Mercedes Monmany · Spain

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Border legends

I was born with the myth of the border. I should specify: my family and I used to live in Barcelona and my French grandmother lived right on the other side of the border. You only had to cross a mountain and we were there in France and in my grandmother’s house. The last Spanish town was Portbou and the first French town was Cérbère. That is where my French family was. For generations they worked in the border business. They were owners of Customs Agencies at a time before mass motorway transport, when trade in goods was done by train.

At its moment of splendour, when an intense traffic of goods circulated by trains that would cross borders, as one can imagine, there were whole professions dedicated to easing the procedures arising from the passage from one country into another. Once the big train lines were in place, especially from the end of the 19th century – between 1875 and 1880 – Customs Agencies were immediately established. These agencies were popularly called les transitaires in the French part, the part that I knew best, despite being Spanish. For decades, during those years and at least the first half of the 20th century, one important mercantile activity in particular came into being: transporting all the rich production of citrus fruit from Eastern Spain from one side of the border to another.

And so I was born with mysteries that were occasionally unsettling and surprising as much as they were romantic, in my mind and childhood fantasies. I never forget that from very early on, I would frequently cross the border, normally accompanied by one of my elder brothers, and it was completely natural for me. The train would leave from the Estación de Francia (also called Barcelona–Término) and after a brief stop in Portbou so the police could check our passports, the short–distance journey began, through a mountain tunnel, through which you could immediately spot the beautiful beach (at least that’s what it seemed to me and I still find it so beautiful and full of charm), the Cérbère beach, with its imposing silhouette of an enormous retaining wall that the mountain projected, safeguarding the rails. That intense train traffic, not so full of travellers as it is now, was so frequent in other times. A natural border – the Pyrenees – separated us Spaniards from, but at the same time united us with, Europe.

I am talking about differences and worlds that felt like far away planets at that time, only separated by a mountain. On one side, the world of a dictatorship, our Spanish side (I grew up in the sixties) and on the other, a world mysteriously full of light, of neatness, of beautiful things, always appetising and gleaming, which I didn’t yet know was called ‘the democratic world’. Or put simply: Europe.

When I met Claudio Magris in 1988, the writer who was then introduced to Spain with a translation of Danube, beginning a friendship that lasts until today, he explained to me the opposite experience of a border – something that logically stirred in me an enormous curiosity. I had never thought about how one lived that experience from the other side of the border: from the free world. The great writer and European patriot that is Magris has reflected on this many times. In Utopia and Discontent, he would explain it like this: ‘My sentimental education has been marked by many experiences of a lost or sought border, reconstructed in reality and in my heart (…) My sentimental education has been marked by the odyssey of frontiers, by its arbitrariness and inevitability’. Because one mustn’t forget that in the same way that my Spanish border was then located within barely a few metres of the mountains – the so-called Eastern Pyrenees – and bordered on the free world, in Magris’ case Trieste’s border was fundamentally a border with the East. As he has recounted many times, when he went to play at Mount Carso with his friends, just in front of the border, a few kilometers from his house, there was the mysterious and enigmatic Iron Curtain. A zone – unpronounceable and prohibited above all in the Francoist world in which we lived – but which was all the same no less terrifying for kids from Trieste: there began a dark, immense, enigmatic world that no one knew anything about, governed by nothing more and nothing less than a monster or ogre named Stalin.

It is the case that almost thirty years after that first conversation about ‘crossed’ borders, propitious to free worlds, subjugated worlds, depending on where one is situated, Claudio Magris has recently written the prologue to my book Through the Borders of Europe (A Journey through the Narrative of the 20th and 21st Century), over more than 300 European writers, published by Galaxia Gutenberg. Using that title seemed to me a nice homage to those borders of my childhood, but from my humble condition as a literary critic, it is also my ongoing cry for the abolition of the most mortifying borders human beings create, apart from the political and geographic ones: the mental borders. This is to say, the borders created by prejudices and preventions, by exclusion and the ferocious rejection of the Other, whoever it is or whatever is decided at that moment; the person who is not like us and shouldn’t be among us unless he or she becomes, from the root, from head to toe, unflinchingly, someone exactly like us. Although at times, when hate and xenophobia are deepest, when they are firmly rooted in hearts and minds, of course not even then will they be accepted, as we all know. There will always be an excuse on hand to demonise that person: to point someone out as dangerous or repulsively ‘different’.

In our case, in the time of Franco’s dictatorship, the regime made up a catchphrase that all of us who were young at the time would often make fun of: ‘Spain is different’. It was an attempt, by those behind this idea, to somehow chase off the ghosts of international isolation in which Spain lived at the time. In as far as it was possible, it was an attempt to console us from the inside with a proposal that embraced difference, the idea that nothing was the same at home. Once time passed, I never thought I could ever agree with such a banal and rudimentary publicity slogan. But every time I meet with friends who are foreigners, whether they are Italian journalists, French writers or British university professors, I insist on this idea that appears so basic, but which is symbolically and substantially influential when it comes to perceiving our country, or our particular ‘spirit’ within the European spectrum. ‘Please forget about the usual European formulas in the case of Spain’, I say to them. ‘They have nothing to do with us.’ And indeed, they are not the same, because of the action of the undemocratic political system at that precise moment, but also because of the result of many centuries of Hispanic national history, that would be very complicated to sum up in a few sentences at the present moment.

In the first place, as a first and significant difference – I say to my potential interlocutors – Spain did not participate in either of the two World Wars which took place on European soil. That means that for years, for my parents’ generation and also my own, that of someone born at the end of the 1950s, the subject matters relating to those terrible and atrocious killing machines were extremely strange in our conversations, in our curricula, and in general, in our knowledge and impressions of whole nations or peoples. It even went as far back as events like the Boer War in Africa or the Conquest of the Far West in the United States of America. I must add that in my particular case, given that my mother’s family was French, the topic did come up every now and then in our conversations. I also remember that in my visits to my grandmother’s house in France, there were frequent objects – books, army sabres belonging to some family member – that particularly recalled what for them was ‘the war’ par excellence for various generations: the traumatic and apocalyptic ‘Grande Guerre’.

The second difference, which is also very significant, has to do with the Jews, who were practically non-existent in our country. We, that is, Spain, speaking in the collective sense, had that noteworthy particularity in Europe: anti-Semitism had shamefully spread and shed blood in other European countries, but not here. Let us be honest: anti-Semitism had spread in most of them, combined with greater or lesser levels of intensity and resistance action, and of course with the famous exception of Swiss neutrality, as was persistently repeated to us in our Spanish schools. Does this mean that our hands weren’t stained with disgraceful blood? In my opinion, I doubt this can be so happily affirmed, because what we did instead was devote ourselves to killing each other, with willing enthusiasm, during three long years of a barbarous and bloody civil war. As one would imagine, this was something that completely took over all stories transmitted by one generation – my parents’ one, who directly lived them – and another, the listening and passive one, our generation who listened to them instead of the stories of death and destruction happening during the Second World War. Presumably these other stories were being told in homes beyond the Pyrenees by ‘the others’ – in other words, by the Europeans, people with another set of problems, almost always different from our own.

In the literary imaginary – and especially in one sensitized such as mine, from my earliest childhood – the stories of frontiers have traditionally been the focus of a large number of legends, adventures, page-turning thrillers and wrenching dramas that for a time intensely fill the memory and imagination of a people who live on one side or another of the margins. They were smugglers, or those who crossed and re-crossed the mountain roads, like the famous résistente Lisa Fittko, author of Escape Through the Pyrenees, who helped Walter Benjamin and others pass through, or like the nowadays shamefully-forgotten American, Varian Fry, author of Surrender on Demand, who in 1940 heroically organized a whole network to save anti-Nazi intellectuals, politicians and artists persecuted in Marseille.

Exiles, deserters, fugitives from justice, spies and the persecuted of all kinds inhabit the mythology of poems and songs or fascinating novels such as Joseph Roth’s Weights and Measures, or The Lover of Ursa Major by the Polish Sergiusz Piasecki or The Notebook by the Hungarian Agota Kristof who wrote in French. And other masterpieces with a metaphysical idea of ​​the border as The Tartar Steppe by the Italian Dino Buzzati or The Opposing Shore by the French Julien Gracq. I have to say that at the age of 18 or 20 onwards when I started to read those gems of Austro-Hungarian (and especially Galician) literature, of children of the frontier and masterful writers, as were Bruno Schulz, Joseph Roth, Gregor von Rezzori, Soma Morgenstern or Andrzej Kusniewicz, whether they wrote in Polish or German, I immediately felt transported to a strangely ‘familiar’ house, but one at the other end of Europe! Cities like Drohobycz, Brody, Stanislav, or the stunning Lvov, sounded just as common to me as Barcelona, Seville, Zaragoza, Perpignan, Nîmes or Paris.

I soon learnt that on the other side of a remote border, they were also asking questions like we were. A few years ago, a marvellous book came out entitled My Europe, written by two excellent contemporary authors, the Ukrainian Yuri Andrujovich and the Polish Andrzej Stasiuk, who lived in that frontier zone, the disappeared Austro-Hungarian Galicia, today divided between Poland and Ukraine. This is how the great Andrujovich expressed it: ‘The West‘. What did that really mean to us in those times, when we were students? Sometimes it would send us a sort of sound message under the guise of smuggled music. In all other aspects, it didn’t exist; that was the ingenious fabrication of our puppet ideologues, a sort of Anti-world or upside-down world, like in the film “The Dark Side of the Moon”.

To this mystery and almost inexpressible magic of the border, we have to add events of enormous impact and symbolism or, if one prefers, national tragedies, associated with the great figures who traumatically died right on the border. This is the case of Walter Benjamin, who committed suicide in Portbou, or the great Spanish poet Antonio Machado in Collioure, who died in January 1939 after taking the road to exile, walking through the Pyrenees, together with other hundreds of thousands of anonymous Spaniards, and other great intellectuals and well-known friends like the journalist and writer Corpus Barga, the great humanist and Catalan poet Carles Riba or the philosopher Ramón Xirau – daunting, dramatic stories that persist well beyond our time and the bloody battles that gave rise to them.

When I was very young, I would often go to Collioure, a beautiful seaside town close to Cérbère which at the beginning of the 20th century had inspired artists such as Matisse and Derain, among many others. There in the small marine cemetery, you could easily spot Machado’s tomb, decorated with miniscule messages and gifts left by visitors. Back then we still knew barely anything about Benjamin and his suicide at Portbou, persecuted by the Gestapo, but our French family would repeat to us with enormous respect – that enormous respect that the great poets inspire, above ideologies – that there had died ‘le grand poète espagnol’. Another thing that greatly impressed me as a child was that his mother had died shortly after his son. In family stories, the time difference was shortened so as to heighten the drama of a mother who follows her son until the end. It is said that that was how she described it in her lifetime: ‘I am willing to live as long as my son Antonio does’. The legend said that they passed away with barely a few days difference, even though in reality it was one month later when Doña Ana Ruiz died. Given the myth and deep admiration that the very name of this poet has evoked since my childhood, I must admit that every time I meet with friends for a drink in the Hotel Majestic on Paseo de Gracia in Barcelona, my heart sinks: Machado slept there the night before he left for exile and death, as a plaque by the Andalusian Cultural Society in the lobby indicates. Somebody fundamentally good, serene, loved by all. And as he himself would define in a brief and famous poetic self–portrait:

In my veins there are drops of Jacobin blood
but in my verse the serene spring rises
and there is more than a typical man who knows his doctrine
I am, in the positive sense of the word / good’

Hay en mis venas gotas de sangre jacobina
pero en mi verso brota el manantial sereno
y más que un hombre al uso que sabe su doctrina
soy, en el buen sentido de la palabra / bueno’