Tornar enrera Homepage Normalisation and/or an Ethics of Difference: Mars's Rabos de lagartija in a Post-Colonial World

In relation to the promotion and defence of autochthonous cultures, my paper considers how two critics assess language choices in two novels by the Catalan writer Juan Mars. Mars uses Spanish not Catalan as his main narrative medium, but his novels contain an intricate interweaving of languages and registers which constitute a subjective but provocative subtextual comment on cultural politics in postwar Barcelona where he has lived virtually his entire life. In conclusion I shall look briefly at his latest publication, Rabos de lagartija (2000).

Is Mars a Catalan writer? Must works be in Catalan to qualify as Catalan Literature? Mars lives on a language borderline. He uses Spanish and Catalan with proficiency but has been marginalised in Academia by both literary establishments: as too representative of a specifically Catalan rather than Spanish experience on the one hand, and as having sold out to the majority language on the other. His own experience makes language thematically important in his writings.

Two linguists who explore tensions between minority and majority languages as markers of cultural identity in post-occupation or post-colonial situations suggest that the protean nature of language makes circumstances such as Mars’s far more complicated than any debate on Spanish/Catalan usage would suggest. Therefore, before I consider Catalonia’s debate on normalisation and diversity in language and literature, I shall discuss briefly Jacques Derrida’s exploration of language borderlines in Le monolinguisme de l’autre ou le prothse de l’origine (1996), and questions on power politics in language choice raised by Lawrence Venuti in The Scandals of Translation. Towards an Ethics of Difference (1998).

Between 1940 and 1943 the Vichy government withdrew French citizenship from Algerian Jews. Derrida, who is a French speaker and an Algerian Jew experienced ‘la mmoire traumatique d’une "dgradation", d’une perte de la citoyennet’ (1996, 34-5). He writes of the unobtrusive marking out of divisions within his society: ‘j’habitais la bordure d’un quartier arabe, l’une des frontires de nuit, la fois invisibles et presque infranchissable’. At primary school ‘il y avait encore, avant de disparatre au seuil du lyce, beaucoup de petits Algriens, Arabes et Kabyles. Tout proches et infiniment lointains, voil la distance dont on nous inculquait, si je puis le dire, l’exprience inoubliable et gnralisable’ (1996, 66). He admits that ‘on avait le droit formel d’apprendre ou de ne pas apprendre l’arabe ou le berbre. Ou l’hbreu. Ce n’tait pas illgal, ni un crime’. Nonetheless, the individual was aware of ‘l’exprience d’un passage de la limite. Je ne dis pas non plus "transgression", le mot est la fois trop facile et trop charg’ (1996, 59). But the notion of "transgression" is there.

Derrida cannot call French his "langue maternelle": he remains ‘au bord du franais, uniquement, ni en lui ni hors de lui, sur la ligne introuvable de sa cte’ (1996, 14). In effect, ‘ce je dont je parle’ is an entity ‘ qui l’accs toute langue non franaise de l’Algrie (arabe dialectal ou littraire, berbre, etc.) a t interdit. Mais ce mme je est aussi quelqu’un qui l’accs au franais, d’une autre manire, apparemment dtourne et perverse, a aussi t interdit […]. Dans quelle langue crire des mmoires ds lors qu’il n’y a pas eu de langue maternelle autorise? Comment dire un "je me rappelle" qui vaille quand il faut inventer et sa langue et son je?’ (1996, 57). The tension and conflict of this position is encapsulated in a powerful paradox: ‘Je n’ai qu’une langue, ce n’est pas la mienne’ (1996, 13).

Derrida argues that ‘Toute culture est originairement coloniale […]. Toute culture s’institue par l’imposition unilatrale de quelque "politique" de la langue’ (1996, 68-9). It is along language borderlines that colonisation confronts diversity. Venuti also alludes to colonisation when he calls language intersection in translation ‘a site of power relationships because a language, at any historical moment, is a specific conjuncture or a major form holding sway over minor variables’. Minor variables include ‘regional or group dialects, jargons, clichs and slogans, stylistic innovations, nonce words, and the sheer accumulation of previous uses’, and Venuti quotes Lecercle’s term "remainder" (1990) to indicate a subversive function of diversity within a language of power: ‘The remainder subverts the major form by revealing it to be socially and historically situated, by staging "the return within language of the contradictions and struggles that make up the social" and by containing as well "the anticipation of future ones" (1998, 182).

‘Translation’, Venuti warns, is often regarded with suspicion because it inevitably domesticates foreign texts, ‘inscribing them with linguistic and cultural values that are intelligible to specific domestic constituencies’ (1998, 67). Domestication occurs because ‘Institutions, whether academic or religious, commercial or political, show a preference for a translation ethics of sameness, translating that enables and ratifies existing discourses and canons, interpretations and pedagogies, advertising campaigns and liturgies – if only to ensure the continued and unruffled reproduction of the institution’ (1998, 82). Linguistic diversity, then, is potentially subversive: ‘it is the stylistically innovative text that makes the most striking intervention into a linguistic conjuncture by exposing the contradictory conditions of the standard dialect, the literary canon, the dominant culture, the major language’ (1998, 10).

It is perhaps this potential for subversion in and through language that underlies Catalan and Spanish reservations about Mars. Catalonia’s language is perceived as vital in promoting its cultural identity. Once the rich and diverse language of a thriving colonising Mediterranean culture, its importance declined when Catalonia lost its separate political identity in 1714. The ban on public use during the Franco years threatened its very existence.

Languages do disappear. However, with a firm cultural base in the upper and middle classes in the cities, and amongst workers and peasants, Catalan survived. Catalonia ‘has long been one of the richest and most developed areas of the Spanish state’, and in 1978 ‘had more industries and more real wealth than any other region’ (Woolard 1989, 2), and Catalan is one of Spain’s four official languages. Fuster writes of the search for a ‘literatura "prpia"’ that fuelled Catalonia’s nineteenth century Renaixena, identifies a simbiotic relationship between language and literature: ‘El propsit, en realitat, descansava damunt una premissa extraliterria: la situaci social de l’idioma. Tant com "reconstruir" una literatura, es feia imprescindible de "reconstruir", alhora, la llengua en qu havia d’expressar-se […]. Calia comenar de nou. La lluita per l’idioma, en conseqncia, es convertia en ingredient, i no secundari, del treball dels escriptors. Histria o crtica, qualsevol anlisi de la "literatura catalana contempornia" que es vulgui emprendre, haur de tenir present aquesta singularitat’ (1971, 11).

Joan Ramon Resina states that now ‘division is starting to eat away at the only credible identity trait left to Catalans, their language’ (1999). His language, as my italics show, is therefore emotive when referring to those who ‘parcel out their use of both languages’ and ‘relegate Catalan to strictly private and often irregular uses’. Resina quotes statistics to the effect that between 1985 and 1995 numbers of young people speaking Catalan as their first language fell from 32% to 26% in metropolitan Barcelona: in his view, proof of the non-coercive, perhaps ineffectual nature of the 1983 Language Normalization Law, and he is justifiably critical of sociolinguists who ignore statistical data and impose political preconceptions on their literary analysis, ‘persuaded by a dated class/nationality correlation’ to ‘produce a bourgeois class wherever national thought exists, regardless of socioeconomic considerations’.

However, Resina himself is beguiled by Mars’s deployment of ‘precise temporal and spatial coordinates’ into reading El amante as a sociolinguistic text, to be judged on grounds of accuracy. He describes Mars’s depiction of the linguistic map in El amante bilinge (1990) as ‘the first literary reaction to the Language Normalization Law’, but his subsequent trenchant criticism of Mars’s ‘shaky use of empirical data’ and ‘even more improper framing of the sociocultural conflict’ does not take into account Mars’s use of unreliable narrators in narratives of desire, fantasy and deceit rather than realism, where language becomes material for invention and is foregrounded, while reality is relegated to second place. Mars’s narrators, like the ‘bilingual lover’, are typically socially marginal and have few scruples about exploiting language borderlines like any other cultural weapon for their own ends. Resina has rightly drawn attention to the slippage between fact and fiction in Mars’s depiction of language patterns in postwar Barcelona, but Mars is not governed by reality and is certainly subversive.

Abigail Lee Six has chosen for her recent analysis of Mars’s language strategies La oscura historia de la prima Montse, written during the Franco years when Spanish was the language of power and Catalan was banned in public. Lee Six’s emphasis is on Mars’s narrator, and she explores possible intentions behind the narrator Paco’s manipulation of data and language, focusing not on the writer in the ‘real’ world, but on narrators in fictional worlds, playing with language and subversively exploiting social and linguistic borderlines. The result is a far more complex mapping of language as Lee Six applies the usefully neutral term ‘code-switching’ to Mars’s interplay between Spanish, Catalan and other linguistic identities. In effect, she looks to diversity rather than normalization as a criteria in assessing Mars’s use of language, and readily acknowledging the narrator’s ‘mala fe’, she produces rich rereadings of a very underestimated text.

Lee Six explores the complex subjectivity of Mars’s narrator through his use of language. Emphasising linguistic diversity as a reflection of variety in individual experience, she examines motives underlying language choices. Rather than viewing slippage between factual and fictional representations of the language map as irritatingly dishonest, she makes Paco’s dishonesty her starting-point and sets out to explore what lies behind his veniality in language use. She avoids the binary notion of a Catalan/Spanish conflict and argues that ‘part of his problem is mixed class identity; indeed, it might be argued that a substantial element in his rejection of his Catalan half is a form of inverted snobbery muddled with working-class solidarity.

Claudi Esteva Fabregat recognizes this inter-relationship between class and race when he says: "el complejo formado por la clase y la etnia resultan ser adaptativamente desconcertante’" (1999, 365). Nonetheless, having worked in France, Paco can exploit the "prestige effect" of foreign language use. Here again, Lee Six goes beyond the obvious explanation of one-upmanship, and suggests that by code-switch Paco intends to drop the subject of Spain along with Spanish, moving instead into the language of a more sexually liberated France: ‘Bon, laissons tomber. Comment a va, ta vie sexuelle?’ (1999, 360). What emerges is a new appreciation of Mars’s complex characterisation, a more psychologically satisfying depiction of Paco’s mixed motives and veniality.

Analysis of his exploitation of code-switching also provides new insights into the power-struggle between Paco and his rival Salva, showing it to be more than a matter of playing a well-established and fluently bilingual speaker Salva off against Paco in the role of monolingual newcomer. Lee Six observes that ‘the antipathy felt by Paco for Salva is expressed through the former’s almost openly nasty linguistic behaviour’ which ‘forces Salva onto linguistic ground where Paco can retain control and thus power, not merely by forcing a switch into plain Spanish, where Salva could presumably function equally well, being bilingual, but, more subtly,by choosing a code-switching mode where Paco can call all the shots’. Lee Six calls this a ‘consummate performance of ruthless manipulation, a hands-down victory for our narrator’ (1999, 364). The encounter also demands a re-evaluation of a generous-spirited Salva who makes ‘persistent attempts to offer Paco admission to the Catalan-speaking in-group on the basis of even minimal competence’, and a mean-minded Paco in whose narrative Salva is ‘portrayed with cruelty and resentment’ (1999, 363). By looking beyond simple binary oppositions of bilingualism or diglossia, majority or minority language, and by accepting that bilingual and monolingual ‘need not be distinct environments at all, as there is an infinite number of intermediate positions between’ (1999, 365), Lee Six’s insights on code-switching require a careful re-reading of this skillfully articulated narrative.

Mars’s latest novel, Rabos de lagartija, depicts a postwar Barcelona and an array of character-types now familiar to his readers: the policeman Galvn in pursuit of the maquis Vctor Bartra and in love with Bartra’s beautiful and vulnerable wife Rosa; the ex-legionary traffic policeman who sexually abuses his nephew Pauli; Bartra’s son David, Pauli’s friend and implacable enemy of the policeman. An RAF pilot, helped to freedom by the maquis, and a crashed plane in the bay off Matar, become symbols of the untold history of the civil war, denied and concealed by the propaganda machine. They also illustrate an ‘own private history’ witnessed and reinvented by wartime children. And Untold Stories silenced by the regime become symbolic of the silence of David, who chooses to become a photographer to capture the Reality of Catalonia – the 1951 Barcelona Tram Strike – in images, not language, although his daring attempt to get the ‘ultimate shot’ brings death: crushed by a tram.

On a subtextual level, this Barcelona story of birth, love and death is shot through with an Otherness inscribed in code-switching conundrums and contained in the mind and languages of a child. Tensions between the powerful (police) and the dissident (Bartras) in postwar Barcelona are traced by David’s hidden brother, initially in utero and then from the cocoon of a cripple’s bed. The key to their interpretation is William Blake’s poem ‘O Rose, thou art sick!’, quoted in full only late on in the narrative (185), though fragments of the poem throughout set subtextual hares running that make the narrative an echo-chamber of densely intricate linguistically and culturally diverse voices that question the apparent simplicity of the plot. At the same time, the voices are all one, mediated through Vctor’s and Rosa’s unborn child, the ‘gusanito’ in whose endless imaginary conversations with David the story unfolds.

This is a solipsism. It is also game of multilingual intextuality: of Mars’s beloved detective fiction discernible in David’s question to Galvn about a note left by a suicide: ‘una firma extraa: El gusano invisible’. The Inspector, wrong-footed by false information or reluctant to discuss the episode, replies: ‘No s nada de gusanos’ (37). A frustrated Vctor Bartra is the deceived husband unable to share the amorous language games of his wife and her lover: ‘se entendan en un idioma bobalicn que no es de este mundo, unas seas y una lengua que slo hablan los nios y los locos […]. Ya s que la vida se compone de momentos insignificantes y de venial palabrera, pero quand mme, coo!’ (184). The lovers’ parting is framed as romantic fiction and film: ‘Se fue. And we’ll never see you again?, le dije.Y me respondi: Never is a long time. Qu significa? Pueta, David, estudia idiomas! Que te ensee tu madre!’ (185) – again the angry Bartra’s voice is heard briefly. And there are the voices of a district in a dense language mix: ‘No hay palabras, pero se oyen voces. / Zapastra! / Casumlolla! / Trinxeraire! / Luca, czame guerripa! / Nombre y apellidos! / Vctor Bartra Lngara! Diligencias! / Achtung!’ (16).

Overall, there is the voice-print of an individual: the Worm. ‘Luca, czame guerripa’ is explained in the closing sentences of the novel: ‘y le dir a Luca: alcnzame Guerra y paz. Pero tendr que repetirlo varias veces porque, aunque me esfuerzo mucho, lo que me sale de la boca es algo como czame guerripa’. And very probably playing the pathos card, Mars concludes the passage and the novel with the words: ‘Y es que todava me cuesta hacerme entender’ (353). Can we take Rabos de lagartija to mean Lizards Tales? Certainly, David confronting Galvn may be read as Mars taking on the Goliath of the critical establishment, affirming an ‘ethics of diversity’: literally by blurring language borderlines, and symbolically in what Galvn brands transgressive cross-dressing.

This paper has pointed up some pitfalls in a sociolinguistic criticism that works primarily from a desire to promote and defend a language where, arguably, such a unified entity does not exist. With an emphasis on the actual diversity of language as experienced in situations of language interaction – and I take Mars as an example of such interaction in postwar Barcelona – it has stressed the complexity of authors’ language choices and has preferred the rich notion of code-switching as both an appropriate and rewarding tool for textual criticism at a time when scrutiny of language as a potent yet treacherous element in social and political power games puts global and local in tension.

To apply a dualistic model to Mars’s novels, as if they were a battle-ground between two languages – a linguistic image of political and social conflict in occupied territory – is to ignore the richness and diversity that this writer achieves with languages – the plural is crucial – as he addresses the perennially agonising question of personal identity in societies experiencing globalisation yet intolerant of difference. Catalonia is not alone in fearing the loss of a valued cultural heritage; but it can take heart from the – yes, subversive, but also undoubtedly enriching – claiming and reshaping of a once colonial English-language heritage by African American and Indian writers of merit and invention. Surely literature is the correct place for an exploration of diversity?

Notes/referncies bibliogrfiques


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