A Catalan Tale of Conflict

By Graham Keeley
Associated Press
Thursday, August 9, 2007

BARCELONA -- When the Frankfurt Book Fair took the rare step of inviting a region rather than a country to showcase its literary talent, Catalonia picked writers who publish only in Catalan -- the language of this proud patch of northeast Spain that considers itself a nation within a nation.

Spain's literary world cried foul and Catalonia backtracked, inviting top-flight Spanish-language writers as well to Frankfurt in October. But many are refusing to go, calling the gesture an insulting afterthought prompted by political interference.

One of the Spanish-language writers boycotting the fair is Barcelona-born Carlos Ruiz-Zafon, author of the international bestseller "The Shadow of the Wind."

He blamed "political commissars who eagerly took over and handled this affair and who decided what kind of image of Catalonia they wanted to project, mostly to their own Catalan constituents, who are the real audience of this whole sideshow, not those attending the fair or the international media."

Organizers insist that, in the end, a wide range of Catalan culture will be represented in Frankfurt.

The issue is politically charged because the Catalan language is a potent cultural symbol. It has been aggressively promoted by successive Catalan nationalist regional governments since democracy returned to Spain in 1978.

During the dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, Catalan and other regional languages were banned, as Franco believed they could foster opposition to his regime.

Anyone caught speaking a regional language faced jail. Children were secretly sent for Catalan language classes at summer camps across the border in France, where the language is spoken in the southwest. After the death of Franco in 1975, Catalonia -- like other parts of Spain -- was granted substantial autonomy and its language restored.

Now, Catalan is one of three regional tongues that enjoy co-official status along with Spanish. Companies can be fined for not printing signs in both languages.

The Catalan organizers preparing their part of the Frankfurt fair had hoped to use the event, which attracts nearly 300,000 visitors, as a window for the region's prose and poetry. They also cite commercial reasons for ultimately deciding to include Spanish-language authors.

The Spanish government and regional authorities have spent $16.5 million promoting the Catalan section -- the biggest budget ever spent by any country at the book fair.

The Ramon Llull Institute, which promotes Catalan culture throughout the world, has organized Catalonia's contribution. Its director, author Josep Bargallo, was not immediately available for comment.

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