Spain tries to catch up with Cervantes

Actors take part in a mock funeral procession to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, in Alcala de Henares, outside Madrid.
Actors take part in a mock funeral procession to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, in Alcala de Henares, outside Madrid.PHOTO: REUTERS

MADRID • Two giants of Western literature, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, were honoured over the weekend in their native countries on the 400th anniversaries of their deaths.

But while Britain has gone all out to fete Shakespeare, with a year-long slate of high-profile events, readings, concerts and stagings of his plays, Spanish officials have been accused of not doing enough to promote Cervantes, whose Don Quixote is considered to be a foundational text of modern fiction.

As Spain heads into its fifth month without an elected government, after inconclusive elections in December, the criticism has taken on a distinctly political flavour.

A few weeks ago, Mr Juan Luis Cebrian, chairman of Prisa, the Spanish media group that owns the newspaper El Pais, paid tribute to Cervantes at his shareholders' general assembly. But he took a swipe at "the absence and anomia of the authorities of our country in terms of everything that relates to this event".

In January, Socialist lawmakers presented a parliamentary proposal to push the acting conservative government to improve the commemoration plans. Mr Jose Andres Torres Mora, a Socialist lawmaker, accused the government of "crossing its arms". Spanish officials insist that such criticism is misplaced, saying the government never sought to take full control over how Cervantes should be honoured, nor foot the entire bill for the celebration.

Mr Jose Maria Lassalle, state secretary for culture, said in a telephone interview that his aim was "to break with the philosophy" of the 1980s and 1990s, when Spain was mostly under a Socialist government. During that time, he argued, huge cultural projects were heavily subsidised and organised from the top, with a strict hierarchy.

Instead, he said, the Cervantes commemoration should be "much more about suggesting rather than ordering". "It is a change of mentality that some perhaps haven't grasped," he added. "We have looked for something more transversal, democratic, collaborative and pluralistic."

Nonetheless, the Culture Ministry recently added 129 projects to the official commemoration agenda, raising the total to 329. The government said it had allocated a total of €4 million (S$6 million) to finance events linked to the anniversary. Regional authorities are spending about half that amount.

Spain's comparatively low-key treatment of Cervantes has rankled more than a few of the country's writers and intellectuals.

Arturo Perez-Reverte, one of Spain's best-selling novelists, said in his blog that while British Prime Minister David Cameron had written a widely published article about Shakespeare and even rattled off a series of puns in Parliament to demonstrate how the poet and playwright "provides language for every moment", it would be unthinkable for Mr Mariano Rajoy, Spain's acting prime minister, to publicly pay tribute to Cervantes.

The government's handling of the commemoration, Perez-Reverte wrote, amounted to "the international embarrassment of the year of Cervantes". Still, last Wednesday, Mr Rajoy gave a copy of Don Quixote to Mr Carles Puigdemont, the new separatist leader of Catalonia - a gesture that was also politically charged, as Mr Rajoy then warned against any Catalan attempt to break away from Spain.

Mr Lassalle, the state secretary, said he regretted the negative reactions "in some intellectual circles". "There is a typical Spanish spirit to consider our things worse than what is done overseas," he said. "That is, of course, something that Anglo-Saxons never do."

Mr Dario Villanueva, director of the Spanish Royal Academy, the guardian of the language, has expressed his concerns over the organisation of the commemoration.

In January, he highlighted preparation delays, warning about "time consuming the opportunity that we would have to commemorate Cervantes". But in a recent phone interview, Mr Villanueva said: "I was worried, but now I'm a bit more relaxed because I think that things are functioning and coming into place."

On a recent visit, a guide told his group that Cervantes would have been better honoured had he lived in London instead of Madrid, even though he lived in the same district of the city, aptly known as the Barrio de Las Letras (the literary quarter), as several other writers of the so-called Spanish Golden Age.

Developing the literary quarter as a cultural centre is "the big dream that Madrid needs", said Mr Jose Manuel Lucia Megias, a literature professor and curator of the national library exhibition.

Last year, investigators said they had found the remains of Cervantes in the Madrid convent where he was buried in 1616. Despite the media frenzy that the discovery generated, Mr Fernando de Prado, the historian who led the search, said that "absolutely nothing" had been done since by Madrid's new city hall administration to promote the burial site.

Overall, he said, "there has been no attempt to think about how Cervantes and this special year could be beneficial for the longer term". Politicians, he added, "are now only interested in what will happen in the politics of Spain, so Cervantes for them is just about wanting to appear on the event photo."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2016, with the headline 'Spain tries to catch up with Cervantes'. Subscribe