The border between Portugal and Spain is 1,214 kilometers. If we put it horizontal, stretched, it would perfectly divide the peninsula into north and south, but also, at the same time, it would allow us to unite by means of an invisible line the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Borders are the scars of history, the phrase was made famous by Robert Schuman. Scars visible on the surface of the earth, fortunately overcome in the European case. Probably for that reason, because nobody likes to live next to a scar, the inhabitants of the territories closest to the border between Portugal and Spain call it “the line”, simply, without more, almost as if it were the result of a children’s game.
During the pandemic, however, the streak has become a scar again. People used to go through it every day, like someone walking in the hallway of their house, have had to do without, from one day to the next, their closest universe. As if in Lisbon or Madrid, suddenly, someone created a dividing line that prohibited its inhabitants from visiting a different neighborhood. Circumstances rule and, in an instant, the inhabitants of La Raya lived again with a scar. A part of their bodies was amputated, an irreplaceable part.
In the history of Iberian literature, there are many cases of writers who talk about the different possible faces of that border, interpreted as a limit or as a trace of union, as the final abyss or as the inaugural beginning. Without noise, almost in a low voice, slowly, a topic was built in the Iberian cultural imaginary: that of the ‘distance’ that separates the two countries. A concept transformed, thanks to the spatial metaphor, into a kind of euphemism for another, more high-sounding term: ‘difference’, the difference between the two territories. Curiously, there are many Iberian writers interested in the image of the peninsular ‘other’ who speak of the ‘distance’ between the two countries and not of the ‘difference’ between them. A formula, on the other hand, that seems more typical of the Portuguese character than the Spanish, but which has been used equally on both sides of the border, and which has allowed authors who dared to cross the line to experience a journey of cultural high voltage.
The 20th century is riddled with examples, but the common place of the two distant countries, from behind, must be complemented by a new ‘distance’: the one that exists, so many times over time, between the peninsula and Europe, as explained masterfully Eduardo Lourenço in works like The labyrinth of saudade or Europe and us: or both reasons. We are facing a case of overlapping distances, or almost rhizomatic, if we take into consideration the new formulas of that old concept that emerge with increasing force in the different areas of the Spanish State. Luis Buñuel, in My last breath (1983), wrote that Portugal was “a country further from us than India”, and only a year later it was the great Portuguese poet Ruy Belo, resident in Madrid, who claimed in That great Euphrates river: “Madrid, one of the most distant cities in the world from Lisbon”. We could say, without fear of being wrong, that a ghost has traveled the length and breadth of time on the Iberian peninsula: the distance.
However, this ‘distance’, transformed into a topic of cultural relations (and not only) between the two States, seems nowadays largely overcome. In literary matters, I would venture to say that few European territories have given so many positive signs of dialogue in the last century. One hundred years ago, the works of Eça de Queirós, Guerra Junqueiro, Eugénio de Castro or Teixeira de Pascoaes were widely translated and published in prestigious Spanish publishers, and if the complementary movement, that is, the translations of Spanish authors in Portugal, was not comparable in numerical terms, it was because the Portuguese intellectuals approached the works of Juan Ramón Jiménez, Antonio Machado or Federico García Lorca in their original language.
In the second half of the 20th century we find a similar situation. In the ‘distracted’ Spain, in the haughty and contemptuous neighbor of the Portuguese, the editorial presence of Fernando Pessoa and José Saramago finds no possible comparison term for Spanish authors in Portugal, since not even the Nobel Laureate in Portugal reached a level of disclosure comparable to that of the authors cited in Spain. From Pessoa and Saramago, in addition, there are translations in almost all the languages of the Spanish state: in the case of the novelist, in Spanish, Catalan and Basque; in the case of the author of the heteronyms, in Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Basque and Asturian. This linguistic plurality also demonstrates a dynamism sustained and frequently fueled by internal tensions, transformed into a kind of muted engine that nourishes a plural pulse in cultural matters.
The Pessoa case is especially significant, within the framework of this symbolic narrative of ‘distance’. As is well known, he never set foot in Spanish territory, with the exception of a quick stopover in the Canary Islands, on a journey to South Africa during his adolescence, and he never had Spanish culture among his main references. However, it was in Spain that he met his first international translation (five of his poems were translated in 1923 in the newspaper The province de Huelva) and the first critical monograph entirely devoted to his poetic work outside Portugal (in 1955, Joaquín de Entrambasaguas published Fernando Pessoa and his poetic creation). Much coincidence, certainly, to be two countries separated by such a great distance …
Contacts have diversified in recent decades and we no longer find just the classic axis between Lisbon and Madrid
What is the situation today? It is not difficult to affirm that there have never been relationships as fruitful and plural as in these times. In the literary field, contacts have diversified in recent decades and we no longer find only the classic axis between Lisbon and Madrid, but several links traditionally considered peripheral, which today offer their own dynamics. And I’m not just talking about the culture produced in large towns such as Barcelona or Porto. The peninsular cultural landscape is today the fruit of several decades of joint work, the result of relationships between cities such as Coimbra and Salamanca, or between regions such as Minho and Galicia, or Alentejo and Extremadura. Consequence of this new cultural mosaic, multiple and dynamic, are editorial initiatives such as magazines Bilingual Mouth, Written Space / Space, Talking / Failing Poetry, Caravansari, Cal or Southwest that, over the last three decades, have privileged in their pages the relations between the different literatures of the two peninsular States.
In parallel, editorial proposals have also emerged such as the disappeared Portuguese collection Minotauro, dedicated to the Spanish narrative (in whose catalog Rafael Chirbes, Esther Tusquets or Álvaro Pombo, among others) appeared, or, nowadays, the Confluências collections, by the Kalandraka publishing house, Letras Portuguesas (from the Editora Regional de Extremadura) or the Madrid company The shady and sunny weather, thanks to whose Portuguese vocation we have met in Spain some of the latest titles by authors such as Lídia Jorge, Dulce Maria Cardoso, Almeida Faria or João de Melo. All these efforts of magazines, editorials and festivals (let us not forget the brilliant trajectory of the Correntes d’Escritas festival, in the north of Portugal) also work, paying attention to the rich cultural diversity of the peninsula, and it is increasingly common to find in the catalogs of the Portuguese publishers names of writers from the Catalonia, Galicia or the Basque Country who use Catalan, Galician and Basque as a means of expression.
It does not seem, if we take into account this rapid panorama, that the ‘distance’ so often alluded to throughout history can be today a solid argument when it comes to dealing with relations between the two Iberian states and their different cultures. Probably, we are at the right moment to abandon the euphemisms, put aside the tradition of ‘distance’ and claim and assume ‘difference’ as the most active cultural value of the peninsula, which can turn our territories into spaces with enormous potential for experience and identity expression. The recognition of the difference makes us richer, more tolerant, more responsible. It would no longer be necessary to speak of distances. Culture is one of the possible keys to open doors long closed or only ajar. Let us make possible, once the pandemic allows us to transform the scar back into scratches, as the border reopens on July 1, that prodigious and plural encounter.
Antonio Sáez Delgado He is a professor of literature at the University of Évora and translator of authors such as Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, António Lobo Antunes, Gonçalo M. Tavares and José Luís Peixoto.