Notes from the Margins | Spain’s New Picaresque
New in Ceasefire, Notes from the Margins - Posted on Monday, February 25, 2013 15:05 - 2 Comments
By Matt Carr
Miners, joined by nurses, doctors and students take part in a protest against government austerity measures in Madrid, 23 Feb 2013. (Source: AFP)
When the scandal broke out in Germany last week of neo-Nazi security guards working in an Amazon warehouse, I was interested to note how many of the bullied migrant workers there were Spaniards. One of them was a Spanish art teacher in her 50s and the mother of three children, who was forced to emigrate and look for work when she lost her job.
During the Franco era, Spanish workers regularly toiled in Germany and other northern European countries, because there was no work for them in Spain, and the fact that such emigration has begun once again is another testament to Spain’s disastrous economic implosion.
There was a time until very recently, when such things seemed unimaginable. I remember very well the atmosphere in Spain in 1992, when I was living in Barcelona. That was the year of the Columbus quincentennial, the Barcelona Olympics, and the Seville expo, when Spain was briefly the hippest country in Europe, if not the world.
It was a year in which Spanish history was reinvented in keeping with the upbeat mood, when Christopher Columbus briefly became a symbol of the ‘triumph of the West’ narratives that followed the end of the Cold War, and Spain’s genocidal invasion of the Americas was politely referred to as el encuentro - the encounter.
To many Spaniards, 1992 was the confirmation that Spain had shrugged off the dark legacy of Francoism and taken its rightful place in the new Europe that was being built at Maastricht that same year. There were so many reasons for optimism then. The Spanish economy was booming; high speed trains were dissecting the country; new art galleries and public buildings were regenerating Spanish cities; immigrants were flocking to a country that had traditionally been associated with emigration.
The new Spain was hurtling towards the 21st century, we heard, ready to use its cultural and historical connections to act as a bridge between Europe and Latin America, where Spanish companies were feverishly buying up privatised national industries. Spain would play a similar role in the EU’s emerging relationship with North Africa – in addition to acting as the primary guardian of Europe’s southern maritime border against undocumented migration.
It was all good, or so it seemed. And now, in a few disastrous years, the hollowness of so many of these premises has been revealed. Spain’s unemployment rate of more than 26 percent has now reached a modern record, millions of Spaniards are being pushed ever-deeper into poverty, and young Spaniards whose futures once seemed assured are once again forced to emigrate in order to stand a chance of finding work.
Some of this is obviously due to international developments outside Spain’s control. But Spain’s ruling elites also bear huge responsibility for the unfolding disaster. Today the country is littered with useless and often unused ghost airports and public infrastructure projects, many of which seemed to have no purpose except to put more money into the pockets of the businessmen, banks, and the regional politicians who facilitated these white elephants.
Now the sleazy backwash of the last two decades is rising to the highest echelons of Spanish society. Ongoing investigations into Luis Barcenas, the corrupt former treasurer of the ruling Partido Popular, have revealed that leading members of the government including the Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, received payments through a specially-designated slush fund.
King Juan Carlos’ own daughter may be summoned to give evidence in the embezzlement scandal involving his dodgy son-in-law, which is lapping around the throne itself.
All this has wiped away the promises and expectations of 1992 like a delirious gambler’s dream. This isn’t the first time in Spanish history that Spain’s ruling classes have placed their own narrow interests above those of the population, and ruined their country in the process.
It’s not for nothing that Spain was the country that gave birth to the picaresque novel. The genre was first created in the sixteenth century, when the novel Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) delivered a viciously cynical and pungent vision of the hypocrisies and inequalities of what was then the most powerful state in Europe.
The novel’s protagonist Lázaro is the prototype of the ideal picaro character: amoral, self-interested, devious and quick-witted, emerging from humble origins to make his way through a society populated – and above all ruled – by hypocrites, fools and knaves, from priests to noblemen.
Hunger is a crucial theme in the novel, as it was for many Spaniards in the sixteenth century. Like almost everyone else in the novel, Lazarillo’s principal preoccupation is getting enough to eat, by whatever means possible.
Even those who don’t eat pretend to, like the impoverished hidalgo (nobleman) – who gives him temporary employment – who picks his teeth in public in order to pretend that he has just had a meal to impress his equally hungry neighbours.
Lazarillo was banned by the Inquisition for heresy and for its unflattering portraits of priests and bishops. But the novel was hugely popular with the public, which enjoyed watching its ‘hero’ manipulate and deceive people who were often no less cynical and amoral than he was – only more pompous, privileged and pretentious.
This novel was written at the height of Spanish power and greatness. In little more than half a century, Spain had risen from an obscure position at the foot of Europe to acquire a world empire, that extended from the Hapsburg European possessions in Europe to the Americas and North Africa. That achievement was partly due to Columbus’ gold-obsessed voyages, and to the ruthlessness and cunning of real-life picaros, like Cortes and Pizarro, who followed him.
Their efforts brought Spain undreamt-of wealth, little of which filtered down to the populace. The church built ever more extravagant cathedrals, aristocrats built fine palaces, and the Crown frittered away its wealth on futile and costly European wars.
While Spanish soldiers tramped the battlefields of Italy, France and Flanders, and Philip II played out his self-appointed role as the ‘hammer of heretics’, Spain’s roads and canals decayed, large sections of the countryside were abandoned and went untilled, and the country became dependent on food imports from Sicily.
By the beginning of the seventeenth century Spain remained the dominant military power in Europe, but the Spanish Crown was heavily in debt to foreign creditors in order to keep its armies in the field, and subject to periodic bankruptcies, while large swathes of the population went hungry.
Less than a hundred years later, Spain’s military strength was exhausted by the Thirty Years War and a series of military reversals, and the country was a spent superpower, whose decadent ruling class was symbolised by its imbecilic king Carlos II, and which was unable to defend its territory from its arch-rival France.
Spain’s present ruling classes have shown themselves to be no less incompetent, reckless and wasteful in squandering the economic growth of the last two decades or using it to enrich themselves. Systemic failures have resulted in a proliferation of grasping chancers who the author of Lazarillo de Tormes would not find entirely unfamiliar.
They include men like the king’s hand-balling son-in-law, the PP treasurer Barcenas, and Juan Guerra, the brother of former Socialist deputy prime minister Alfonso Guerra, who rose from unemployment to become a millionaire while working from the Socialist party offices in Seville.
There are many others who share the essential philosophy once expressed by the Valencian politician Eduardo Zaplana in a wiretap: ’estoy en la politica para forrarme’ – I’m in politics to make a killing.
Such were the men who flourished during Spain’s brief sunlit decades, and they have led their country into a deep dark hole, from which it may not emerge for some time.