What was Cervantes’ vision of Barcelona? Gaziel dedicated a small essay to it that was published in 1930 in the Libro de Oro de la Exposición de Sevilla, which narrates the admiration Don Quixote’s author felt for the capital of Catalonia, beyond the known dithyrambs. The article, an excerpt of which we publish here, is part of the collection Tot s’ha perdut, published in RBA La Magrana’s Biblioteca del Catalanisme collection.
In early February during one of Europe’s longest and harshest winters in living memory – 1929 – I was out walking one morning, on the outskirts of Barcelona, in the company of a friend of mine, a German from Königsberg who had just arrived in Spain for the first time. After strolling peacefully for a couple of hours we had to sit down and take a rest in the heart of the countryside [...] And thus we sat, breathing in the tepid windless solitude, silent in our indescribable joy, when my friend looked up and suddenly discovered, above the white wall that sheltered us, the uppermost branches of a flowering almond tree, still reeling from its recent and delicate miracle with the splendour of its foliage splashed across the enamel-like morning sky.
My friend from Königsberg heaved a sigh. He looked at the whitewashed wall and the almond tree, gazing into space. “And to think that today is the third of February!” he finally said. Then, I know not why, those magic words by Cervantes about Barcelona sprang to mind: “bright sea, smiling earth, clear air”…
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As far as I remember, Cervantes penned three accolades of the Catalan capital; or rather, two about Barcelona and one about Catalans in general. The best-known one is also the most oft-quoted one, from chapter 72 of the second part of Don Quixote [...]: Barcelona, the “treasure-house of courtesy, haven of strangers, asylum of the poor, home of the valiant, champion of the wronged, pleasant exchange of firm friendships, and city unrivalled in site and beauty” [...]
Anyone used to Cervantes’ style who carefully rereads these bombastic phrases, full of laudatory adjectives and heavy on hyperbole, will feel – particularly if they are Catalan – that drowning feeling that utterances of excessive courtesy induce in the person receiving the compliment (unless they are an utter fool). That kind of praise, so overwhelming for the receiver, was fashionable at the time [...]. Does this mean that the proverbial admiration felt by the great Castilian writer for Catalonia, and especially Barcelona, was false? Not at all. Not only is it true that Cervantes felt a genuine attraction for this part of Spain and its capital, but I would even go as far as to say that no other artist, before or after him, ever conveyed the essence of the Catalan Mediterranean landscape better than him or immortalise it with such expressive and definitive concision.
However, this unsurpassed formula does not exactly appear, as we shall see, in any of the transcribed fragments. It lies elsewhere, and is in Don Quixote [...]
As Don Quixote and Sancho gradually approach our land, the reader gets the oddest feeling, as if the air flowing through the pages of the book, in the lucid text and between the lines, were changing all the time. Master and servant cross the Aragon steppe, silent and alone [...]. And just as they enter Catalan lands, there is a profound mutation in the landscape, in the atmosphere surrounding the two adventurers and even in the work’s inner rhythm. “He was overtaken by night [...] in a thicket of oak or cork trees.” Those cork trees, and their unusual and outstanding density, are one of the extremely subtle strokes of the pen, or perhaps the word should be magic wand, that characterise Cervantes’ great art [...]. The sea breeze and the damp Mediterranean wind seep through the pages of the book and refresh the arid temples of the sublime and crazy adventurer. And the first thing that his servant encounters, just as he is about to nod off hugging a tree trunk, are the legs of some outlaws and bandits, hanging from the branches. “Whereby I conjecture,” Don Quixote confidently says on confirming the grisly discovery, “that I must be near Barcelona”. Shortly afterwards, master and servant fall into the rough and gentlemanly, fearsome and frank clutches of the romantic bandit Roque Guinart. Leafy air, sea air, rebellion and passion, exalted dynamism and robust openness. We are in Catalonia!
“Don Quixote passed three days and three nights with Roque”, writes Cervantes “and had he passed three hundred years he would have found enough to observe and wonder at in his mode of life”. This would indeed be Don Quixote’s attitude throughout his stay in Barcelona: passive and astonished, diametrically opposed to his innermost character. The natural attitude – no pun intended – of someone who is discovering the Mediterranean.
This great discovery is one of the most beautiful episodes of Don Quixote, since it reflects the deep sympathy that Cervantes felt for the capital of Catalonia, culminating in a lapidary definition. Reread chapter 61 of the second part of Don Quixote carefully. The movement, colour and luminosity of these pages are unique in the work [...] “They reached the strand”, says the author, “on Saint John’s Eve during the night”. Saint John’s Eve! Bonfires, music and popular songs: the local festivities, as it were, of the whole of Catalonia. They spend the night in the open, breathing in the sea’s dew; Don Quixote sleeps mounted on his steed, impatient to see the new day. “It was not long before the countenance of the fair Aurora began to show itself at the balconies of the east.” The dawn of Saint John’s day, with the sun enshrouded in the remains of the night’s bonfires!
“Don Quixote and Sancho gazed all round them; they beheld the sea, a sight until then unseen by them.” They see the galleys on the beach, “decked with streamers and pennons that trembled in the breeze and kissed and swept the water”. They hear the sound of bugles, trumpets, clarions and drums playing and the tinkering of bells. The ships begin to glide across the tranquil waters, “while a vast number of horsemen on fine horses and in showy liveries, issuing from the city, engaged on their side in a somewhat similar movement”. The galley soldiers fire off warning shots which are answered by the guns of the city’s walls and forts [...]. And this is when Cervantes fires off, from the depths of his swollen emotion, those short, definitive magic words, still unsurpassed, that condense the entire panorama of Barcelona, all the splendour of the coast of Catalonia: “The bright sea, the smiling earth, the clear air…” This definition is still as wonderfully accurate as the day it was written, more than three centuries ago.
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So Catalonia and Barcelona should thank Cervantes [...] for having perceived and beautifully expressed the fact that it is different from Spain.
For the first time in Don Quixote, it is as if, on reaching Catalonia, the work’s two main characters begin to vanish, take second place, a back seat, as if shipwrecked in their new environment [...]. Catalan democracy is too exuberantly colourful and vibrates too much for these two dull figures to stand out above it [...].
In the great chord of the Iberian peninsula, Castile represents, as it always has, and so eminently, the prominence of individual personality, and Catalonia the empire of the masses. Castile’s heart is hierarchical and aristocratic. Catalonia’s is democratic and levelling. When the most-sought historic value was personal value, Castile held a first-order position in Europe. And whenever attempts have been made in the Peninsula to highlight the value of the collective mass, of popular “small change” over and above the privileged gold coin, Catalonia has been at the forefront of such ill-fated impulses [...].
Cervantes belongs to an era in which still there was a deep sense, albeit in full decadence, of “las Españas” – the many Spains – that rich and fertile peninsular variety which, while it never ceased to be an indestructible fact, was never resolved in greater and complete harmony. As in the colours of the prism, there are three basic tones in the Iberian Peninsula: Castile, Catalonia and Portugal. Castile is red, Catalonia is yellow and Portugal is blue [...]. The capital of the yellow strip, Barcelona, is unmistakable, irreducible, like Madrid and Lisbon. The three of them together contain the full range of the peninsular spectrum. Anyone who could harmoniously unite them would obtain something that human eyes have never been able to look upon: the incomparable iris formed by the ideal flag of Hispania.
You can read the entire article in Tot s’ha perdut, a collection of articles by Gaziel in the original Spanish version. Biblioteca del Catalanisme, RBA La Magrana, Barcelona 2013. Published with the editors’ authorisation.