We are funny people. We often question our Spanishness, and some of us abominate the very name of Spain. Yet we are so rooted here, it's almost sick. The other day on television I saw a video, in the tone of a Christmas ad for champagne or candy, in which some youngish Spaniards who have been working abroad make a surprise trip home and embrace their progenitors amid shouts and tears. You would think they had returned from 20 years on Devil's Island. An American wouldn't know what the fuss was about.
Nor, I think, would many other nationalities, including those who come here illegally in small boats at great risk to their lives. But Spaniards seem to think they have better reason for nostalgia about the homeland. Not long ago we saw a letter to the editor from a Spanish researcher who had had to go to the United States to find a job (at a prestigious center for research in his speciality). In spite of the aggrieved tone, I preferred to read it as a protest at the miserable budgets assigned to research in Spain, since I was unable to see going abroad as a personal tragedy. But the fact is, we just don't like the emigrant or ex-pat way of life.
Rootlessness produces a certain breed of human being: hard-edged, uncomplaining individualists from necessity
I am surprised at how we combine a habitual disgruntled attitude to our country, and unbearable homesickness when we're somewhere else. Do we miss our mothers? I think not. Since the invention of Skype, your mother can be too much on top of you, even when you're on the other side of the Atlantic. What we miss is a small world, which defines and supports us more than we care to admit. I have been thinking about this over the last few days in reading - more avidly than I have read anything for quite a while - the novel Canada, by Richard Ford.
I was entranced by the very first sentence, which dispels any component of suspense there might be in this story, narrated by one Dell Parsons, a teacher nearing retirement, who tells how his parents committed a holdup when he was 15 back in the 1960s. This changed his life and obliged him to take refuge across the border in Canada. The heart of the novel is the feeling of being uprooted. It conforms to a recurring pattern in American narrative: the young man who has to run from the system, who has to grow up in absolute solitude, building a personality in the absence of any parental references, facing untamed nature; the young man who becomes an adventurer against his will, under the force of circumstances; the young man who knows there is no room for surrender, and that life itself is an unending struggle, or as the Gospel puts it: Behold, I send ye forth as sheep in the midst of wolves, be ye therefore wise as serpents...
Against a local background of Montana and Saskatchewan, with an adolescent protagonist about whom we know nothing but what he tells us, Richard Ford replays an American epic of the sort that has always put the individual up against an adventure, with no safety net, in which the principal victory is living to be old enough to tell the tale. If the wide-open American spaces can no longer be understood without the films of John Ford, the rootlessness of this wild land is now explained in the novel of this other Ford, Richard.
Rootlessness produces a certain breed of human being: hard-edged, uncomplaining individualists from necessity, disaffected for reasons of pure survival, perpetual emigrants in their own country, inventors of a thousand lives within a single biography. Possibly none of us here, with our roots, would wish to exchange our fate for that of such an adventurer. But we have to realize that these wild existences, living under the open sky almost since the womb, do have some advantage in terms of living in a sort of Homeric epic.