Maria Barbal, born in 1949, is a Catalan writer whose novel, Inner Land (País Intim), was recently translated into Slovenian. An extensive, more than 400-page novel follows the story of Rita, who has a very complicated relationship with her mother. As she grows up, she learns that every person has an inner land of his or her own, and sometimes this personal world is impossible to enter, no matter how hard you try. But Inner Land is not only a book about interpersonal relationships, but also about life in Spain during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, the impact of the Spanish Civil War on the survivors and their descendants, and the position of women in the Francoist regime.
Lara Paukovič (LP): Although the characters in your novel Inner Land are concerned with the political and social issues of their era, some of them still manage to distance themselves from them. Do you think this is also possible, even necessary, today? To create your own little world, where you can find comfort in the midst of political happenings?
Maria Barbal (MB): Yes, I think so. I would agree this is necessary nowadays, because there is too much information about happenings and events all around the world, and all that can preoccupy a person. In the 60s, it was similar, but we didn’t have access to as much information as we do now. I understand that there are people who need to be engaged in political activities, but this is not for everyone. Some, on the contrary, need distance.
LP: Why, in your opinion, do people hold on to the conflicts that happened during war, even years after the war has ended? This is the case with Rita’s mother, Teresa. We have a very similar situation in Slovenia – people still are divided on the basis of on whose side they were on in World War II.
MB: Rita’s mother belongs to the group of people who still haven’t overcome the war trauma. It is impossible for them to get over it. Probably every country has thought about the possibilities of helping those people after war, and making it easier for them to overcome negative feelings. But I don’t think they have the weapon to fight against that. It is very difficult. Today, people who were hurt or experienced a traumatic event can visit a psychologist, or find some other kind of help, but in the 40s or 50s that was not possible. So they remained frozen in their situation until the end. But the next generations can overcome that. There is a big difference between the generation which experienced war and the second or the third after that. Things were left unquestioned for years, and that’s why people like Teresa existed – or still do. She never got the answers to her questions and she, in reality, knew nothing. Neither why something had to happen, nor who was responsible for what. But the generation of “nieces of war,” which Rita is a part of, wanted to know more, to talk about things, to get explanations, and also – to forget. Rita and her husband, whose families were on opposing sides in the war, are an example that this is possible. Because neither of them is guilty. No one should be responsible for the sins of their parents or grandparents. In that manner, I think the facts have to be investigated, exposed publicly – for example, recovery of dead bodies of the leftists, whose deaths were silenced, meant a lot to the families of these people. But then, the opposing sides should shake each other’s hand. This is very important.
LP: You also write about student protests, which were happening all around Europe at the end of 1960s. Lau, Rita’s first lover, is one of the revolutionaries, and Rita is arrested for helping him. Were you, in your student years, engaged in such activities? Can student activism still change a particular political situation?
MB: I did participate, but not in the first line, because it was very dangerous. You could have gone to prison. It was very easy for that to happen. Nowadays, student activism is still relevant, of course, but together with other movements.
LP: Are the young of Catalonia (and other parts of Spain) as active as their predecessors in the 1960s/1970s?
MB: Yes, but not as in that particular moment, because Franco’s dictatorship was something different, and people were fighting against that. Now, in democracy, the political activities and protests are against taxes, programs or, in general, against a situation in society people don’t like. They don’t fight against the whole system anymore; they just want those smaller changes.
LP: At some point in the book, Rita is thinking about her future and says “they (the young) were born within a society which prepared them for circumstances that actually do not exist.” She asks herself whether is it possible to use the knowledge gained at the university in practice, or to get a decent job. This is the exact dilemma of today’s students. Did you have similar feelings when you finished your schooling?
MB: Of course, I was worried about that, too. But currently, the problem is bigger than it was. More people in Spain go to university, so there are more of them with the same level of education and not enough jobs for everyone.
LP: In the book, you also mention the death of Salvador Puig Antich, a Catalan anarchist who was executed by the Francoist regime. His revolutionary actions reminded me of Che Guevara who, after his execution, became a symbol of rebellion. Why do we need these heroes?
MB: Salvador Puig Antich was a victim more than a hero. Not exactly like Che Guevara. But it is correct to think he, too, is a kind of a symbol – the symbol of freedom and rebellion. I think we all like rebellion, and we need the people who are very brave, who fight for a good cause and who later become symbols. Because most of us are not like them, some people find it very difficult to fight for their country, because they are busy taking care of themselves or their family.
LP: There are two different types of women in the novel. Teresa, Rita’s mother, is actually an ideal woman of the Francoist regime – she devoted her life to her husband, children and housework. Veva is her complete opposite – an independent, unmarried woman who works and provides for herself, and even engages in a romantic relationship with a married man. Veva’s life seems to be easier, but in reality it probably wasn’t so easy to be an unmarried woman in the era that glorified family life?
MB: It was difficult to be like Veva, because women of this kind had a bad reputation. The fact that they didn’t have husbands was very suspicious. Every time Veva went back to her village, people questioned her. Indeed, she was very beautiful and interesting, but on the other hand, something was “wrong” with her. It certainly wasn’t easy.
LP: Veva is from Barcelona, and she seems to have freedom people in smaller cities and villages do not have. Was life in Barcelona back then much different from life in other parts of Catalonia?
MB: In the 60s, living in a big city surely permitted more freedom to women, while nowadays the situation in smaller and bigger cities is more or less the same.
LP: Although Catalan language was banned during Franco’s regime, Catalan people somehow managed to find ways to keep it alive. Rita’s father, for example, wrote her letters in Catalan. I suppose language is an important part of Catalan identity – what does it mean to you?
MB: I agree, it is a crucial part of Catalan identity. I learned Catalan when I was twenty – before that, there was no chance to do so. And I had to learn it on my own. In 1950s and 1960s, the first schools where it was possible to learn Catalan were established. But in my case, it was a voluntary act. I still write all my studies, articles and reportages in Castilian Spanish, while my novels are written in Catalan. A novel, which describes a certain personal world connected with nature or a particular culture, is very difficult, almost impossible, to write in Castilian. For me, writing in Catalan means identifying with the text.
LP: The last pages of the novel are filled with optimism. Ramon says to Rita that “the world is beautiful too, and fortunately it’s not the same as it was before.” Probably the end of Francoism is what he has in mind? How did the lives of Catalan people change after the end of Franco’s dictatorship? What is their position today, are they still content with their situation?
MB: Of course, the current situation in Spain is much better for everyone than it was during the dictatorship, Catalan people included. But autonomy in Catalonia is still very weak. The Spanish central government really holds back all the needs and stocks of the Catalan people. By means of economic questions, by means of resources … And all that is very tiring. People are sick of fighting for the autonomy all the time. The government requires that all the people in Catalonia have to learn “our” Spanish language. In schools, for example, Catalan is indeed the first language, but Castilian is still at the same level. For that reason, Castilian Spanish is a normal language in Catalonia, and Catalan is in the subordinate position. The situation is better, but it is not what we expected. It’s difficult.
LP: What about the other parts of the country, for example Basque Country? Is their situation as difficult as Catalonia?
MB: Basque Country has different economic pacts with the government and their situation is better than the situation elsewhere. It is important to mention that they use violence as a negotiating tactic, especially with the ETA (Basque separatist organization). That has created a different relationship with the government.
LP: Let’s look at the other side of the coin: some people tend to idealize a dictatorship after it is over. I found research which states that 75% of women respected Franco and 50% of them though that his leadership was good, especially those from upper social classes. Why is that so?
MB: Those are the people who, in Franco’s era, had privileges they now don’t have. We are talking about rich people, about the people from upper classes who were Franco’s allies and therefore very well-maintained in his era. Now, their situation is different: they have to pay their fees and everything, and of course they don’t like that. Back then, in central parts of Spain and in the south, for example, in the great estates and Andalusia, many workers earned a minimum amount, which was favorable for the big landowners, who were very supportive of Franco’s dictatorship. Democracy brought taxes and everything else, so it’s logical they still cling to the phrase “Con Franco viviamos mejor!” (“With Franco, we lived better”). But of course, this is not the opinion of the majority of people.