Siesta for sherry but not sangria

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Spanish Culture
September 8, 2000

Culture in the 16th century signified refinement and improvement of the mind, or as someone later put it, what was left after you forgot what you had read. Today it is an all-purpose term that refers to customs, achievements, outlooks, ethos, as well as literature and painting. There is the freeway culture in California, the culture of coffee-table books, subcultures - an endless list. Then there is "encyclopedia", which in 1531 meant a cyclical course of instruction and became in 1644 the name for a reference work covering all that was known. The explosion of knowledge, so sharply recognised by Ortega, vitiates the second notion. With what are we left? An all-inclusive term (culture) gathered and glossed in a form that no longer can pretend to be inclusive and that rapidly runs out of date?

This encyclopedia of culture begins with an entry for the newspaper ABC and concludes with Iván Zulueta the film-maker. The editors say they have striven to meet the needs of students following traditional language and literature courses as well as those enrolled in the more flexible programmes of area studies, film, or popular culture. No knowledge of Spanish is required by potential users other than what can be acquired by non-specialist reading of the press. A partial list of entries will define the editors' understanding of culture: architecture, cinema, economy, education, fashion, food and drink, gay culture, intellectual life, language, literature, the media, music, politics, religion, society, sports, youth culture, critical theory, and sexual behaviour.

Chronologically, the editors propose to cover the period from the end of the Spanish civil war (1939) until the present, with an emphasis from 1975 (Franco's death) onwards. Unfortunately, in the case of some entries, this skews several crucial years in the history of a country that, although it managed to amaze Europe and the world with its peaceful transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, went through an arduous and stifling time (1939-75) until the relative relaxation of political control towards the end of the Franco regime. The entry on education begins: "Education has undergone major development in Spain since 1970, when it was first made free and compulsory for all to age 14 with the introduction of basic general education." Thirty-one years of curriculum control is ignored. While it is true that everyone including The Economist loves modern Spain, thousands of people, some of them still in the work force, grew up under the Franco dictatorship, and the remains of resentment, suspicion and traditionalism have been by no means totally erased by the so-called "new Spaniards".

Reading here and there, one learns that in tennis, 1994 was the year of the Spaniards: Sergi Bruguera won the French open, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario won the French and the US Open, and Conchita Martínez Wimbledon.

A section on food and drink informs us that the time spent in preparing la comida (the formerly important and lengthy afternoon meal) has shrunk from 60 minutes to 15. Sangr!a, a distinctive Spanish drink, is referred to as "an ordinary red table wine mixed with soda water or white lemonade to make a more refreshing drink". Sherry surely has a "culture" of its own,but it gets scant attention in the wine list.

One indication that cultural studies are still in their early stages is that so many of the suggestions for further reading are to a single text: John Hooper, The New Spaniards (1986), and that a disproportionate number of articles are signed by the editor Eamonn Rodgers. The article on sexual behaviour takes note of the wave of permissiveness in pornography, films and books after Franco's death, but it also suggests that actual behaviour has been slow to change. In 1989, 50 per cent approved of sexual relations between a courting couple, and cohabitation was accepted as normal by two-thirds. But those who practised it represented a tiny minority located in Barcelona and Madrid with high income levels and a higher-than-average educational level.

The discussion of publishing in contemporary Spain points out that the country has the lowest level of readership (50 per cent) in Europe, but that publishing thrives due to the huge market in the Spanish-speaking world. Takeovers have occurred in Spain as elsewhere. It would have been worthwhile to explore the situation of translations in the Spanish book market; there are more than ever, and of better quality. And, of course, there is the phenomenon of Henry James or T. S. Eliot in Castilian and in Catalan.

Finally, in the article on newspapers, it is noted that El Pais became overnight one of the best dailies in Europe but that Spain has no equivalent of The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books , or The New York Review of Books . By calling attention to such an anomaly, the book serves an old-fashioned definition of culture as well as pointing to the future.

Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, United States.

Encyclopedia of Contemporary Spanish Culture

Editor - Eamonn Rodgers and Valerie Rodgers
ISBN - 0 415 13187 1
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £85.00
Pages - 591

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