There has been much talk recently about the case of Cassandra Vera, condemned to one year of prison and banned for seven from holding a public position or office, because of a series of tweets joking about the E.T.A. terrorist attack that killed Admiral Carrero Blanco back in 1973. The law used against Ms. Vera is supposed to defend the victims of terrorism from humiliation and although this is a respectable endeavour, there has been much debate about whether it applies to the case judged. Even a granddaughter of Carrero Blanco’s has publicly declared that Ms. Vera’s tweets were not offensive, whereas many have complained that gallows humour had been applied to his death for decades, long before Twitter existed. There are doubts, logically, also about how long must mediate between a tragic event and the emergence of black humour about it, for it seems that one thing is joking about a recently deceased person and quite another poking fun at historical figures (like Carrero Blanco). Underlying all these debates is the pressing issue of whether Spanish legislation is actually implementing some form of official censorship.
The word censorship has, understandably, a very bad press in all democratic states as it attacks one of the foundations of civic life: the right to free speech and self-expression. As we all know, however, the social networks and, generally speaking, any internet site to which you can contribute an opinion, have generated a fabulous amount of trolling. The trial of Ms. Vera seems, under this light, quite unfair for, although she posted jokes in very bad taste disrespecting the memory of a dead person, at least she did so using her own identity. In contrast, many persons are terrorized on a daily basis by anonymous abusers that seem immune to any just application of the law. So, whereas official censorship is, generally speaking, a truly regrettable practice, it seems quite clear that some form of censorship should be applied to online comments that may offend others, beginning with the strongest possible self-censorship. It would also be preferable to rule out anonymity in all the social media, for persons are inclined to be much nastier under its cover than using openly their names (as blind peer reviewing shows in academic life…).
My topic, in any case, is not Twitter censorship but the official censorship of books and periodical publications that existed under Francisco Franco’s regime (1939-1975). Actually, beyond it, since official censorship was abolished as late as 1977, in allegedly democratic times. I have chosen this issue today because I recently attended a presentation on Catalan writer Manuel de Pedrolo, jointly given by his daughter, Adelais, and Anna Maria Moreno Bedmar, a specialist in this highly accomplished author. I attended it with a young master’s dissertation tutoree, and if I was surprised by what I heard–despite being already familiar with the idea of Franco’s repressive regime (I was 9 when he died)–just imagine my student’s surprise.
Censorship, by the way, extended to peculiar corners in Spain beyond the artistic. There was, for instance, legislation against naming your own child in a language that was not Castilian Spanish and against using a name that did not correspond to a saint. Incongruously, then, since Sara is a biblical name, my mother was christened María Sara to smooth out the ‘problem’. Manuel de Pedrolo’s daughter had to carry for 36 years, as she explained, a saint’s name in Spanish, which she never identified with, until she was finally allowed to officially call herself Adelais (an Occitan Cathar name, incidentally). When in Pedrolo’s Mecanoscrit del segon origen (1974), then, Dídac chooses to call his baby boy by the androgynous name of Mar he is carrying out a whole revolution.
Anna Maria Moreno explained to the audience that Manuel de Pedrolo was the local writer in any language most often censored in Spain. I’m summarizing here what she explained, basically for the benefit of any young reader who might ignore not only Pedrolo’s case–most people even in Catalonia ignore it–but the existence itself of official Francoist censorship.
All authors in Spain had to face a complicated circuit before publication by which, basically, anonymous readers were put in charge of detecting any offences against morality, religion, sex and the regime in power. These readers would famously mark in red pencil the offending passages: sometimes just one word, sometimes the whole book. Spain had already gone through a very dark phase with the implementation of the Inquisition’s index of forbidden books, which went through a long series of revisions between 1551 and 1790, with supplements in 1805 and 1848. I don’t know enough about Spanish history to claim for sure that the Catholic Church’s censorship was quickly replaced by state censorship; I assume that was the case. There was, as far as I know, official film and theatre censorship during the Second Republic (1931-6). This suggests that, although Franco’s regime was particularly ferocious, there was never a time in Spain when writers were completely free to publish as they wished until the late 1970s. More or less…
Back to Pedrolo, then. Pedrolo was active as a writer for 41 years: between 1949, when he published the first of his 128 volumes (a book of poems), and 1990. He was, then, under the scrutiny of the censors for 28 years and able to express himself freely only for the last 13 years of his literary career. I am not sure how censorship in Catalan operated, and whether the censors had to be necessarily Catalan speakers themselves. In any case, Adelais de Pedrolo explained to me that when her father was accused of public scandal for publishing a novel about homosexuality (Un amor fora ciutat, 1970), the text had to be translated hastily into Spanish for the benefit of the judge. This novel is exceptional in Pedrolo’s career because of the harsh accusation launched against him (which he managed to dodge by selling underhandedly most copies with his publisher’s complicity); yet, it is also typical, since, having been written in 1959 the novel had to wait for 12 years to be published.
As Adelais de Pedrolo explained, her father saw himself as a humble worker at the service of the Catalan language, Literature, culture and nation. He very much wanted to get readers used to Catalan in all genres, which is why he ended up being a one man’s national Literature. Using a persecuted minority language was risky enough for any Catalan writer (Catalan could not be used in any kind of teaching, the media or the administration under Franco). Pedrolo wrote, besides, from a personal position that accepted no limits. This is why, as Anna Maria Moreno explained, he used a singularly resilient method, consisting of writing all he wanted but keeping some of his production in the drawer, waiting for better times. If a book was, anyway, banned, Pedrolo would wait for a few years to resubmit it, often using a different title to fool the censors. The result of all this repression (and authorial scheming) is that practically none of his books were published close to the year when they were written, with the time lag stretching from 1 to, in the worst case, 36 years.
No system of censorship can be truly objective as, certainly, what is offensive to one censor may be irrelevant to another. Spanish Francoist censorship, however, seems to have distinguished itself by a systematic lack of a clear method, paradoxical as this may sound. Pedrolo became extremely adept at using diversionary tactics in his prose, phrasing his texts in ways aimed at befuddling censors; yet, as happened to many other authors in Spain, censors managed to see offence where none was intended. I cannot repeat any specific examples that Moreno gave, but most were simply ridiculous. Since Pedrolo often used abstraction (particularly in his plays) and allegory, it was often hard for the censors to zero in and use the read pencil rationally. A report that Moreno showed evidenced the difficulties censors faced when trying to explain how exactly a novel was offensive, particularly when this novel did not have a recognizable realist setting. Amazingly, although it defends incest as a tool to regenerate mankind, Mecanoscrit del segon origen was not censored at all, presumably because it is science-fiction and censors possibly believed that it was just harmless entertainment…
The worst part of all this sad tale is that not only in Pedrolo’s case but in many others the original texts have not survived. This means that in many instances, the books we read are the censor’s, not the author’s. Anna Maria Moreno started a dissertation on Pedrolo and censorship, which she did not finish because she found a new job at another Department, and this meant a change of topic (her thesis on the reception of Pedrolo’s science-fiction among young readers is available at http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/392659). When I suggested to her that she should go on and explain how the censors tormented Pedrolo, she kindly explained that this is expensive, time-consuming research (at the censorship archive in Alcalá de Henares, mainly). Even supposing she had funding, time and a team, few of Pedrolo’s originals could be restored. There was even the suspicion that in some cases his editor at the corresponding publishing house had modified the original text before sending them to the censor for a licence. This, Anna Maria clarified, was not unusual, with or without the writer’s consent. In other cases, the writers themselves applied a rigid system of self-censorship, for they very much wanted to publish.
Pedrolo died, as I have noted, in 1990, one year after another form of censorship appeared: the fatwa launched in 1989 by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. This was not limited to banning the book in Iran but actually encouraged any Muslim in the world to murder Rushdie as a punishment for having committed anti-Islamic blasphemy in his book. The author had to lived under police protection at least until 1998, when the British Government obtained a formal promise from its Iranian counterpart that it would not support any assassination attempt. The fatwa, however, has never been lifted and Rushdie still receives death threats regularly. Quite absurdly, this intolerable attempt at censoring an author only resulted in giving world-wide publicity to a dense novel that few would have read otherwise… and thus spreading the alleged offence.
Today, the debate rages about whether political correctness is an even more insidious form of censorship than the official red pencil. These are complicated waters to navigate. Official Francoist censorship, everyone agrees, could only delay but not stop the inevitable erosion of the dictatorship; Spanish society simply evolved and the censors always lagged behind. They did much harm to individual artists and certainly stunted the mental and intellectual growth of many readers, which is why the work of official censors should always be deplored. Also, as Pedrolo’s case shows, the censor’s task was often self-serving, plain ludicrous and preposterous. I do not wish, then, to defend any form of official censorship. As for political correctness, if this means a pressure to implement values that help to erase discrimination of any kind, then we cannot call it censorship. If a white author, for example, publishes a racist book, it is only right that the weight of negative public opinion falls on him/her. Now, the kind of censorship applied in Spain under Franco’s regime had nothing to do with this: it was a system intended to control any dissent from a repressive ideology. Of course, the censors believed they were doing the country a service…
What about self-censorship? Again, tricky… One thing is hypocrisy: ‘I’m going to pretend that, as the Francoist authorities want, I believe that sex should only be practised within marriage, only because I want my book published’. And quite another making an effort to avoid offending others: are jokes about midgets (or dead Admirals) truly necessary, and valuable examples of free speech? As for Pedrolo, I must say that, as much as I love Mecanoscrit, sometimes I am offended by his sexism. I don’t want, however, the censors to return from the grave and give me the read pencil. I read Pedrolo’s works as products of his time, though I would not like to see similarly sexist scenes in books written today. Some see this attitude as yet another red pencil–I don’t…
We’ll have to wait, then, a few decades to finally understand which aspects of current fiction will disappear under pressure from political correctness. And fight official censorship wherever it still exists.
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