Pemán, a forgotten and “mediocre” writer whom the political dispute insists on resuscitating

There’s nothing like a political dispute for summer entertainment. And to resurrect figures who have been sleeping the sweet sleep of oblivion for decades. That is the majority opinion of the cultural scene in Cádiz, which in recent weeks has witnessed with perplexity the controversy caused by the withdrawal of several public reminders to the figure of José María Pemán (1897-1981), a writer who was famous and visible during Franco’s regime, but with the arrival of democracy came to occupy a marginal place in libraries, bookstores and educational institutions.

Nobody remembered Pemán, except perhaps his closest relatives, when last June the Cádiz City Council, in application of the Law of Historical Memory, removed a bust of the author, his name from the theatre in Parque Genovés and – what has been more controversial – the plaque on his birthplace, the work of the sculptor Juan Luis Vassallo. An action, the latter, which has been criticized by the Junta de Andalucía as the result of an “erroneous” interpretation of the law, since the purpose of the rule is to avoid “the exaltation of the military uprising, the war and the subsequent repression” and that “can damage the dignity of the victims”, something that does not happen with “a plate that merely indicates the birthplace of the Cadiz José María Pemán, in his capacity as a poet,” said the regional government.

The melon, in any case, was open. The consistory headed by José María González, “Kichi”, was willing once again to fight his battle in the urban street, in the wake of milestones more or less sounded as changing the name of the Avenida Juan Carlos I by the Public Health, or the stadium Ramón de Carranza-name of a mayor of the city of Cadiz between 1927 and 1931 in a first stage and in a second between 1936 and 1937, by New Mirandilla.

“Hierarch of fascism”.

This time it was Pemán’s turn, a figure with a life as long as controversial, who brings together in the same biography chilling harangues on the eve of the Civil War and conciliatory attitudes in his last years. José Pettenghi Lachambre, a teacher and writer close to Podemos, son of a soldier who fought with the rebels, wrote a column in which he referred to Pemán as “an organic intellectual”, “a hierarch of fascism”, “intellectual author of the purge of the national teaching profession”, whose public actions “he never apologised for. Even in 1971 he said that ‘the war was won by Spain’. Skilful and elusive, he went about writing his biograToday, a law orders the removal of their names from public space. Without revenge, without erasing or distorting the past. Just showing that history is built with its own materials”.

This column circulated through social networks, since according to Pettenghi, the media to which it was destined, the Diario de Cádiz, refused to publish it. “This motivates my decision to put an end to 17 years of collaboration” with this newspaper, the author added. An episode reminiscent of that experienced by the cartoonist Andrés Vázquez de Sola in the 1990s, when he ceased his collaboration with the same newspaper when the management refused to publish a caricature of Pemán as a tortoise whose shell was reminiscent in its geometries of swastikas.

Precisely in a sister paper of the Joly Group, Diario de Sevilla, on June 18, journalist Luis Sánchez-Moliní lashed out against the Cadiz City Council, pointing out its “smallpox of sectarianism and systematic use of historical lies” for the removal of the plaque, and praised Pemán as “probably the best Andalusian columnist of his time”. And he added: “If the Junta de Andalucía had any cultural blood in its veins, this would be the moment to republish the complete works of José María and place them in all the public libraries of the community”.

The Junta has not gone as far as this, but this Monday it celebrated in the Oratorio de San Felipe de Cádiz an act of atonement presided over by the Minister of Culture, Patricia del Pozo. In this tribute, Del Pozo stressed “the values of generosity and harmony” that represents the author from Cadiz and that “embody much of the spirit of today’s Spain”. “We are paying tribute, despite whoever it may concern, to a distinguished writer who took Cadiz and Andalusia to gala and who was in love with his homeland and who fought and dreamed for the restoration of the Monarchy and constitutional democracy,” said the counselor, who announced in passing the upcoming annual meeting “Letters for Concord” which hopes to have the support of the families of Pemán and Rafael Alberti.

Three Pemanes

What do the experts think? Ana Sofía Pérez-Bustamante, professor at the University of Cádiz, responsible for the anthology 24 cuentos de José María Pemán and the Biblioteca Pemán (eight volumes of selected works), considers that before this controversy the author of El divino impaciente and El Séneca “was not read”, and with regard to the idea of reediting his complete works, she shrugs her shoulders. “To a large extent it’s just rubbish. With hisor historical interest, but largely anachronistic even in its time”.

Bustamante defines the character as “someone who began writing with public notoriety as a publicist linked to the National Catholic Association of Propagandists, whose values he always defended, although with a before and after the Second Vatican Council”. “Basically we find three different Pemanes: one, the political agitator of the 30’s, of terrible memory. Two, the religious and sentimental propagandist, sometimes well-intentioned but very obsolete. And finally, the ironic observer of customs and habits, the acute chronicler of back rooms, who is witty, funny, brilliant, although it can be difficult to separate him from the other two”. Bustamante understands that the argument to remove the name of the Pemán theatre is due to the fact that “he was one of the voices that incited the national-Catholic right to rebel, although in time he rectified it. But this is like everything else, the biography of a person can be used as we want,” he says.

“The removal of the plaque, however, seems petty to me, because whether Pemán wants to or not, he belongs to the history and heritage of Cádiz, which he always took care of. Waging a battle against such a dead man is demagogic and opportunistic”. And he regrets that, apparently, “there is no way to close the civil war as it should be, with decorum and symbolic justice for the victims. All this is sterile and tiresome”.

Ripios and clichés

“Ignorance and sectarianism” is how the Sevillian writer Juan Lamillar, who was in charge of the edition of Pemán’s Literary Silhouettes, sums up the removal of the plaque from his birthplace. He recognizes that “in the war he was tremendous”, but “with time he evolved and became part of Don Juan’s private council, balancing between him and Franco. Did he have a fascist period? Yes, he did. Perhaps he never became a hundred percent democrat, but in his evolution he was a figure similar to Dionisio Ridruejo, because people evolve”.

Defender of Pemán’s articles as the most salvageable of his production, “with magnificent portraits of the situations and people he had known”, Lamillar believes that all this controversy “is like what happened in Seville with Agustín de Foxá, that the next day the few works he had published were sold out, and then silence again”.

The Cadiz poet José Ramón Ripoll remembers meeting Pemán when he was young. “He was very kind to me, but I was looking for voices to help me find my way, and what I found in him were clichés and platitudes”.

“The City Council of Cadiz has uncovered Pandora’s box. Pemán was forgotten and now the Pemanians, and also people who didn’t give a damn about Pemán, have taken him as a political banner. All in all, I trust that it will be a one-day flower, because beyond the tributes, this has no chance whatsoever. Not even the people who liked the writer have gone to these events, because the electioneering can be smelt by the nose”, he adds.

Ripoll also recognizes that Pemán went from writing texts of terrifying ferocity in the 1930s – with calls for the cleansing of the “enemy” even after the end of the war – to showing a conciliatory profile at the end of his life, reflected in the famous photo of the 1981 carnival, next to a poet in his ideological antipodes, Rafael Alberti. “He would not have liked to be in the middle of this political battle,” he says.

“The Hispanic race”.

It is no less true that Pemán was defended, before and after his death by young and progressive writers to whom he lent his support, such as Fernando Quiñones, “and that he had wives of Republican prisoners and widows of those who had been shot hired in his house, without really working, with the sole purpose that they could get a pension,” Ripoll points out.

“The City Council has done its duty by applying the Law of Historical Memory, but could have been more tactical,” Ripoll continues. “The plaque did not bother anyone, because what was paying tribute was the literary figure, not political. It could have removed the allusion to the ‘excellent singer of the Hispanic race’, but Rubén Darío also speaks of the Hispanic race in some poems, and we are not going to go around erasing them”.

The truth is that no literature manual of the last 50 years refers to the figure of Pemán, and no teacher in his right mind dares to compare his work with that of the poets of ’27, who were his age. Even so, Ripoll assures us that “he doesn’t arouse any feelings of animosity in me. More than historical memory, it will be our own memory that will make us forget such a mediocre work”.

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