The example is simple and, in the end, somewhat insignificant: for its final issue of the year 2004, the literary supplement of the Spanish newspaper El País decided to present a roundup of the year’s best fiction. Out of deference, El País culled its group of judges—that is, those who would vote on or select the winners—from a number of newspapers in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. As such, I was startled to find that in the three categories for Spanish-language literature (narrative, poetry, essay), not a single Spanish writer had been featured. With a parsimony that bordered on tackiness, the editors of these publications appeared to find noteworthy literature only in their own Latin American countries, written by Latin American authors. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Any Spaniard who has ever traveled to Latin America knows that sooner or later they will come across someone who glowers at them and, quite often, casually tosses out some kind of reproachful comment such as, “Well, after all, you people, the Spanish, you only came here to sack, pillage, and kill.” Or something of that ilk. As many people, including the Spanish writer and philosopher Fernando Savater, have noted, those who indulge in such accusations often have last names like González, Ruiz, or Chávez, if not Bianco or Zanetta—people whose forebears came to the New World long after the Spanish did.
There is a logical, immediate response that has been invoked many times over by my compatriots upon hearing this claim: “Look, if you’re going to be angry, don’t get angry with me—take it out on yourself, because your ancestors were the ones who went to Latin America to sack, pillage and kill (among other, more respectable pursuits, of course). My ancestors never even made it out of Spain.” Now, beyond this particular case in point, I think we would do well to ask ourselves, in a more general sense, why we live in a world so full of old debts that can never be repaid or redressed. And we might also ask ourselves why, generation after generation, certain people continue to ascribe these debts to the very distant descendants of the people who committed the injustices— injustices that are sometimes very real, and other times very much imagined. In general, these “vicarious debtors” are the ones who have decided that such debts are unforgivable—and in this age of demagoguery and spinelessness, it seems that we all spend an inordinate amount of time apologizing for acts we never committed in the first place. The Germans apologize for the Nazi scourge; the Spanish, for the discovery and colonization of the Americas; AngloSaxon Americans, for the extermination of the Indians and the enslavement of Africa; the Japanese, for the atrocities carried out by its armies in China; men, for the secular oppression of women; heterosexuals, for the age-old persecution of homosexuals; and white people in general, for having mistreated all other racial groups. Even the Catholic Church, in general quite recalcitrant when it comes to apologizing for anything, issues its own ridiculous mea culpas from time to time—for having condemned Galileo to death, for example—when in reality it would be far wiser to apologize to those people it continues to offend in the present day.
It’s a funny thing. In this day and age, most people would agree that individuals should be held accountable for their own actions (and there is even a Biblical precept to this effect: I am not my brother’s keeper), and yet we all seem to be plagued with the contagious, damning feeling that we are all guilty. The egregious offenses of yesteryear are blamed not only on their real-life culprits but on their descendants, plus anyone of the same race, gender, ideology, and/or religion, for generations and generations.
Spain offers a perfect example of this: Castile in the olden days, and Madrid in modern times have an eternal and irrevocable debt to pay Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia, as well as a slightly lesser debt to the other regions of Spain. This eternal extension of guilt often leads to staggeringly idiotic distortions of reality: for example, certain Catalans and Basques have had the nerve to “demand” that the current democratic government apologize to their communities… for the Spanish Civil War! And in what may be the height of historical revision if not outright falsification, they attempt to present the Civil War as Spain’s “subjugation” of Euskadi and Catalonia, when everyone knows perfectly well that the leaders of these two particular groups negotiated a hasty and highly advantageous surrender to the Italian fascists who supported Franco. Incidentally, this 1937 act of treachery, otherwise known as the Santoña agreement, is something that the Basque National Party tries to keep under wraps these days. It is also common knowledge that plenty of Catalans supported Franco, and that Madrid, the last city to surrender, suffered the most during and after the Civil War.
I don’t know. There seems to be a very toxic interest in perpetuating and, on some occasions, inventing these bygone offenses. As for my own personal role in all this, throughout my life I have found that I seem to be a representative of all that is frowned upon in the world: I am white, heterosexual, male European, Spanish, and from Madrid, to boot—though I imagine that a white, heterosexual, male, European from London has it even worse than I do. As such, I am often considered tangentially guilty of hundreds of things that have nothing to do with me, from the Aztec massacres to the burning of the so-called finocchi during the Italian Renaissance. What makes me different, however, from all those people who flagellate themselves for acts they never committed, is that I have no qualms about saying this to those people who reproach me:
“Why are you telling all this to me? If you have complaints they should go to someone else—and don’t worry, he’ll answer them on Judgment Day.”
Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero