The Spaniards abroad who reshaped Iberia

The Disinherited
May 18, 2007

Spain has often been at war with itself, and it has forced many of its own into exile. Writers have tried to identify the roots of this endemic problem, and Spanish literature of all genres often returns to the theme. The expatriate Americo Castro pinpointed what he saw as a prevalent tendency of the Spanish to, like Cain, turn on their brothers.

In this synoptic account, Henry Kamen argues that uprooted Spaniards have made the most significant contribution to what we think of today as Spanish culture. His examples include the obvious, such as Luis Buñuel and Pablo Picasso, but also figures such as the converso philosopher and physician Isaac (Fernando) Cardoso, Catalan artist Mariano Fortuny y Marsal, and writers Max Aub and Jorge Semprún. Kamen's concept of what an exile is includes those who were expelled (Jews and moriscos ), and those who chose to live abroad (Salvador Dalí).

The Inquisition and the Spanish Civil War and postwar were not the only epochs during which massive numbers of people fled or were expelled. From 1700 (when the last Habsburg king of Spain died without a natural successor) onwards, the country spiralled into a 200-year dynastic and political chaos: "Spain entered... upon a political system that split the country down the middle, intensified internal conflicts among Spaniards, made exile into a permanent reality of cultural life and converted half the political elite into opponents of the monarchy."

Though there were periods in which Spain seemed to be evolving into a modern nation, these were short-lived, and by the mid-1930s Francoist rhetoric and violence had revived the Inquisition to rid Spain of Republicans. Anti-Semitism and anti-Republicanism were conflated in General Queipo de Llano's bizarre rallying cry: "Our fight is not a Spanish Civil War, but a war for Western civilisation against world Jewry!"

These repeated purges led to repression, intellectual stagnation and decay within Spain's borders. Even the professional trajectory of the renowned writer Miguel de Unamuno gives an indication of the low level of Spanish universities. In 1891, he was given the chair of Greek at the University of Salamanca despite the fact that he did not know Greek. Yet abroad, Spain's culture flourished, and Kamen goes so far as to see exile as an advantage for members of the Spanish diaspora, who "achieved universality because they grasped at new horizons beyond their homeland, and chose an idiom that was not parochial but accessible to all. That, in sum, was the great gift of exile."

For Kamen, the Spaniards who made the most significant cultural contributions were those whose work went beyond the limits of Spanish national identity. In the section on Buñuel, we find that he, like Picasso, ceased "to be formally Spanish (though his basic perceptions continued always to be Spanish) and became universal". The Education of a Christian Woman of Juan Luis Vives, the Iberia suite of Albéniz, The Bulls of Bordeaux of Goya , and Américo Castro's The Structure of Spanish History are some of the many examples of works produced abroad "drawing on the memory of the motherland". Paradoxically, no work is mentioned as often in The Disinherited as Don Quijote . As Cervantes's masterpiece was written in Spain, and surely transcends its author's Spanish identity, we must question Kamen's suggestion that exile divides the parochial from the universal.

Kamen barely discusses women exiles, except for the philosopher María Zambrano and some wives of famous exiles. He says women "tended to be mainly political figures... or had only a local cultural role". However, there are many female cultural figures (particularly Republicans such as Mercè Rodoreda, María Teresa León, Margarita Nelken, Maruja Mallo, Margarita Xirgú, Constancia de la Mora and so forth) whose biographies and work would have very aptly fit the paradigms set out in The Disinherited .

Kamen overhauls the cliche of Spain's exoticism and instead presents a history of a culture that has, through influxes on the one hand and diasporas on the other, fundamentally been international. This study is indispensable because in highlighting the phenomenon of Spanish exile and focusing on its artistic and intellectual relevance, it opens new avenues between Spanish history and different types of cultural studies (such as Jewish and diaspora) that often overlook Spain altogether precisely because no such overview has been available.

Soledad Fox is associate professor of Spanish and comparative literature, Williams College, Massachusetts.

The Disinherited: The Exiles Who Created Spanish Culture

Author - Henry Kamen
Publisher - Penguin-Allen Lane
Pages - 508
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 9780713997675

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