A Bookstore as Dialogue

A LETTER FROM MADRID. Catalan culture is tiptoeing into Spain's capital in an effort to ease mistrust of regional aspirations

FOR years the Spanish region of Catalonia has had economic development offices in such far-off cities as Brussels, New York, and Tokyo. But it was not until this summer that Catalonia's regional government dared to open a Catalan bookstore and cultural center in Madrid.

"Not so long ago this would have been seen as a provocation," says Asuncion Sanz, speaking of the new center she manages on Madrid's Calle Serrano. "We want it to be a showcase for Catalan culture, yes, but also a bridge to all the people of Spain."

What makes the new bookstore potentially provocative is the fact that all of its 3,000 volumes are either in Catalan or works by Catalan writers translated into Spanish. With memories still vivid of the Franco dictatorship, when the public use of Catalan was banned, the bookstore's presence becomes an assertion of Spain's multiculturism.

Today many Catalan people still refer to the Spanish language as "Castilian," after the Spanish heartland from which it comes - as if it were simply another of Spain's regional languages. But for many older Spaniards especially, Spain's "other" languages are associated with separatist movements - none of which retains much popular support.

"Many people here don't understand Catalan aspirations. They think we speak a different language because we want to be difficult," says Ms. Sanz. "It's true there is a political will to keep our customs, but we also can't help that our mothers spoke to us in this language."

Given the misunderstandings that might accompany a Catalan bookstore in Madrid, its creators decided to give the new center a name that makes its aspirations clear. Called "Blanquerna" after a Catalan literary character who seeks truth and justice and embodies universalist thinking, the bookstore tries to be a place for promoting understanding.

"Blanquerna is Catalonia's Don Quixote," says Sanz, of medieval writer Ramon Llull's character. "He represents the wise man, the open and universal man." When the bookstore was dedicated in June, Spanish writer and academic Pere Gimferrer said Blanquerna signifies "the importance of dialogue between distinct cultures."

The Spanish-Catalan dialogue will take on added importance this fall as the new government of Spanish Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez struggles to hold on to the support of the parliament's Catalan nationalists. In national elections last June Mr. Gonzalez's Socialists lost their parliamentary majority for the first time since 1982, and now the Gonzalez government must work closely with smaller parties, including Catalonia's pivotal CiU, if it wants to stay in power.

Sanz agrees that the cultural center's arrival is serendipitous from that point of view. Catalonian President Jordi Pujol had had the idea for the center since the 1980s, she says, but the time didn't seem right until now. Still, she adds, "We intend this to last longer than an election period. We want this to root deeply into Madrileno society."

Hanging over the entrance to the center's downstairs exhibit and conference room is a picture by Catalan painter Antoni Tiapies that boldly declares "Catalunya Endavant" (forward Catalonia). Once a potential provocation, Sanz says the painting should be appreciated as an expression of pride and advancement for a part of Spain.

"There are those elements who continue to think we would be better off without Spain," says Sanz, "but historically we are part of Spain, and we we want to continue that way, expressing the specific strengths that make us an important part of it. If Mr. Pujol kept up his idea for this place," she adds, "it was because he and others in Catalonia thought Madrid should have an expression of that thinking."

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