Photo by Pep Herrero
How would you arrange a meeting of 42 writers, probably all under police surveillance? Why, hire a bus, of course, and have the meeting on-board. That is how PEN Català held a meeting of its members in 1973 to avoid the Franco government’s intervention and reprisals.
PEN Català was founded in April 1922 to preserve the Catalan language and literature by Pompeu Fabra, the author of the first Catalan dictionary that helped to standardise the language. Fabra’s move came only months after the original PEN organisation (now known as PEN International) had been formed in London. PEN—which stands for poets, playwrights, editors, essayists and novelists—was created to protect writers and writing; the latter from censorship and government bans, the former from imprisonment, torture and death. In the Twenties, PEN Centres sprang up all over Europe, South and North America as European freedoms began to be threatened by dictatorial regimes.
The need for such an organisation was almost immediately clear in Spain with the September 1923 coup of Primo de Rivera who banned the Catalan language and imposed censorship. However, these measures did not interrupt the activities of PEN Català, which continued to participate in international PEN events around Europe.
The political climate here changed dramatically in 1932 with the establishment of the Second Republic, which passed the Statute of Autonomy restoring Catalunya’s liberties. In 1935, despite difficult times, PEN Català hosted a congress for 165 representatives of PEN from five continents, including the German Centre, which was then located in London. HG Wells and Klauss Mann, Thomas Mann’s son, attended.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War left Catalan writers with no possibility for neutrality. Initially, many stayed in the country but the defeat of autonomous Catalunya and Republican Spain made prison and persecution a daily threat. One of the first actions of the Franco government was to outlaw the Catalan language, prohibiting all Catalan cultural organisations. PEN members weathered this time in exile in Paris, London, New York and capitals in South America but it was difficult to retain continuity in the organisation with such a scattered membership.
Cambridge history professor Doctor Batista i Roca, however, kept the club alive from his exile in the UK, and in 1956 he contacted writers in Europe and the Americas to reform the organisation. This nucleus of authors became active internationally in presenting the case of Catalan writers. In 1961, PEN Català reported that from 1947 to 1961, 424 Catalan newspapers and magazines were reduced to one publication, while the annual production of 750 books in Catalan before 1947 had been reduced to 80.
As Batista i Roca worked in exile, writers inside the country began to organise. In December 1965, a constitutional meeting of the standing committee and executive council was held secretly in Barcelona in a private home. In 1970, the First Popular Festival of Catalan Poetry was held in Barcelona. The spirit of PEN Català was reviving and in February 1973, the Reorganisation Assembly with 42 members was held on a bus that drove from Barcelona to L’Espluga de Francolí and back. From then on, monthly meetings were held, but not until 1983 did the organisation return to its historical home in the Ateneu Barcelonès.
Remembering the aid given to those in exile—clothes, food, apartments, legal assistance—current PEN Català members express their gratitude by inviting writers persecuted in their own countries to come to Barcelona. Sihem Bensedrine from Tunisia was hosted from 2010 to 2012 and PEN is presently hosting Basem Al-Nabriss from Palestine.
Some of the events commemorating the 90th Anniversary include a photo exhibition on censorship by Joan Fontcuberta at Arts Santa Mònica, from October 15th to November 15th. On the International Day of Imprisoned Writers (November 15th), a writer will receive the fourth Free Voice Award, given to someone who has faced, or is still facing, persecution due to their written work.