Originally published in ARA on 12 September 2013 Written by Albert Sánchez Piñol, the bestselling author of Victus, and other novels.
Many peoples have suffered defeat, others remember defeats as crucial moments in their histories. But I can't think of another case besides the Catalan one in which a disaster has been institutionalized and elevated to the status of a country's National Day. There are a lot of reasons for that. Normally, a military defeat implies the loss of an army, of two armies. The great Catalan defeats have meant—beyond the blood spilled—and here is where you can see the big difference—the loss of its institutions.
Let's admit it, reading our own history can generate—has generated, actually—a kind of loser's complex, to coin a phrase. That is, there is the tendency to irrationally assume that since one party has suffered defeats that it is condemned to always be on the losing side. And I would go further: from the loser's complex comes another thought: the conviction that if one suffers a defeat, it's because there was no avoiding it. This is a false perception. What history regulates are economic cycles, the rise and fall of great empires, but not specific events in one corner or other of the time and space continuum.
At any rate it's undeniable that 300 years ago Catalans suffered a hecatomb. And it was not to be the last. The problem is that history books have a tendency to explain the great battles, or the skirmishes of the powerful, rather than a series of miniscule, discrete, inscrutable sociological processes. Because there is another irrefutable fact: despite all of their defeats, Catalans have not disappeared. During three centuries they have been able to maintain and reproduce their culture and to integrate millions of individuals from other places at the same time. And they have done so peacefully. Victi vincimus say the classics. Conquered, we won. The great victory of the Catalans is that three hundred years later, they continue to be Catalans. We often overlook that fact. The loser's complex now keeps us from realizing this phenomenal collective success. Our defeats are the trees that keep us from seeing the forest of victory.
Recently, thanks to the efforts of the historian Toni Muñoz, we learned about one of those epic details of the seige of Barcelona of 1713-14 that still leaves us with a bitter memory. It turns out that shortly before the fall of Barcelona, General Villarroel sent his assistent, a guy named Martí Zuviria, abroad with the mission of convincing the Marquis de Poal to bring his troops into the city, since the Borbon attack might come at any moment. Poal refused, surely insisting that such an effort would be in vain. They argued so fiercely that even Zuviria's escorts decided not to return. At that moment, Zuviria was the garrison commander who knew, more than anyone else, that the city was condemned to defeat. What did he do? He returned to the city.
Over simplified, the pro-sovereignty process can be interpreted as a conflict between state and civic forces. That scenario allows for various shades of gray, of course: the Spanish State receives support from community-based organizations while the Catalan Government enjoys a certain institutional weight. But the essence is there. The basic impulse of the pro-sovereignty movement, its life breath, springs from the grass roots, while the principal obstacle to its demands are the institutions and apparatus of the Spanish State. A State that has all of the most powerful tools at its disposal. It has the power, a monopoly of strength, it has speakers, disciples, and disciples who can make themselves be heard. It has an immense panoply of resources for influencing individuals and groups. In contrast, these popular, civic forces that oppose the State have only their own bodies, their own will, and their ability to organize. As humans they make mistakes, they doubt, and they have limited resources.
Why did Zuviria return to Barcelona? We will never know. Probably out of loyalty to Villarroel, to certain specific individuals. I like to think that he returned for the same reasons that many people took part yesterday in the Catalan Way. He didn't do it because he had more or less faith in the victory of his cause, nor was he moved by some fanatic impulse, or to bother anyone. He went, simply, for the satisfaction, as humble and profound as that might be, that one gets when they know they're on the right side.