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Professor Zapatero’s Required Reading

Robert Latona explores the strange affinities -- and disunities -- between Jorge Luis Borges and Spain's Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

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Robert Latona

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February 23, 2008 - 12:30 am

In 2001, a year after he was chosen to lead Spain’s Socialist Party, José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero wrote a preface to Ficciones, the classic of metaphysical meanderings in the form of short stories by the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges. Not aspiring to lit-crit eminence, the future prime minister confined his comments to what his close and constant re-reading of Borges (1899-1986) has meant to him personally.

Perhaps, among all that is admirable in Borges, what most impresses me is his unusual combination of passion and skepticism, the admixture we humans all carry within ourselves in varying proportions and quantities. But the work itself is proof that these traits are remarkable not only for their abundance, but also for the state of equilibrium the author maintains between them. There was a time when I was younger when reading Borges became a kind of illness, and to this day, I am not altogether certain that I have been cured of it.

What an unlikely affinity for the erudite, cosmopolitan and linguistically prodigious Borges (who could chat up novelist Anthony Burgess in Anglo-Saxon, and lived in four European countries while still in his teens), coming from a provincial MP and local party hack from Spain’s rural heartland who never held a real-world job, learned the rudiments of a foreign language or ventured outside his country of origin until becoming the head of its government in 2004, a victory he now hopes to repeat in the general elections set for March 9th.

Nor would one expect much intellectual resonance between a politician who draws his ideological sustenance from the “progressive left” and a writer notoriously slighted for the Nobel on account of his patrician disdain for political utopianism and for having been too old, blind and slow to perceive the malignant nature of the military regimes that tore apart Argentina and Chile during the latter years of his life.

What sort of a response could Borges possibly elicit in a reader like Zapatero, who is certainly not short on passion, but cannot aspire to equilibrium while maintaining zero tolerance for viewpoints that fail to mesh with his dogmatic certainties? “I am a Red. The right has taught me nothing,” he proclaims. Quite unlike his literary exemplar, who said that “it’s fine by me if people are fiercely opposed to my opinions; if I wait long enough, I’ll probably end up joining them.”

It is true that Borges supported the Spanish Republic, but later came to approve of Franco. However, his loathing for the Argentinean strongman, Juan Domingo Perón, was unwavering, although it needed to fester for decades before it became a generic disapproval. “Dictatorships breed oppression; dictatorships breed servility; dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy . . . Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the many duties of a writer.”

And Zapatero? “Borges apart, the left was the only thing that registered on my personal radar,” was how he described his formative years in Valladolid to biographer Suso de Toro. Even if apart, why Borges? Perhaps a shared predilection for ironic paradox, not the worst thing that can be said about a man chosen to lead a country he doesn’t appear to like very much, at least in the form it has been constitutionally ordered since 1978. But politicians who despise their country and despair of its people are old hat for Spain. It was one of Zapatero’s 19th-century predecessors as prime minister, Cánovas del Castillo, who famously remarked that “A Spaniard is someone who can’t be anything else.”

Along comes Zapatero to tell them that oh yes, they can and so they had better start getting used to being “progressive” or “modern” or “European” – all of which he uses as antonyms to “Spanish”. Borges, too, had a poor opinion of his country, but responded by dismissing democracy as “statistics abuse” and claiming that “perhaps in other countries democracy can be justified; but in the Republic of Argentina, I don’t think it can be trusted.”

Coming up on four years in office, it has become clear that Zapatero has sought to use the power he has been given (and more than he was given, some say) to transform society and reconfigure its values according to his own unerring vision. That this vision must be imposed on a country too unenlightened to admit its shortcomings is of no account, as long as the imposing is done by parliamentary majority backed by a compliant Constitutional Court.

Dreaming a new, more “progressive” Spain into existence — there’s a true Borgesian conceit, one no less tricky than the undertaking faced by the hero of “The Circular Ruins”. “Progressive” suggests future-oriented, but the path to Zapatero’s future starts not in the present, but in April 1939, when Franco won the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish premier gives the impression of believing that everything from then until July, 2005 when the Socialist-controlled parliament passed a law authorizing same-sex marriages, needs to be done over again from scratch and that is the reason why he was elected by the Spanish people.

In the story Borges considered his best, “The South,” a man who may already be dying finds himself inviting and welcoming certain death in a knife fight with drunken louts. Does he choose his destiny, or has it been it chosen for him? Destiny certainly has the final word in “The End,” the Borges tale in which Martin Fierro, the gaucho hero of Argentina’s national epic, meets a like fate at the avenging hand of the brother of someone he killed in the remote past.

The past determining the present. To many, Zapatero appears to be obsessed by the Spanish Civil War and its endless Francoist aftermath, to such an extent that he has been incapable to draw up an agenda not formulated in terms of past realities. By way of example: the catastrophic attempt to make “peace” with ETA terrorists and the legitimacy implicitly accorded to them can be seen as predicated on the fact that Franco was still running the show when ETA hitmen first started killing people back in 1968, ergo, their heart is in the right place, ergo, their misguided yet understandable penchant for “violence” will wither away when their grievances have been dealt with.

Further examples of political atavism include his government’s overblown hostility to the Catholic Church, and the determination to create a dialectic of permanent confrontation in Spanish society in order to leverage political advantage from the polarization exemplified by the 19th-century meme: “Here lies one half of Spain, killed by the other half”. To say, as Zapatero has done to justify his capitulation to regional separatists, that the unity of Spain remains “open to discussion,” only makes sense as a rejoinder to Franco’s bye-bye boast that the country he subjugated and ruled was being left “well and truly tied down” on his departure.

Just as with the Library of Babel dreamed into existence by Borges, in Zapatero’s Spain “there was no personal problem, no world problem, whose eloquent solution did not exist”. Hence his dogged insistence on legislating a more palatable official version of the Spanish Civil War into existence through the recently passed “Law of Historical Memory” which its many opponents claim is actually a Law of Pre-Authorized Historical Truth.

Probably one of the few things Borges and Zapatero would agree on is that historical outcomes can, in fact, be altered, because the past does not exist beyond the limits of human memory except as writing. That is exactly the postulate Borges explores in the “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”. Is it enough to make a bond? Of course not, but a grandfather who died for the cause might just do it. Zapatero and Borges both happen to be grandsons of army officers who were killed during a civil war in their respective countries.

Borges’ grandfather was a colonel who was shot dead in a cavalry charge during the 1874 edition of one of Argentina’s recurrent fratricidal bloodbaths; Zapatero’s, a captain who died in front of a firing squad for refusing to join to the Franco mutiny. In a final letter to his family, Captain Juan Rodriguez Lozano declared that he believed in peace, goodness and improved living conditions for the lower classes, inspiring a kind of legacy bond between Zapatero and the man who died a quarter of a century before his birth.

Nor did Borges ever get to know the grandfather to whom he dedicated a late-life poem. But he also received a life-changing legacy in the form of his grandfather’s widow, Fanny Haslam, a displaced Englishwoman who saw to it that young “Georgie” grew up bilingual and bookish, reading to him from them King James Bible and providing him with a library in English that he started devouring at an early age. Would it too much to say that without an untimely death for a principled cause in the family, Borges and Zapatero would have been very different individuals indeed, and we doubtless should have heard of neither one of them? There is the ultimate “fiction” crying out to be written, but only a Borges would be able to do it justice.

Robert Latona is a Madrid-based US journalist based who has written on Spanish politics, culture and the arts scene for print and web venues.

Robert Latona is a U.S. journalist based in Madrid who has written about Spanish politics, cultural affairs, and the arts scene for print and web venues.
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