La Tertulia

A discussion about books and films about Spain.

Why the Spanish Revolution Means a Lot

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You might have a vague idea of what’s been going on in Spain over the last two weeks if you read a lot of newspapers, but based on the paucity of coverage in the English-language media, you might be hard-pressed to tell anyone why it may be just the most important political event of this decade. The stunning mobilization of young people rejecting complacency, flawless organizational skills on their part, and an ongoing tenacious spirit to drive the movement forward two weeks later make the May 15 movement deserve a lot more international press than it is getting.  So just what is the Spanish Revolution, also called the May 15th Movement, and why is it so important?

On May 15, a grassroots organization called Democracia Real Ya (Real Democracy Now), formed earlier that year, organized a massive protest all across Spain to express anger over steep unemployment and widespread corruption among politicians and financial institutions. In Madrid alone, some 20,000 people gathered, with other protests occurring in  Barcelona, Murcia, Granada, Malaga, Santiago de Compostela, Alicante andValencia.

Their anger is understandable in Spain, a country suffering the effects of the global economic crisis more acutely than most Western European nations: unemployment has reached 22% overall and over 40% for youth. What has been called the most qualified generation of Spaniards finish their degrees with little hope of finding a job, while they watch as politicians benefit from a system that  largely favors corruption, nepotism and greed. Everyone in Spain knows about the enchufe, “the plug,” referring to the widespread practice of doing favors for friends. In practical terms that means you can’t get a job at a company unless you know someone there. Also widely known are the outrageous lifetimes salary packages for politicians who work only a handful of years, an egregious lack of judicial and executive separation in which judges can also be active politicians, widespread and well-known corruption that goes largely unpunished and a poorly designed electoral system in which you choose entire parties and all manner of riffraff that comes with them rather than individual candidates. In addition to all this, Spaniards are outraged at the greed of banks and are opposed to bailouts. They are also fed up with greedy practices like having to continue paying a mortgage even after the bank has foreclosed your home.

But the May 15th demonstration didn’t erupt and dissolve in a single day; instead, and quite extraordinarily, some of the protesters didn’t go home that first night. Hundreds of people decided to camp out in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square. They were pressured to go home by the police but resolved to stay. By the end of the week, thousands were camped out in the central square and tens of thousandsof people came out nightly in a show of support for the protest. As of this writing it has been two weeks since the protests began and Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square continues to act as the vibrant headquarters of the May 15th movement. It is now a revolution control center with committees organized to handle clean-up, food distribution, action plans for protests, medical care, provision of legal advice and a “respect committee” to make sure things stayed civilized, orderly and not overly disruptive for the surrounding neighborhood.

One of the most impressive things about the revolution if you know anything about life in Spain is a vehement prohibition on alcohol at the events: signs inundate the plaza imploring participants to avoid alcohol at protest events. If you’ve been to Spain you know the Spanish are a wonderfully happy, fun-loving people — and also party animals who drink in impressive quantities. But the party has been suspended for now. It’s time to work.

And the work is continuing and expanding. In great proof that it wasn’t a fleeting event, not a spontaneous and short-lived eruption of anger, the May 15th movement has taken the next step by breaking up into a set of assemblies organized by neighborhood. The first assembly happened this past Saturday May 28 in neighborhood plazas all around Madrid. Highly democratic, the shape of the movement is being built from the ground up; everyone is welcome and encouraged to step up to  the microphone and offer suggestions. Everything from basic logistical matters like where to place suggestion boxes around the city to ideological questions are discussed, voted on and sent to Sol.

The May 15th Movement in Spain is important because it is the first example in the West in decades of the power people have when mobilized. It is a great example of how the exploitation of the people by a small, privileged class is not inevitable and indeed, only possible through our inaction.  Extraordinary and courageous as they were, the Arab protests of 2011, which were the spark and inspiration of the Spanish revolution, occurred in a situation of extreme desperation; we in the West lead relatively comfortable lives and have our malls and TVs to distract and lull us into a sense of complacency. Spaniards, living as privileged Westerners, deserve our admiration for breaking through all the distractions to produce one of the most beautiful Springs we have seen in decades.



Written by tertulian

May 29, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Book Review: Guernica, by Dave Boling

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Dave Boling’s Guernica is essentially why I read historical fiction. When done well it has the power to knock you out of the anesthetization that occurs from reading about the long list of  tragic events that make up human history. History very often becomes facts and figures, dates, disputes over causes and effects in the timeline, but less often a careful reflection on what is must have felt like for the human beings who lived at the time. Guernica does this, and well.

The bombing of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe acting partly on behalf of the nationalist rebels during the Spanish Civil War is widely recognized as one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.  It was the first instance of the aerial bombing that would be commonplace in World War II and horrifically, for the Nazis it was simply experiment. They saw the devastating civil war in Spain as an exploitable opportunity to test destructive technologies and terror strategies in preparation for the larger, looming European conflict. The victims of Guernica were thus merely test subjects to the German bombers that devastated their town.

Historians dispute the number of casualties at Guernica, and this dispute takes on great polemical weight in Spain, a country where talk of the civil war sparks intense, antagonistic feelings even over 70 years later.  The Basque government  at the time reported casualties at 1,654 while more recent studies assert the number to be much lower, somewhere between 200-400.  While it is important for the historical record that casualties be counted accurately, too often we do a quick mental calculation that attempts to gauge the degree of tragedy based on the numbers. Guernica, as good historical fiction, temporarily renders the statistics completely and utterly irrelevant and humanizes the tragedy.

By the time the bombing comes around three quarters of the way through the novel, we are already devastated. We have been devastated since 20 or 30 pages into the novel when we like and care about Boling’s rich and carefully woven characters, and we know what’s coming. We already care about Justo, the oldest of three brothers essentially orphaned as youth, his daughter Miren, a cheerful, positive and caring girl who becomes the life the town, Alaia, a blind girl Miren reaches out to early on, who, we are surprised to learn, has many facets. We are introduced to the brothers Miguel and Dodo, whose fates are changed one night in the Christmas season when Dodo gets in a scuffle with the Civil Guard. The bombing looms over this idyllic setting from the beginning with brief, foreshadowing scenes about the preparations of lead Nazi pilot Wolfgang von Richtofen.

Interestingly, when the historic bombing of Guernica comes, only a few pages of the book are dedicated to it, even though it is ostensibly the most important event in the novel and its raison d’être. Instead of mass gore, Boling latches onto not only the deep connections we’ve made to the characters, but also subtle yet powerful expressions of human nature, such as a telling feature of how far the initial survivors of the bombing went to save their loved ones. Boling writes in his “letter from the author:”

When I researched the bombing, I read stories of a number of Guernica victims who appeared at hospitals with strange symptoms: Their hands were mutilated. The injuries weren’t from bombing of burning, but from their insistence on digging barehanded through jagged rubble — until the flesh tore from their bones — in the single-minded attempt to saved their loved ones.

Such observations show us, remind us, how valuable each and every life is. It is in small scenes like these that the death count is rendered secondary. The lowest estimates are already too much. The highest become unimaginable. They force the question: how far would each of us go, how much would we put at stake to save the life of a loved one. The loss of a limb? Probably.

Indeed, as Boling himself states in an interview, the novel isn’t so much about tragedy as human resilience, how people rise up to the challenge and keep going even after bereavement. It is also about the human tendency to achieve freedom at all costs, the underground resistance to Franco’s regime despite the great danger it involved. Guernica also doesn’t stop after the bombing. It goes on to show how these characters deal with their losses, how they find ways to survive. Life goes on after tragedy. Importantly, the novel also goes on into the first years of World War II, to show how Guernica was deeply relevant to the history of Europe. The tragedy of this small Spanish town at the hands of fascists, which the democratic European powers tacitly permitted for a variety of reasons, would later turn out to haunt them.  In this way, Guernica seamlessly intertwines the personal story with a solid historicity that makes for a subtle yet deeply powerful novel.

Cover of Guernica, by Dave Boling

Cover Photograph (C) Denis Waugh/Lensmodern

Guernica, by Dave Boling
(C) 2008

Written by tertulian

August 4, 2010 at 9:30 pm

Spain is on a Roll

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Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador of Spain reacts on the podium after the 20th and last stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 102.5 kilometers (63.7 miles) with start in Longjumeau and finish in Paris, France, Sunday, July 25, 2010. Left is Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, wearing the best young rider's white jersey, second overall, and right is Denis Menchov of Russia, third place overall.« Read less (AP Photo/Alain Mounic, POOL)

Alberto Contador has won the 2010 Tour de France. Spanish sports are on a roll after the recent victory at the 2010 World Cup, and Rafa Nadal’s victory at Wimbeldon this year.

Written by tertulian

July 25, 2010 at 10:59 pm

Live Flesh (Carne Trémula)

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It is Madrid, 1970, and late one night a young prostitute, Isabel (Penelope Cruz) goes into labor. Franco has imposed a state of emergency and there is not a soul in the streets at this hour to help them out. Isabel’s mother almost kills herself by throwing herself in front of a bus to get the driver to stop for them, later jests that the only thing that’s going to kill her are the heels she’s wearing. Powerful Almodovarian women. She ends up delivering the baby on the bus, and walks away with a bloodied mouth after having to use her teeth to bite off the umbilical cord. But the typical absurd humor we come to expect of Almodóvar is limited to this prologue: Live Flesh gets serious and quickly about love, obligation and infidelity.

Twenty years, Victor (Libeto Rabal) gets off work one night as a pizza delivery boy, and has a second date with a girl named Elena (Francesca Neri). Elena is a heroine addict and has long forgotten her one night stand, and can only think about getting her next fix while waiting for her dealer. Victor, however, is young and naïve, and demands an explanation for being subject to Elena’s hurtful oblivion. Elena will have none of it, she has no time to waste on a kid who just lost his virginity and barely knows how to please. She pulls a gun on him and when it accidentally goes off, the neighbors call the police.

Cop partners Sancho (Jose Sancho) and David (Javier Bardem) respond to the call. Sancho is a drunk who beats his wife and suspects she is having an affair. David tries to convince him that the idea is ridiculous. Their professional relationship is less than harmonious. They get into a war of egos at the scene of the incident, leading to a tragic outcome. David is shot and paralyzed and the young Victor is off to jail.

Years later their paths converge once again, but this time the waters are muddied with a host of moral complications. Elena is off drugs and has married her savior, David, who we are reintroduced to as a wheelchair basketball player in the special Olympics. Victor becomes entangled in an affair with Sancho’s wife, but really desires Elena. A crucial element of the fateful night of David’s injury is revealed, as is David’s romantic past, and Elena’s real reason for marrying David.

These revelations are devastating to the characters involved. Javier Bardem as the pitied cripple and Ángela Molina as the abused wife particularly stand out with strong yet subtle performances, lifting the story while giving it weight at the same time.

Written by tertulian

July 25, 2010 at 10:41 am

Posted in Films

How to Choose a Spanish Wine

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Spain's La Rioja region, home of some of some of the country's best wines.

Wines of Spain

Spain is the third largest producer of wines in the world, superseded only by France and Italy. Spain’s wine tradition goes way back to the Roman Empire, but it has only been over the last 25 years that worldwide attention has been focused on this region. Located in Southern Europe, Spain has one of the best climates available for wine production, and over the years Spain has worked on perfecting its wine production in order to produce some of the highest quality wines in the world.

Choosing a Wine According to the Denominación de Origen

Part of this effort at perfection was the relatively recent introduction of an appelation system, similar to those of France and Italy. In Spain the classification system is known as the the Denominación de Origen, a system by which the quality of wines are assessed independent experts in line with European Union standards. In choosing good Spanish wines during your stay in Spain, make sure to look for the Denominación de Origen label on the wine you are purchasing. Aside from superior quality, this label indicates that the wine features charactersitics specific to the geographical location it came from.

Within this system, the two highest rankings are called Denominación de Pago and Denominación de Origen Calificada. These labels indicate origins from wine producing areas that are internatinally recognized for their quality and areas that have a consistent record of high quality production, respectively.

Choosing a Wine According to Age

One of the most enjoyed and widely distributed wines that have the Denominación de Origen Calificada label come from the region of La Rioja. When ordering a Rioja the waiter or bartender may ask you if you want a “crianza“. This is an indication of how long and in what manner the Rioja has aged. If you ask for a crianza you’ll get a wine that has been aged at least two years: one year in oak and one year in the bottle. If you ask for a “reserva” you’ll get a wine that has been aged for three years, one of which was in oak. The last age category is called “gran reserva,” which means that the wine was aged for at least 5 years: two in oak and three in the bottle. When buying wine, look for these indications on the neck of the bottle.

Written by tertulian

July 25, 2010 at 9:08 am

Posted in Gastronomy

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The Spanish Civil War: A Short Introduction

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There are more books written about the Spanish Civil War than any other war with the exception of World War II, and for good reason. It was a fight against fascism in which pro-democratic forces were tragically and inexcusably abandoned by international democratic powers, a precursor to and foreshadowing of the horrors that were to come in WWII such as aerial bombardment and mass civilian casualties,  and it was a sad story of neighbors and families tragically turned against each other. The “brief introduction” genre is hard to do for academic historians, but Helen Graham is an excellent expository writer and offers a clear and engaging summary of the war that encourages further study. Hands down, probably one of the best books to start with if you’re interested in this period of Spanish — and indeed World — History.

Written by tertulian

July 25, 2010 at 8:35 am

Posted in Books

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Granada: A Novel, by Radwa Ashour

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This novel tells the story of an Arab family living in Granada, Spain when this city falls to the Catholic Monarchs, ending the 700 year Muslim rule in that country. Read from today’s perspective of the confrontation between Christians and Muslims, the novel leaves you with a sense of the tremendous loss suffered by both Islamic societies and the world in general that came at the end of that fecund period in Islamic history. Like all really good historical novels, Granada does this by telling the story of characters you come to care about. I’ve always thought that historical fiction is the best way to learn history, hands down, as long as the portrayal of the characters and their lives doesn’t deviate too much from what theymight actually have been like based on what we know from first-hand historical accounts. Atrocities in historical fiction are not simply statistics as they are in non-fiction history books; they are real, living, people going through something. After putting down Granada you are left with a deep sense of mourning for the people in the book, and a glimmering sense of the sad reality that the beauty, peace and unique human mixture of that period may never be again.

Written by tertulian

July 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm