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Spring 2011

The Most Conceited of Cities

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Javier Marías

One of the innumerable ways of differentiating large cities would be to divide them into the boastful and the conceited, in the certain knowledge that there isn’t a city in the world that doesn’t fit one of those two categories. It might seem, at first sight, that the categories are too alike, inhabit the same semantic area—that the frontier between them is too blurred and therefore pointless. For me, though, there is a big difference, which has to do above all with character, because ultimately it is character, far more than the look of a place or the customs of its inhabitants, that leaves its mark on you as visitor and stays with you when you leave.

Boastful cities tend to be insecure, child-like, and chatty (even vociferous), unenigmatic and exhausting, impatient places eager for praise and in a hurry to captivate. If you don’t watch out, they’ll take you off on a tour, or plunge you into the hustle and bustle, and thus not allow you, as a visitor, to go poking around on your own account and at your own pace; they’ll try by every means possible, however disrespectful or loutish, to impose their own wishes on anyone who dares to tread their streets. In other words, they try to draw you in, to subdue and overwhelm you. Boastful cities like Paris or Rome or Madrid are completely changed by the presence of foreigners, not so much because they rely on them (if that were the case, they wouldn’t be so boastful), but because they simply cannot leave them in peace to do their own thing. It could be said that the only reason they pay them any attention at all is in order to intoxicate, stun, befuddle, and even corrupt them as much as possible. Their boastfulness definitely has a totalitarian streak: they don’t allow for difference or even distance, for impartiality or the cool spectator’s eye. They are all-pervading and require wholehearted commitment: they demand it, and yet they are the ones doing the committing.

Barcelona, on the other hand, is the most conceited city I know. Even more so than San Sebastián or London, even more than New York or Venice. This category of city shares with the boastful category a belief in its utter uniqueness, either for some specific reason or as a whole. Nevertheless, the attitude and character of conceited cities isn’t just different, it’s diametrically opposite. They are far surer of themselves, and therefore lazier. They are also more enigmatic, more reserved, and more elusive. True, they couldn’t live without praise, but they prefer envy. They like to hold back, to appear unassailable, knowing that there will always be people wishing to assail them. They never do anything for the visitor; they don’t even bother or pester you. And, unlike boastful cities, they put up with you as a thing apart and resist any show of commitment or adherence. They are conscious of bestowing a great honor on visitors, and expect this to be duly repaid not just with compliments, but with amazement and unconditional surrender.

What makes Barcelona an even more conceited city than its colleagues is that, surprisingly and singularly, it doesn’t even go to the trouble of embarking on the elegant and discreet task of attracting visitors—which, however passive, is still a task. San Sebastián seems to be always dressed to the nines in case some unexpected visitor should call, mindful that there is always a chance it might be seen; London betrays its chronic nervousness and coquetry in its conservatism and the ban it has imposed on changing anything, like those people who refuse to alter their hairstyle because they once made a memorable conquest while sporting the one they have; New York attracts by cultivating an ever closer resemblance to the preconceived image one has of it, gleaned from the movies; Venice not only never changes a single brick, it spends all its time gazing at itself as if there were nothing else to do in the world, thus redoubling the attention lavished upon it anyway. Meanwhile, Barcelona appears somehow unaware of its attractive qualities, or else is simply much better at pretending, and that is what makes it the most conceited of cities. This greater presumption consists not only in never even thinking of soliciting the admiration or respect of others, but—unlike those other cities—in never even appearing to expect it.

That is why Barcelona can, at certain moments and in certain ways, seem a lukewarm or even inhospitable city. I have always seen it, rather, as an excessively modest, overly respectful place, possessed of the kind of conceit you can sense, but which barely reveals itself, or so very bashfully that it appears to be receiving any flattering remarks unwillingly, patiently, and with a stiff smile, as if it were a trial that had to be endured in order not to appear impolite. Or perhaps its conceit is a purely internal affair: it is far more interested—possibly uniquely so—in securing the devotion of its own offspring, and whether or not this is accompanied by the devotion of visitors is of secondary importance. What could be more conceited than someone who truly values only his own opinion, or has such a lofty idea of himself that his own approval is the only approval he wants?

If one described a person in such terms, he would seem narcissistic or, worse, self-absorbed. And yet the attitude and character of Barcelona is, in my view, neither of those things. It is, I feel, more to do with focus, self-discipline, and reserve, like someone immersed in an experiment or some task of great consequence. It is, for example, the only Spanish city (of those I know) that seems to take its own traditions, fiestas, and customs perfectly seriously and unironically: on St. George’s Day, its inhabitants buy a rose or a book, and on St. John’s Night, they eat coca de San Juan (a traditional kind of cake containing candied fruit and pine nuts). And they do this simply because they still think it’s a good thing to do, regardless of whether anyone else knows that they’re doing it, and never in a spirit of parody or exhibitionism or twee folkloricism, as happens almost everywhere else nowadays with celebrations that have their origins in the past.

This idea of doing things even though no one else knows about them provides a useful measure of the city’s reserved nature. If one of the ways by which one judges the spirit of a place and its preoccupations is by looking at the kind of shops that proliferate there, Madrid—where I was born and still live—is notable for the crazy abundance of ostentatious banks and filthy drinking dives, alternating with bureaucratic buildings, restaurants, cafés, bars, and pseudo-taverns, all of them pretty filthy too. It is notable, in short, for the vulgar display of money and of public and street life, the latter in the form of food and drink. In Barcelona, though, one finds a strange proliferation of shops catering to numismatists and philatelists, along with cake shops and grocery stores which are known there as colmados (and in my own city of Madrid are called by the more anachronistic and visionary term ultramarinos). This speaks of a society of consumers and accumulators, but one that does its consuming and accumulating in private: the cakes are usually taken home, as are any purchases made in the colmados, and collecting is a very personalized form of accumulating, a very private, individualistic form, not to be confused with anyone else’s. One could say that Barcelona is a place in which not everyone aspires to doing and owning the same things, as is generally the case in the rest of Spain, but in which people aspire to do and own what really interests them—or, more than that, what is unique to them. Not that there is a complete lack of competitive spirit; it simply has its roots in the diverse and the secret, as if Barcelona’s inhabitants were aware that the most enviable things are always those whose nature one cannot quite grasp. This is one of the reasons why they are anything but boastful: because telling others what one has achieved or what one owns will only make it easier for those others to do the same, since they will then know what they’re looking for, which is always the first step to getting anything. To my mind, the behavior of its citizens can also be attributed to the city, which does not compare itself with others or worry about what they might or might not do; rather, it follows its own course. There is something almost autistic about this attitude, as if the city knew that curiosity about the outside world can also constitute a threat and a danger: after all, it’s very difficult to see without being seen.

The various barrios of Barcelona are all quite different, but they mostly share that same suspicious, self-sufficient spirit: the elegant houses in the upper part of the city and the Ramblas, Poble Nou and the Ensanche, San Gervasio and Sarrià, the barrio gótico and Gracia. This partly has to do, I think, with something so obvious that no one takes much notice of it: Barcelona is a city on a hill, easy to find one’s way around, but in which the view ahead is constantly being interrupted, thus creating the impression of a compartmentalized city, rather than of a continuous, controllable, predictable space; it seems, instead, a perpetual unknown, a permanent secret. I recall the feeling of expectation and unease I always get when I’m walking up some narrow, unfamiliar street—Castañer, for example, which, absurdly, rises perpendicular to the slopes one knows have every right to be steep, those that go from sea to mountain and from mountain to sea. This hill, like many others, is so steep that, even though you know from experience what awaits you at the top, you nevertheless walk up it as if you were climbing some unknown peak or the scaffold. That’s how it is in Barcelona: you can’t always see where you’re going; in fact, you see very little, and when you do get a glimpse of some expanse, some landscape, it’s the slope of Tibidabo with its excellent observatory, closing off the horizon as if there were nothing beyond, or at any rate nothing more interesting.

However, it isn’t just the famous boundaries imposed by sea and mountain that make the city an enclosed space. Barcelona simply is a very self-contained place that prefers not to display itself. That is why, even for someone like myself, who lived there for three years and is therefore not a mere visitor, it is a somewhat indecipherable city, although without being hostile or inhospitable. This is not (although it certainly helps) because Barcelonians keep both their houses and their collections away from prying eyes and rarely invite people back, nor because half the population have hanging over them the fictitious cloud of those who believe they have for centuries been the victims of injustice and insults, nor that the other half (especially the Andalusians) behave like those fathers or fathers-in-law up from the country who don’t know where to put themselves or how to spend their time when they visit their urban sons or daughters-in-law, nor what to make of hobbies or pastimes that seem to hark back to a bygone age: mountain-climbing and hiking, dancing the sardana in the middle of the street, or the aforementioned philately and numismatics. In contrast to all this are such things as the frenzied daily life of the streets, which betrays the city’s southernness; the possibly feigned innocence, which nevertheless dispels the cloud hanging over the half of the population that feels offended and brings a gleam to their eye; the variety of physical types, which is essential to any large modern city if it is to feel breathable; and the pleasure in hobbies and pastimes that look to the future: music, books, handsome restaurants and bars, cocktails, graphic art (it’s a place where you pause to consider the signs above the shops).

What is indecipherable and enigmatic about Barcelona comes more from that all-pervading introspection: the city looks at itself and neither expects anything nor learns anything apart from what it invents. Each shop or business aims to be different, and the best way to achieve this is to ignore all the others. The city’s inhabitants establish and jealously guard their respective territories; they avoid mixing or even meeting. I remember saying elsewhere that however many people you see in the streets of Barcelona (and sometimes you see a lot, although never any bains de foule), one always has the sense, tinged with certainty, that inside those inaccessible houses there must be even more people, occupied perhaps in devouring cakes or arranging and studying the stamps and coins in which the city abounds. The most intriguing aspect, though, is that one should feel obliged to imagine such strange, unlikely activities, because otherwise there is only a blank or an empty space in one’s imagination (what the devil are they up to?), populated only by the literary shadows of unscrupulous financiers and scrupulous anarchists intent on their machinations—both of which are ghosts from the past.

For the visitor, Barcelona, especially at night, is like the shop-windows at Christmas for Dickensian children. The lights in the houses don’t illuminate, even dimly, the passerby looking in from outside; instead, they emphasize the darkness in which he stands and ponders the hidden worlds whose unfathomable existence those lights proclaim. Perhaps that is the greatest possible act of conceit: announcing your presence from afar, but being so confident of your own charms that you feel no need to show yourself.

(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)

Javier Marías, one of Spain's most eminent novelists, is the author of Your Face Tomorrow, All Souls, A Heart So White, Dark Back of Time, and numerous other books of fiction and nonfiction. His regular translator, Margaret Jull Costa, won the 2010 Premio Valle-Inclán for her translation of Poison, Shadow and Farewell, which is the third volume of Your Face Tomorrow.

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