Isabel San Sebastián: «There is an appetite to know history, people are fed up with having their past stolen from them»

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When we thought we were strong, almost safe, a pandemic shook many of our certainties. It is not the first time that happens, of course, and nothing better than learning from history. In that endeavor he lives and writes Isabel San Sebastian (Santiago de Chile, 1959), passionate about the history of Spain, who is investigating and narrating in fast-paced novels. After the success of «La peregrina» now presents “The bells of Santiago” (Plaza and Janés). It relates the aceifa of Almanzor against Santiago de Compostela in 997, which he subjected to pillage and from whose basilica he ordered the bells to be carried to Córdoba, in carts dragged by the prisoners.

-Why did you choose this era?

-Because after «La Peregrina», which takes place in the Compostela world that I like so much, I was missing this part of the story. An exciting, borderline, dangerous moment, fundamental to the history of Spain.

-What does the effort of the Reconquest show?

-That there is nothing worse than division. And nothing better, proven by history, than the union in a common project. It is a lesson to keep in mind. If Spain survived Almanzor, who carried out dozens of campaigns against the Christian kingdoms of the north, who plundered without limit and was a great slave owner, it was because we united. Let’s stay united because we can do everything.

-Sure, but your readers raise their heads from the book and watch the news …

– (Laughs) Yes, there is a lot of division now. But history teaches that: that in times of uncertainty and division, unity is the only lifeline. I write the novel to entertain and because I love the history of Spain. And so that not everything is as worrying as it is perceived in the news. Spanish politics exhausts me, and that analyzing it is my profession, I do it in the columns of ABC. The story is always fun and well narrated entertains.

-Interesting to look at both sides of a border with the novel.

-Of course, essential to avoid simplifications. On both sides there were good people, I have always thought that there is a huge majority of decent people. There are always fewer brave people who are willing to defend their convictions or principles. But I think it’s better to take that step, because no one gets away with trying to hide. In the end, the story shows that one cannot hide or try not to affect something, because it ends up catching up with you. And if she has to come, let her catch us standing up, defending our convictions.

-It hurts to know that books were destroyed on both sides …

-It is that on both sides there are also miseries and pettiness. Of course, because the border is not marked by one religion or another, but by intolerance. In both cultures there were cultivated people, but intolerance and barbarism always end up manifesting as well.

-Intolerance without borders, yes. Still current. In front of her she puts these strong characters, like Tiago, the protagonist …

-Yes, he is not the typical hero, but somehow he becomes the hero because of his strength and his courage. In fact, he is a character that abounded at that time and on that frontier. He is born as a servant but his feelings and actions are noble, which is why he resembles a hero.

-In the border there is nothing simple, everything has a romantic complexity.

– Immense complexity. In my novel it is perceived with the double scenario: Al Andalus count is the captive and the northern kingdoms where his wife, Mencía, takes refuge. When it comes to empowered women, I laugh at the current empowerment compared to those women. The Asturians and the heirs to that rich matriarchal tradition of the entire Corniche were empowered. Think that Spain is a nation made of multiple different scraps, which converged in a common company. If there was a common undertaking, it was the Reconquest, from the Asturian and Basque struggle to the conquest of Granada, passing through a very wide border sieve of free people. I believe that the struggle on the border has shaped the Spanish soul of free and untamed people.

-Let’s continue with the women and Mencía …

-I believe a lot in the strength of women. I do not share the idea that they are trying to sell us now that we are helpless beings, in need of all kinds of protection or subjected. Maybe it’s because I’m Basque and I spend a lot of time in Asturias. My image of women is strong and independent, which is what I have experienced in my home and in my land. That spirit is in the novel, in all my novels and in the women of that region. Don’t let me be released.

-There are historians who deny that there was a Reconquest. What do you think?

– I think that frankly to come to amend the plan to ten centuries of historiography and to the reality is an idiot. The reality is that in 711 Musa crossed the strait and occupied almost the entire peninsula in less than two years with brutal force and imposed the payment of tributes. He signed submission pacts with some, like Hitler’s with Vichy. Others did not submit. That happened in Covadonga. There may not have been a great battle like the one mythologized, but there was a decisive skirmish, because it ended with the departure of the Muslim governor of Gijón. And there was never a Muslim governor again. Since then, he started a company to recover the territory, the law, the spirit, the capital in Toledo and the religion of Visigothic Spain. It was specified in explicit terms in the time of Alfonso III but it was conceived in the time of Alfonso II, with the creation of the Camino de Santiago and the implementation of the Visigothic protocol in Oviedo, it is a fact. They do not like to call it reconquest, because contemporaries, those who fought and were there, liked to call it that: recovery. From Visigothic Spain.

-It’s beautiful how the advance of the border incorporates the customs of the other.

-Even the Christians who fought metabolized what most attracted them to the Spain they reconquered. Not in the time of Almanzor, when they were barely surviving. Since Alfonso VI, the Christian kings themselves cultivated Muslim literature, learned the language, worked with translators, dressed in Moorish clothes, favored Mozarabic art. The Andalusian heritage was appreciated and was incorporated into the heritage. But they wanted to recover the territory and impose the Christian religion. At that time the concept of religious tolerance was not a hit.

– Do you have the impression that the right is more from Reconquista and the left from Al Andalus?

-It’s true, it’s like that. But I reject that history is politicized. History is not political, it is something else. You have to know it, assume it. You cannot judge past events with current criteria. What the current left does not like is Spain. Not like the Republican left or the one before it. Now it seems that being on the left implies not being a patriot because it is facile to feel pride in your history or your nation. And the right has certainly tried to patrimonialize the Reconquest, which belongs to everyone, because history belongs to everyone. It is a fact that, whether we like it or not, the Reconquest has left an indelible mark on the Spanish character and on the political configuration of Spain.

– Not even in Santiago it was safe around the year one thousand. Should we learn from that hidden fragility?

-Compostela had never been reached until Almanzor razed it. Everything is fragile, nothing is eternal. If someone had told Abderramán III that his legacy would end as it did, he would not have believed it. The same to Almanzor. You don’t have to take anything for granted, you have to fight every day as if it were your last. See if this dreadful pandemic has taught us that long-term plans are enough for one bug to break. History is full of lessons and we must learn from it, whoever does not know their history is condemned to repeat it, and not always as a farce, sometimes as drama, unfortunately.

– What a success the historical novel at this time. What does she attribute it to?

-Many people seek to know their own story and the novel brings excitement and intrigue. This rise of the historical novel responds to the appetite for learning about the history of Spain that has disappeared from textbooks. In the courses we give, there is a real desire to know. People are fed up with their past being stolen from them and not being allowed to identify with their history.

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