNDATION NETWORK, FINLAND 2007
The first scene of this theatre play takes place in the city of Barranquilla, in the Colombian Caribbean coast, last February. It is night and the streets are filled with men, women, clowns, puppets, acrobats and devils that dance giving themselves to the rhythms that have made this part of the world famous. The salsa dance finds its origins here and so does a big part of the so called «hot music” from the Caribbean: La música caliente. It is also the home land of the writer Gabriel García Márquez, who could not be understood without this music that structures and shapes his books and enhances deeply the charm of his work.
Beyond the talent for disguise; beyond the surrealism of the official mask of that carni- val – a long and slim trunk of an elephant hanging from a human face with big ears –; beyond the beauty of the black, white and mulato bodies intertwined in sweat, move- ment and music, what is more attractive of it all – as it is frequent in the Caribbean culture – is the easefulness, the freedom with which all this barranquilleros move. The dance with which they have been raised since they were kids, of course, but, above all, the freedom with which they do it. May it be that this freedom is inherent to any kind of dancing?
However, this is not what really matters, or it is as a sidetrack. What is interesting, in this play, is a covered tribune located just in the center of the Carnival Parade. Here some twenty to thirty people have comfortably taken seat. An equal number of hos- tesses are catering to them with all kinds of whiskies, food and beverages, treating them as if they were important.Are they? Well, it depends on how you look at them. They are newspaper editors and columnists; a bunch of film and TV stars, some of them very well known so that many carnival dancers approach them asking for autographs and dance for them; a few cha- racters of the international scene, as Jon Lee Anderson, the author of The fall of Bagdad and other books on disaster scenarios, and some writers, professors and musicians, me herein included. I’ve come to Colombia for the launching of my latest novel and they have been so kind to invite me to this carnival of Culture, which is renowned in the whole continent.
But why are we all a part of this story? It is because, aside from this audience and the hostesses that serve us so kindly whiskies and liquors and typical food, there are some other men sharing our tribune. In fact, a substantial number of them, an equal number to the rest of us. They also eat and drink with moderation, but nobody knows them nor asks them for autographs. One would say they belong to another gathering.
And so they do: they are bodyguards, responsible for our security. I don’t know if anything would happen to us in the event they were not there, but nobody would ever give us the opportunity to find out. There we are, a bunch of journalists, actors and writers looking out to the expression of freedom made dancing, however we cannot mix and mingle with freedom, with the dancers. And the thing is that the very mission of journalists and writers is to mingle, particularly with freedom. Always.
The second act of this theatre play of reality takes place in Palermo, Sicily one month later, it is March. We are now in a cultural center assigned to Europe related subjects. Three intellectuals, me among them, give ourselves to the task, facing a foreseeable scarce audience, of speaking about: ”Writing South America”, (a very European subject indeed). Until now, as anyone can see, nothing special in the cultural scene, something bucolic and ordinary and almost without interest outside the world of specialists.
Except for two reasons: all of this takes place in a beautiful old church that has become a cultural center serving for the past two years as the studio of a very well known, middle aged European painter. No traces of this artist are in sight, in this very sober and almost naked scenery, except for one detail which grows in importance as the debate goes on: Above what used to be the altar, someone has sketched an upside down goat. And you don’t have to be a semiologist or an archaeologist to know that this goat re- presents the devil, and that this painting is a way the painter is expressing a challenge. Now then, in the 21st century, in Europe, challenging what? And with what rage, of what nature?
The second aspect that calls for our attention in this debate is, that one of the par- ticipants, a renowned professor and former dean of a university, shows a remarkable ignorance about South America, the topic at hand. It is true that the mere condition of being a professor doesn’t exempt you from ignorance, but what stands out is that it is made of clichés unaware of being just that, clichés, or if you will, presented with all the insolence of the ignorance proud to be ignorant, as it often occurs.
If you allow me, this kind of ignorance is based on the absence of the capacity to see as well as a lack of curiosity. And let’s recall that curiosity was to our ancestors the Greeks the very sign, the proof of youth. It was not a question of age as such – as youngsters and publishers often believe – but it depended very much on holding or not a certain attitude. You were young or not depending on your degree of curiosity.
The third act of this short theatre play, that takes place both in America and Europe,was one month ago in Coín, a little town in the State of Malaga, in the south of Spain. A scenery I am certain many of you know, as it is the preferred place in Spain by nor- thern Europeans in search of sun and good weather. I arrived there with great delight, after having been chosen by the students of a school to talk about one of my books for children: the biggest honour an author could have.
But it is not this meeting with students that I want to talk to you about, but rather an inscription that appears on windows and walls, on cars and roofs, that shows up every- where: ”Rio Grande Vivo. No a las tuberías”. Which means: ”The Big River is alive. No to the dreinage”. And the teachers of the school would explain to me later that a very advanced project is already in motion to harness the Rio Grande into big pipelines, as big as a river can be in the already almost deserted Andalucía. The project is meant to take the water to Malaga, city that not long ago was the refuge to the retired and the poets. But urban speculation and tourist industry without restraint are transforming Malaga into a huge city, which will become, with no doubt, the capital of southern Europe. A big city made out of a string of buildings all along the coast extending hun- dreds of kilometres. It is a nightmare that is already happening.
The fourth and last story takes place a few weeks before coming to Helsinki to this meeting. A publisher… no, that is not correct: a very good publisher is fired from her job in Spain. And not without some quandary, as nobody questions her capa- bility and professionalism as well as the high quality of her work. And one of her bosses, a top range executive of one of these big economic corporations, gives her finally a reason: ”The problem is that you are too much of a publisher”. This means, the reason to fire a high level cul- tural executive is that she is too diligent in her job. She is too much of a publisher. This means, of course, that she is more interested in good literature and less in revenue.
The reason why I have chosen these four little stories that I have witnessed along the past three months – sketches, or scenes, more than stories as such –, is that they are real and illustrate in a very graphic way the main challenges Europe is undergoing. The image of the journalists and writers confined to a tribune at the Barranquilla Carnival and guarded, with- out any possibility of going out to dance, shows how fortunate we are to have the precious freedom that we enjoy in Europe: it is our core value, without a doubt.
And also acknowledge how fragile it is, as we know now in Spain, where I live, and where a part of the population is kidnapped by a terrorist group in the name of some kind of ethnic purity and the borders of an imaginary country – as they always are – or something of the kind: it is always difficult to understand the fanatic reasoning.
The demon related way of challenging of a painter in a former church in Palermo – a painter that is supposed to be one of the contemporary geniuses of the continent – gives us an idea of the degree of superstition that has survived in the very core of our cultivated and artistic Europe. And the participation of the professor, filled exclusively with clichés, show how strongly culture and knowledge are vulnerable to deceptive and demagogic attacks. Culture is perhaps the main European value, together with free- dom, and our duty is to preserve them and not allow them to decrease into post-cards and politically correct superstitions.
The story of the harnessed river speaks for itself: simply, urban speculation in a big part of Europe – apparently not so in Scandinavia, I must say with jealousy and delight, or not as much, by far – and it can finish forever with some of our most beautiful sce- neries – our only wealth – and leave us with no criteria for beauty and harmony, with which we measure the world.
And the firing of the publisher is the most graphic scene – among quite a few possi- bilities, believe me – to talk about the next big risk, which is the idea of revenue. The idea of revenue in culture at any cost, of culture as an industry and only an industry, is a bomb located at the base of our freedom, as we don’t know a bigger and crueller censorship in History.
Freedom, Culture, Beauty, Nature, Diversity, and Consciousness of History, and a free and easy access to all of this. Those are the values that, in my opinion, we should not resign to loose.