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3 Books That Explore Catalonia’s Fight for Independence

On Thursday, following Catalonia’s Oct. 1 referendum on independence, Spain promised to take emergency measures to suppress secessionist sentiment in the restive northeastern region, which has long sought independence from Spain. Here are two books that explore the historical and present context of the conflict, and a third by an pre-eminent Catalan voice.


By George Orwell
182 pp. Benediction Classics. (1938)

For a firsthand account of the Spanish Civil War, turn to George Orwell’s memoir about his six months serving on the militia for the Party of Marxist Unification (P.O.U.M) to fight against fascism in Catalonia. His original plans were to report on the war, but he ended up enlisting “because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” He describes the cultural climate in Catalonia at the time, including the uprisings that occurred in Barcelona and other parts of the region in May 1937, and analyzes the various political factions in play. He describes “the red flags in Barcelona, the gaunt trains full of shabby soldiers creeping to the front, the gray war-stricken towns farther up the line, the muddy, ice-cold trenches in the mountains.” Our reviewer wrote: “That he could have written so objective a book so soon after his almost fatal involvement in the war itself and in the partisan conflict seems miraculous.”


Rebel Politics in Spain
By Raphael Minder
256 pp. Hurst. (2017)

If you’d like a more contemporary take, Minder, The Times correspondent for Spain and Portugal, has written a deeply reported primer for those curious about how Catalonia’s calls for independence have evolved and the implications for Spain and the European Union. On Sept. 11, 2012, a much larger crowd than usual gathered to celebrate the region’s National Day, and they joined in their calls for independence. The writer draws on hundreds of interviews with citizens, political figures and personalities to illuminate the ongoing struggle. Minder gives historical context, explaining how the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship that followed gave way to Spain’s fractured present. He writes, for instance, of the Salamanca papers, long lost documents seized by the dictator Francisco Franco to identify and target those who opposed him. The documents were only returned to the appropriate family members last year and have done “more to stir controversy than provoke reconciliation,” according to Minder. His goal in writing this book, as he says in his foreword, is to use the Catalonia example to explore what motivates people to “dig deep into the past and their cultural roots in a world that is increasingly driven by digital technology and other global forces that override boundaries.”


By Josep Pla
Translated by Peter Bush
638 pp. New York Review Books. (2014)

Widely heralded as one of Catalonia’s greatest writers, Pla began keeping this journal in 1918 when, while he was a law student in Barcelona, the Spanish flu broke out, prompting Barcelona University to shut down and a young Pla to return to his hometown, Palafrugell. He started the journal to “help me learn to write” and filled it with ruminations on nature, character sketches and observations on life in the Catalonia region during his time. He continued writing even after he returned to school; half the book takes place in his hometown, while the other takes place in a politically restless Barcelona. He only returned to his youthful reflections in his 60s — by which time he had accumulated a plethora of journalism and other nonfiction writing — elaborating on his memories. Our reviewer wrote that “what survives in its pages is a vibrant testimony to the power of words to transcend time.”

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