The key scene is this. We are in Spain, in the second half of the Thirties, during the civil war. In a grove not far from Gerona, a republican soldier spots the ideologue of the Falange, Rafael Sánchez Mazas, fleeing the firing squad that is shooting the fascists. The eyes of the two enemies meet. The good soldier decides to let him escape and thus to save his life.
This story was described by Javier Cercas, about twenty years ago, in a beautiful novel, “The soldiers of Salamis” (in Italian with Guanda, like all the others by the author), a book that led to the Spanish writer, today 59 years old, fame, recognition, authority. But come to think of it, that scene is about Brotherhood, with all the ambivalence but also the charm of this word. Brothers were Cain and Abel, but Brotherhood means first of all not doing to others what you would not want them to do to you and recognizing yourself in the other, even – and at least – in war.
The word Brotherhood, the third of the three watchwords of the French Revolution, reveals itself today as a key to reading and building a liveable future and not a nightmare. This is why we talk about it with Cercas. Because he is an author who like few others, in all his books, had dealt with it. Says the writer: «When we talk about Brotherhood, at first glance something weak, sentimental, kitschy comes to mind. But then, if we recite the trinomial in one breath: “Liberté Egalité Fraternité” we realize that it is the most important value of all the three ».
He smiles and raises his voice slightly: “That we are all brothers and sisters is not a moral consideration, it is an incontrovertible fact”. So let’s try to understand why it is. He reflects: «The communist, republican soldier who saves the enemy’s life is called Miralles. Someone pointed out to me that in Catalan (the region where Cercas lives) the word “mirall” means mirror ». Here, Mirall saw in the enemy, himself in the mirror. It seems like an invention, but the story is true ».
The conversation continues. Cercas insists on quoting “The impostor”. “The impostor”, in turn, tells of a rough story: a man for some decades presented himself in Spain as a former prisoner of a Nazi concentration camp, and instead he had invented everything. “He used the most heinous crime in the history of humanity to be the center of public attention, to have honors, to be courted by beautiful women. Monstrous behavior », he says and shakes his head:« And yet he was a human being like me and her ».
Reader objection: that man also arouses empathy. Answer: «I appreciate the compliment as a writer, but in Spain and especially in France the reaction to my story was:“ This here is someone outside the human assembly ”. But, in fact, for me he is a brother ». Then, Cercas wants to return to the idea that even in war there are moments in which belonging to the human race transcends hostility and anesthetizes hatred and quotes an episode from “The Sergeant in the Snow” by Mario Rigoni Stern, which he he met through the readings of Borges and Bioy Casares (to emphasize how universal literature is) and where the protagonist enters an “isba” a Russian hut, he says he is hungry, a woman gives him a bowl of milk and millet, he he eats and goes away undisturbed.
That chapter is one of the most touching of the Italian writer’s prose. It is also where it is said: “For once circumstances had led men to know how to remain men. If this has happened once it can (…) become a custom, a way of life ». In fact, a great-uncle of Cercas was a Francoist soldier and his family in a remote village of Ibeharnando in Extremadura was sided with the fascists. Yet in one of his texts he tells how in that village a Phalangist saved the life of the former socialist mayor. “He was my paternal grandfather,” Cercas points out dryly.
So far we have cited cases of goodness and a certain fraternity beyond political and ideological divisions. We can add that “Soldiers of Salamis” is the title of the book that the Phalangist Sánchez Mazas would have liked to write, but which the anti-fascist Cercas wrote instead. He betrays emotion and replies that those (three anti-fascist brothers) who later helped the fascist hierarch told him: «You wrote the book he did not write. And for me that was a very special moment ».
But the civil war, usually, is the scene of worse cruelty, just between intimate people, between neighbors, on the landing one would say. And just think not only of Spain, with the wake of the dead, destruction, hatred and repression, as well as the laudable episodes mentioned precisely because they are exceptional, but also the story of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s or the case of a Polish village, Jedwabne, where one day in 1941 the neighbors locked all the Jewish inhabitants in a barn and burned them alive. Cercas responds, quoting in turn, a book on the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, where the people who committed atrocities declared: “We are like you.” So what? “And therefore it is terrible to think that we are brothers even of evil people.”
So we came to the question of responsibility for our real and imaginary family members. The idea of responsibility also involves the feeling of shame. Cercas interrupts: «I was ashamed as a young man: for being an immigrant from the South (when he was a child the family moved to Catalonia, ed) but also for my ideological origins. Then, investigating the story of my great-uncle I realized that everything was more complex ». He reflects: “There is a difference between guilt and responsibility. I do not feel guilty for my ancestors but obviously I consider myself responsible, because I have benefited from the actions they have carried out ».
The question remains as to to what degree of distance are we really brothers. In Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov”, the “starec” Zosima tells of a doctor who loves all humanity but not individuals. Cercas has no doubts: «The thing is not complicated and it is very concrete. Collective life is a dimension of individual life. I cannot be happy if others are not. I insist: our happiness depends on the happiness of others. It is the ABC of Enlightenment thought, Diderot ».
In this conversation we cite many writers who in turn cite other writers. It is not accidental. If we wanted to give a geometric shape to the idea of the Brotherhood, that shape would be a circle. So, let’s talk about Elias Canetti. The Nobel Prize for literature in “Mass and power” reports the words of Thucydides who describing the plague in Athens tells how public funerals were no longer held in the city, people did not touch each other and the rituals. Yes. We are talking about brotherhood at the time of Covid-19. Today, thanks to science, there are vaccines and we see the end of the pandemic. But is fraternity at a distance possible, on Zoom and electronic devices? And how to be brothers and sisters without touching each other, embracing each other, without public rituals, such as theater, concerts, football matches? Cercas is silent for a few seconds, sighs and says: «I haven’t seen my mother for a long time, but I talk to her with my smartphone. The emotional relationship does not fail, the shape changes. But this other form can be stronger ».
He says: «A few months ago one of my best friends died. We had known each other since we were eight. There were very few people at his funeral because of the pandemic. Only brothers and closest friends. But precisely because we were few, that funeral created a very strong community. Under normal conditions it would not have happened. Thanks to technology, I am constantly talking from my home to people in their home in Latin America. It is brotherhood that technology makes more intense ».
He continues: «I don’t want to be ridiculously optimistic, but if you look at Europe’s reaction to the epidemic, you can’t help but harbor hope. In the beginning there was nationalist regression. Italy was abandoned. But then everything changed. The Recovery Fund was made possible. All countries have taken responsibility for each other. Horror made us brothers, unlike the 2008 financial crisis. Of course, populism remains a danger. And we don’t know how our governments will use the funds they have available or the timing of the vaccination campaigns. But brotherhood among Europeans is a historical and cultural fact. It is a community that has a history of wars and blood but which exists. Music, literature, art, architecture prove it ”.
The speech inevitably touches Pope Bergoglio and the encyclical “Brothers all”. The pontiff uses the term Brotherhood without embarrassment, which seemed obsolete and, as has been said, weak. «I am not a Catholic and I often criticize the Church», Cercas says, «but this Encyclical is not only a reasonable thing but a very important one. In countries with a Catholic majority, the word of the pontiff is fundamental ». He adds: “It is not intelligent to ignore the enormous weight of this word.”
He laughs: “People who, like Trump, think about money and power, are only afraid, they are not happy.” The quote from Trump, thankfully now a former president, refers to populism which is based on the fear of the Other. «Like fascism», Cercas comments, who adds: «However, fear is sometimes reasonable. At the beginning of the pandemic I had a lot of it. But fear is the tyrants’ weapon and tool. Dictators say: give me your freedom and I will make your life safe. It is a dangerous concept ».
Our interlocutor recalls Walter Benjamin, so being happy consists in living without fear. And so we come to the fear of migrants whom we do not treat as brothers. Cercas is silent for a while. Then he says, “First of all we have an emotional reaction. There are people who die, every day. But then we need a rational reaction: a common European solution to the migratory phenomenon. It is not just a question of justice. It is our interest to help the countries from which people flee. Brotherhood is care for the other. It is neither capitalist nor socialist, it is something that reconciles the antinomy between Liberty and Equality ”.
And he concludes with an answer to the question concerning the father of all novels. Are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza brothers? “Sure. The two belong to different social classes, they fight constantly and are not the same. But the most beautiful moment is the scene of Don Quixote dying, when Sancho Panza tells him: “You must not die. Let’s go among the shepherds. Let’s go on an adventure ”».
With this piece begins a cycle of meetings with writers and intellectuals around the word “Fraternity”. To rediscover its relevance, its secular value, its universality
Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by espresso.repubblica.it.
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