Column | You can be a city dweller and a villager, speak dialects and world languages

I can’t remember which book I read first. I remember the first movie I saw. In the village cafe: Katie Elder’s Sons by Henry Hathaway, with John Wayne. It’s about the best thing that ever happened to me. You went to the cafe to watch a movie and you brought your own chair.”

While Dutch farmers throw crap on highways to make it clear that they are the only bearers of rural culture, the Spanish writer Javier Cercas (1962) shows that things can be done differently. With the website Le Grand Continent, he spoke about his hometown of Ibahernando in Extremadura, one of the poorest regions in the country. Without that village, says Cercas – world famous for ‘non-fiction novels’ like Soldiers from Salamis and outlaws – he had never been so successful.

In Ibahernando, Cercas’ family belonged to the wealthy. When he was four, his parents moved to Girona in Catalonia. A new world, a completely different culture – in Spain, regional identities are very different. In Girona his family belonged to the lower class. His mother, still homesick for her old village, never learned a single word of Catalan. Cercas believes that he would never have become a writer if he had stayed in Ibahernando (then 3500 inhabitants, now 500). Because of the clash of multiple worlds, because he has all kinds of identities geographically and mentally, he sees things that he wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It amplifies good and bad moments and sharpens your experience. “Migration has done me good. It has uprooted me, put me under pressure. It made me discover all sorts of things.”

British Tory prime ministerial candidates blame French for all Brexit problems in Dover. A concert in Bern was canceled because the white musicians wore dreadlocks. Radicalized farmers call dissenters ‘traitors’. What a relief to read Cercas in a week like this, who makes mincemeat of the polarizing, identitarian trench stuff.

He lives half in Barcelona, ​​​​​​half in Ibahernando. He is a city dweller and a village dweller, speaks dialects and world languages ​​and writes books about prostitutes, drug dealers and workers as an intellectual. His new book Independence (not translated) is a showdown with the Catalan elite stupidly manipulating independence aspirations to maintain power. “The real Catalonia,” says Cercas, “was created by people like me, from Andalusia, Extremadura and other poor regions, who built it into one of the richest regions in Spain. […] These people are my wealth, my heritage. A kind of homeland. Although the word homeland makes me nervous. Samuel Johnson once said that the motherland is the last refuge of scoundrels.”

Cercas mentions one of the tricks of our time: That people lock themselves into narrow, exclusive identities and at the same time are busy with Big Topics: Climate, security, values. In this way, the small, private becomes enormously important – my view is the global view.

Dangerous, also believes the Chinese anthropologist Biao Xiang from the German Max Planck Institute. According to him, people see everything near and far with razor-sharp clarity. But whatever lies between them, within a kilometer of them, disappears. Xiang calls this “the close”. As a child he lived in communist China with people from all (ex-)social classes and all corners of the world. Everything was constantly changing. By talking at the pump, exchanging news and impressions, you could see new developments coming. This allowed you to adjust your social antennae and protect yourself from more turbulence. People had all sorts of opinions. But their conversations were informative, humorous and rarely conflicted. “The nearby,” writes Xiang, who studies migrant workers, “is where things are constantly changing, where you hear and see new things.”

This has nothing to do with small, homogeneous societies. Not with burning hay bales and death threats.

Caroline de Gruyter writes weekly about politics and Europe.

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