My favourite Spanish origin story has the child-murderer and wife-killer Hercules as its protagonist. According to this tale, Hercules came to Spain (referred to as the ‘far West’) to perform one of the twelve tasks through which he could redeem his crimes: capturing the cattle of the fearsome giant Geryon. Along the way, he pushed aside the two rocks that sit on either side of the Strait of Gibraltar, thereby linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. More importantly, he brought with him a nephew called Hispano, or Espan, whom he appointed king to impose order on the unruly Iberian natives. In this version, it is Hercules’ nephew whose name is passed on to today’s Hispanics.
This fantasy is as nonsensical as a sword-wielding St James riding a white stallion onto the Clavijo battlefield in the ninth century to earn his nickname Matamoros, ‘the Moorslayer’, or the same saint’s body floating on a stone slab from the Holy Lands to a Galician ría before being pulled inland by two oxen to Santiago de Compostela. Yet St James’s legend lies at the heart of a centuries-old phenomenon, the pilgrimage to Santiago, which is now a spectacular commercial success, attracting 438,000 people from 180 countries last year and producing one of the most-read stories on the New York Times website.
The most fascinating stories are false but present as fact. They represent desire – what people want to be true rather than truth itself. It is this gap that makes them interesting. Mostly, such tales carry an added emotional charge that imprints on our feelings, where things stick best. In Spain, stories like this often exist to buttress the idea of a country forever linked to western or Christian civilisation – whether by association with Hercules or in opposition to Iberia’s Muslims.
Some stories are believed even when they do not pretend to be true. Don Quixote, that endless well of interpretations of ‘Spanishness’, is a victim of this – driven mad by the chivalric pulp fiction of the time, the adventurous caballerías. The hapless hidalgo is determined to behave like the protagonists of those stories, who spend their time righting wrongs, upholding virtue and fighting felons. Before he sets off on his own foolish adventures, indeed, he has already frittered away much of his money on that most wasteful of things – literature.
The fact that Spaniards often tell themselves a different story about Quixote – that his nobility is real, even an essence of the Spanish soul (and, so, shared by them) – is a tremendous irony. The nineteenth-century philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, for example, saw him as representing the wilder, creative side of Spanishness, and called for the country to renovate itself by taking back ‘the tomb of the Knight of Madness from the hands of the hidalgos of Reason’. In today’s fame-orientated society, Quixote’s success, or rather, Cervantes’s success in creating a popular character, is enough for people to consider the errant knight a national hero without knowing anything more about him. Cervantes, who wrote in order to ‘destroy the authority and influence that books of chivalry enjoy’ must be guffawing in his grave, which was only discovered at Madrid’s Trinitarias Convent eight years ago.
In a country that fights so heatedly over the past that it cannot agree on words for the national anthem (which can only be hummed), literature and film might be expected to fill the empty vessel of national identity. In fact, the inevitable hotchpotch of ideas produced by a very broad set of writers has failed to do that, though it is illuminating to see in which directions the tendencies run.
If anything, a country where age-old frictions between nationalities and regions have re-emerged in the safe space of democracy is returning to localism – or at least to hyperlocal scenarios or characters who must cope with the conflicting expectations of people from different localities. This triumph of the local or provincial can be found in the Canary Island dialect of Andrea Abreu’s 2020 Panza de Burro, in the rural Galician brutishness of Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s 2022 film, As Bestas, in the violent nationalism of the Basque Country in Fernando Aramburu’s writing, and in the parodic encounters of urbanites and country folk in Daniel Gascón’s A Hipster in Empty Spain. Indeed, a whole genre of blockbuster film comedies now mines the tensions of national cross-cultural marriages for humour – with the Basque-Andalusian pairing a favourite.
At a time when population decline is emptying out the country-side, these books also reflect a contrast between past and present that becomes anxiety about the future. Such rural tales contain fear about a disappearing essence – of a particular community or region, or of the country as a whole. Even city folk in highly urbanised areas, like the Basque Country and Catalonia, like to imagine their communities in terms of rural tradition – of farmers in Basque caseríos or of the disappearing Catalan payés. Perhaps small regional publishing houses that depend on local government funding are playing a part in this, by feeding the demand from each of Spain’s seventeen regional governments for material that reinforces regional identity and can be taught in their schools.
In truth, no one who has written about ‘being Spanish’ has ever produced anything convincing. In the past, the authors who attempted this ranged from chest-beating patriots to late-nineteenth-century catastrophists like Ángel Ganivet, who, before drowning himself in a Latvian river, wrote in his Idearium Español of Spain as ‘a cage full of madmen all suffering from the same manía: their inability to put up with one another’.
A country with a still-living memory of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco, with a specific national identity based on exceptionalism and religion being rammed down throats for the four decades before his death in 1975, is especially aware of the pitfalls of defining the Spanish condition. Perhaps that is why nobody (that I know of) now bothers to try. If anything, trends suggest that the true richness of Spanish culture (and its contribution to a diffuse national identity) lies in its diversity, even if the voice and layered identities of immigrants remain underrepresented.
At a time when nationalism and isolationism are once more surging around the globe, that is reassuring. After all, it is difficult to hum your way to war.
Giles Tremlett is an Anglo-Spanish writer and journalist.
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