“Remembering is an act of loss, of mourning”

Marta Marín-Dòmine

Retrat de Marta Marín-Dòmine © Albert Armengol

Do we come from where we were born, where we live or where our ancestors came from? These are the questions that Marta Marín-Dòmine explores in Fugir era el més bell que teníem [Fleeing was the most beautiful thing we had], which is part essay, part fictionalised autobiography. In the book, Marín-Dòmine aims to explain her life story as opposed to that of her grandparents and especially that of her father. 

With great respect for the historical events told by eyewitnesses and for the incessant gaps in memory, Marín-Dómine wonders how her progenitors, marked by war, pain and uncertainty, still managed to carry on with their lives. And she even asks to what extent leaving the place where you were born is an act of travel, exile or flight, if not a reflexive act of historical repetition¾endless, shared and terribly human.

Seated at the bar in the CCCB, dressed in black, Marta Marín-Dòmine receives me with an elegant smile, looking wise in an angora sweater. It is the smile of Marta Marín-Dòmine, who gestures to me with her hand... She is now in Barcelona, because she’s on a sabbatical year here. But for nearly the last 20 years she has been in Toronto, where she is a professor of Memory Studies at the University of Ontario and leads the Centre for Memory and Testimony Studies. She has also lived in Paris and has travelled far and wide around the world.

You were born in Barcelona, but you have resided in Paris and now you live in Toronto. Where are you from, really?

I usually respond with my place of origin: Barcelona. Before saying I am from Catalonia, I say I am from Barcelona. Saying “I’m from Barcelona” puts you on the map. In fact, Barcelona has its own design, which is how the world knows it and perhaps we’re not aware of that. There is a very typical mise-en-scène that I really identify with.

So you’re a Barcelonan...

The thing is that I’m a little Canadian too. It seems like a cliché, but I think that over the years you soak up your environment. There are things here that jump out at me. Sometimes we are a little careless, even if it seems that the Anglo-Saxon atmosphere should be more so... I have a very strong emotional relationship with Barcelona and of course I can criticise it quite harshly. It is also true that over time I have gradually felt less at home here. Living abroad causes me to lose a certain rhythm of the development of things. I am a bit hard on myself. For example: I think that those of us who do not live here should not vote. In Canada, when you have been gone for five years, you cannot vote. To what extent can I decide on affairs in Barcelona today? What right does it give you to be born somewhere? Isn’t that exaggerated?

In Fugir era el més bell que teníem, you talk about how you saw foreigners when you were little, at the beach, on holiday. How does a foreigner view Barcelona?

I talk only about two big cities: Barcelona and Paris. Barcelona has a very good image as a Western city: cosmopolitan, modern and welcoming. In Paris it never came up, but in Toronto they’ll ask me: “What are you doing here?” Canadians tell me that compared to Barcelona, I made a change for the worse. And in some ways that’s true. But sometimes I think that Barcelona is a really tough city too, and I don’t know if I would fit in easily. The residents of Barcelona need a place to relax, to be closer to each other. Sometimes, on the underground train, I smile at people. They may return my smile, but it’s forced. In Toronto, there is more human contact. When my father told me one day that he had been robbed in Barcelona, it made me feel very bad. My father, my family, lived in Clot, and what they talked about, the life of the athenaeums, the cultural life, is no longer there. And it is surprising, even shocking, that it has vanished. The ideological feeling that was stolen from them in Barcelona has an impact on me.

How do you see the current Catalan political situation? Have you talked about it with people in Toronto?

People talk about it, but with a lot of distance. Since there are people who come from everywhere, it is still just one more place in the world where things happen. However, people at the university ask me questions, and sometimes they do not understand. You know, I’m in a place where independence has been experienced very differently...

The book is an amalgam of voices. We find the voice of the daughter, who speaks to her missing father. A voice that at the same time guesses at what her grandparents and other relatives must have thought during personal and historical changes. We also find passages from her father’s diary and, in between, her own thoughts on the inheritance of memory... You observe from many angles.

Yes, we often think that by speaking, we can access the past, but we can only reach the past through intuition; even the person who experienced it can never fully return. And this book makes that clear. I am a professor of Memory Studies and my intention has been to provide a sort of recollection of the different ways we have of storing memory. A way that is not linear. The structure is very well thought out.

What do you mean by “storing memory?”

Remembering. And remembering is also an act of loss, of mourning. In a way, this book is also a search for inner peace, not escape from the past.

It must have been a long process...

I spent many years writing it, but intensely for three and a half. I was given grants to help me and I was at the Farrera Centre for Art and Nature and the Faber Residency in Olot. In 2016 my father died. Before he died, I had given him the manuscript. Then I found a note inside: “I read to page 30.” I think it is better that he did not read the whole thing, because it is personal to me, despite his major role in it. I had to stop writing for a year because of his death, but also for psychoanalytical reasons. I needed to get away from the story. What belongs to me is a legacy, but not an experience.

I once heard you say: “We always, constantly, say the same things about memory. It’s time we strip down a bit.” Did you want to do this in your book?

It seems to me that we look back to events in the recent past with set categories: the winners, the losers... We approach without any nuance, and being an anarchist is not the same as a left-wing republican: they are different things. It seems to me that we continue to impose the same limitations. People like Javier Cercas, for example, have dared to talk about his family’s Francoist past, but that does not happen often. Sons and daughters, grandchildren, we have not talked much in the third person.

Shared memories of war are often used as highly malleable political material. Do you think it distorts the past?

I do not think it’s right. We have to question this habit of explaining the past according to the present. The present is a consequence of the past. We must always make an effort to go back. Even in perceptions. People before did not give off the same smell as we do today, for example. Those are efforts that are added to the conception of events. History is not linear. So, I don’t think it’s all right. I would ask for us to think deeper about our relationships with the past. For example, the book also talks about the anarchist exile of 1929. Nobody ever speaks about this exile! Where did it end up? It makes me think that it is very difficult to rediscover the history of anarchism. It’s too revolutionary, it questions many things, it’s a utopia that I see that it is not being discussed.

You have occasionally spoken of “the skin’s memory.” Where does this term come from?

This is a term that I owe to Charlotte Delbo, an Auschwitz prisoner and survivor who speaks of this sensitive memory of small things, which disappears when the witness dies. Jorge Semprún said: “What will happen when the last person who remembers the smell of burned flesh is gone?”

A well-known foreigner told me: “You notice that you have suffered a war in Catalonia, because you do that thing where you rub bread with tomato to take advantage of it.” Do you think we have collective or individual tics or customs that we inherited from the war?

Of course! The obsession with food, with not catching a cold, that our grandparents had regarding us surely comes from their own suffering as children in the war. And we have inherited that and projected it onto the next generations. This means that something is circulating, certainly from the dictatorship. Or, why do we get ready so early before reaching our station on the underground train? In most cities, people only stand up when the train has stopped. There is an exaggeration in our haste that isn’t normal. Maybe I’m wrong. In Europe, nearly all the generations for centuries are and have been affected by war, so the question, which is framed in Catalonia, also exceeds the Catalan sphere. Europe is a continent of war; there are very few generations that have not experienced one.

In your writing, you do not make any forceful critiques or give prescriptions on how collective memory should be treated. You observe and show the gap between what is shown in a museum, tinged with some nostalgia, and what experiencing war is really like.

I just make observations. That’s true. It’s all I can do. But I would like to see a broader approach to the treatment of wars, or of memory, that is not so mythical, that is more real. We tend to think that in war people are crying all the time. But people also laugh during war. And they may laugh more exaggeratedly than when they assume that death is far off. I would like for us to be able to show and see all facets of the human experience in a situation like that.

Do you notice any significant difference between Catalan history museums and those in other countries? Is there anything that we lack or have too much of?

I think that all museums go a bit along the same path. Artists, however, probe more. They plumb the bottom of the issue and run along the edges. They speak plainly about how we see wars, genocide... And in this regard, I must say that the Exile Memorial Museum in La Jonquera is rather interesting, because it does not show much preference for showing the object, but rather the effect. It’s my favourite.

Would you recommend any museum in Barcelona?

We don’t have a war museum in Barcelona. Or one of more recent history. Yes, there are the bunkers. There is an exhibition now, called “Víctimes 1936-1945” [Victims 1936-1945], organised by Memorial Democràtic; but I do not like it when people who have experienced war are treated as victims instead of actors. I would have called it “Testimonials.”

You have lived in Barcelona, Paris and Toronto, always looking for a home. Do you think that a good part of your personal career is due to loyalty to your family, always on the move?

Yes, yes, you’re right. Sure. And it is also due to a historical loyalty to humanity. As soon as you look into history, into literature, you encounter the Holocaust, the Armenian or Balkan genocides... And now I’m reading about the Canadian memory of the Aboriginal Canadians. I think I’ll never tire of the subject. We are also working with a colleague on the history of African colonisation from Catalonia’s point of view, dealing with our responsibility for colonisation. We are looking for artists of African origin. I’m also starting another book on the history of the mother’s side of my family. I was so involved in my father’s side that Maria Bohigas, my publisher, only recently learned that my mother’s family is French!

Retrat de Marta Marín-Dòmine © Albert Armengol © Albert Armengol

Was the decision to take off, to flee, to live abroad that you made on a beach when you were little, as you say in the book, a strictly personal desire or could it be linked to a possible generational mark?

I think this subject has not been explored much either. But the previous generation, as Montserrat Roig explains very well, lived in the time of the hippies, when the world started to shrink. I’m sure there is a generational imprint in my background. I wrote a brief article called “Flors al Pol Nord” [Flowers in the North Pole], because writing in Catalan abroad is like hoping for flowers in the North Pole... (laughs). In the article, I ask what those of my generation went off to do. I went because I got detoured. I adored my father. But loving your father too much can be dangerous. So, I put the sea between us¾the ocean! I know French and I went to English-speaking Canada. I had to study French philology and I work in English philology... I therefore made an effort to separate myself. And it was only when I got away, going to the other side of the world, that I could read the diaries written by my father, who I would later introduce in the book bit by bit.

“I would have liked to protect you from the pain of the past,” you say to your father. Is your book a homage, a search for justice?

It is a homage to my father, yes. But in this book I have also tried to pay great tribute to the bodies that never end up falling. And I have tried in my writing to gather them. I had the photo of Capa’s soldier very much in mind, suspended as he falls forever, meaning that for us he never did fall... At first, the book was titled No tots els cossos cauen a la mateixa velocitat [Not all bodies fall at the same speed], which was in reference to that.

There is one topic you do not talk about: a bad conscience. Did you have one, by getting away from your relatives?

Yes, sure, I’ve had a bad conscience. I enjoy the pleasure of travelling that I have experienced and the immense feeling of not belonging to anything or anyone. I’ve made friends, and for me this has been a source of freedom... But I did have a bad conscience and it grew as my parents got older and sicker.

Reading your book, I occasionally felt a slight bashfulness, descending into the life of another person. This was lessened by the fact that there was talk of a shared war and exile. You write: “He says that all wars are always our war.” How would you define your book? As an essay? As a fictionalised autobiography?

I tried to create a mix. On the one hand, I presented a stripped-down experience. On the other, I had to learn to be modest. And to be emotional at the same time, through short and sincere sentences intended to deliver without great flourishes. Strangely enough, many people do not like fictionalised autobiographies... I am a great lover of French fictionalised autobiographies. I like this genre because I think it combines the art of showing yourself and the social environment. Yes, authors in this genre speak of something very personal, but they are well aware that it is due to a social or political situation: displacement, marginalisation, historical events. And yet they do not write chiefly about this social situation, but about their experience. And that is what enables minor authors like me to write and share things.

On the book’s dust cover, it doesn’t say anything about you. Nothing about the other books you published, not your age… Was that intentional?

Yes, it was intentional. In Canada, they don’t disclose any personal information about their authors. The less information, the better. That is interesting. They do it to protect authors from discrimination, like from prejudice that they are too young or too old, for example. It’s sad, but prejudice exists.

How come we’re not tired of so many books about the Spanish Civil War?

I think that deep down, we know very little about it. There have been few direct eyewitness accounts, partly because there were many illiterate people who could not leave a reliable account, partly because many embarked on the path to exile... In brief, we know little about it and our relatives never spoke about it, regardless of what side they were on, because civil wars are really brutal. What weighs on them is shame. I have many friends in the Balkans and the conflict is still going on now. I feel badly for them. The people of the Balkans are those who tell me the most often that Catalonia must stop dreaming of independence, that the price that we will pay

Could you tell me an object, a word or a memory that means “home” to you?

I’m not a collector, but the object would be the watch that my grandfather bought when he arrived in Besiers. The memory would be the summer nights of my childhood and the voice of Charles Aznavour. But I have trouble with the idea of “home.” It’s tough for me. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have written his book.

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