Sergi Pàmies

A literary truth

Satellite picture of the Namib desert, Namibia. © Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office.Climate change is a literary genre. Its decline is discussed at international forums and news items dealing with its existence lead us to believe it will end in disaster. Just like the novel. Just like literature in general. Just like all the languages in which novels in particular, and literature in general, are written.

The warming of the planet is one of the protagonists of this story of passion and indifference, an omniscient narrator, a tough unscrupulous character who is capable of getting involved in the spreading of unbearable droughts and at the same time melting polar ice caps. This is not just any old protagonist. It has the power to make us feel guilty because, just like literature and Frankenstein, it is man-made.

Climate change mixes elements of historical fiction but, in many of its aspects, it is pure science-fiction. We know how it started but, from then on, the argument has been lost in experimental digressions peculiar to the nouveau roman or to magic realism. After all, the rising of the sea level, flooding regions and countries, was predicted in the Bible and, most recently, by Gabriel García Márquez. As far as the rise in temperatures and changes in eating habits are concerned, these were already announced by the best science-fiction without the need for marketing directors as apparently efficient as Al Gore.

Al Gore is to climate change what Harold Bloom is to literature. He defines the canons, exerts his influence in the community of experts and creates messages that are propagated throughout the planet with the potency of an epidemic. Physically, though, Bloom and Gore bear no similarity. The former could be the king of a fictional autarchic nation (first cousin Orson Welles), while the latter looks like a brilliant printer manufacturer addicted to cosmetic facial treatments. For the reader of this story, the hooks of the argument are multiplied. CO2 emissions, for example, are a fascinating character. Invented by humankind, stimulated by its unbridled wish for ambition and enrichment, they have finished off global equilibrium and are threatening to alter the biosphere. The character’s potency, moreover, is visualised in perfect metaphors, which are graphically aggressive and carry a high dramatic charge, namely industrial chimneys spitting out of their stacks into the virgin skies or traffic jams multiplying the evil of millions of exhaust pipes.

Satellite picture of the Vatnajöküll glacier, Iceland. © Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office.Another one of my favourite characters is the glacier, which is cracking up, after having resisted for thousands of years. We’ve witnessed the scene hundreds of times on television. The compact glacier, a son, grandson and great-grandson of glaciers, limited by a natural pedestal of clean and icy water and an eternally blue sky, cracks and collapses noisily with pain, drama and impotence. In slow motion, backed with a tendentiously depressive soundtrack, the image conveys even more pain. The scene is part of our nightmares and we have a right to suspect that someone has taken charge of repeating the same scene over and over, just like in the best crime fiction intrigues, to divert or manipulate the elements of a crime that all of us may have committed. We take delight in watching the scene again and we miss a few penguins jumping desperately and in a disciplined manner into the sea, undoubtedly to complete the sensation of choreographed suicide.

Climate change is insatiable. Its narrative structure is cannibalistic. It needs to devour itself to maintain the levels of intrigue, anxiety and hope that are worrying a number of readers to an ever increasing extent. At the beginning we ignored it. Someone spoke to us about climate change, but we didn’t attach any importance to it. However, as happens with the best of characters, it continued to impose its power of seduction, closer to that of the villains than the heroes. There it is, growing day by day, playing with our fears and keeping us on tenterhooks, invading our placid and egotistical bouts of squandering. Like the best books, it compels us to take notice of its successive evolutions, and it seduces us with new turns of argumentation, always more complex than the ones before, and always more surprising.

Satellite picture of the Dasht-e Kevir desert, Iran. © Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office.Desertification, for example, what a grand character! Thanks to computer technology, we are able to visualise its devastating effects. It holds us in its spell, compelling us to view the screen without a single blink. In general, we see a peaceful city on a sunny day. People are walking the streets. Birds are singing. Mortgages are paid punctually. Council work teams collect the rubbish previously chosen by its citizens. Everything seems to be normal. Then, all of a sudden, a voiceover, with a pseudo-scientific emphasis and the melodrama of a medical specialist announcing a tumour, tells us that, due to the desertification caused by climate change, the city will be left scorched by an implacable sun and temperature levels that will force us to change our way of life. And then, after a flash of special effects, we see the same city fried like a rib on a barbecue, singed by its own excesses, a victim of the climate’s fury. In these fictitious reconstructions of future disasters, you never see a disgusting, corrupt city, a kind of dark and degenerate Gotham City saved by warming of the planet. It wouldn’t be commercial and it wouldn’t have the worrying attraction of a catastrophe or the sensationalism of the best arguments found in bestsellers. If we went to see a film producer and were to tell him we wanted to tell the story of a climate change that was to improve living conditions instead of causing harm, he would tell us that isn’t likely, that he wouldn’t spend money on that and that popcorn-devouring adolescents would never pay to see a horror film that doesn’t scare people.

Satellite picture of a whirlpool cloud above the sea between Morocco and Spain. © Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office. Climate change never falls in love. This type of character put aside sentiments a long time ago. Readers are tired of sentimentalism and romanticism and adore the implacable types who don’t let anything stand in their way and who get ahead despite the obstacles. And there he is, incessantly furnishing negative statistics, multiplying their effects to refute any positive interpretation, throwing meat to the lovers of strong, sordid and desperate stories. What’s more, it is a novel that never ends. It began with small anecdotes but, slowly, we began to see that the drama was greater, that it was everywhere, and spreading its tentacles further than the eye could see. If you fight it, it rebuilds its strength. If you try to deceive it, it rebels. Not even Steven Spielberg could film it. If he did, we would see entire populations looking out the window and from their expression we would guess that it was all about an impossible to describe monster and that the only thing we knew about it was the fear it causes and the terror it suggests. No one would try to flee because, no matter where you go, climate change will find you, it will get inside you, it will rape your children and parents, it will steal your savings, destroy your possessions and convert you into what you are, a frightened being who is fearful of the weather forecast.

Climate change is a form of likely fear. There are others, and all of them are justified with more or less scientific arguments. One of the luxuries of our era is that fears are multiplied. In the Asterix and Obelix books, the only fear is that the sky might fall on the Gauls’ heads. It is the first antecedent of intimidating climate change. The peculiar thing about climate change is that it gets involved in other fears. If at one time we were afraid of dying or going bankrupt, nowadays we overrefine those fears, thinking that we are going to die of thirst and that we will go bankrupt because droughts and typhoons will destroy our possessions. There are images that confirm this. Just look at New Orleans and Burma. Television will be there to gather all the images which, duly manipulated, will feed the environmental terror industry. Is this justified? But of course. A very large number of truths are spoken in the name of public dissemination and education but, what is more, they are dipped in the breadcrumbs of vested interests. How do you frighten a sceptical and distrustful population? By exaggerating even more and with the talent of someone like Stephen King, allowing the symptoms of alarm to creep in through less perceptible crannies of everyday life. One morning, Gregor Samsa will wake up transformed into an enormous cockroach and, instead of reflecting on his existential mutation, will think he is a product of environmental change. Proust will go to bed early because the time lost will pass his window in the form of a cyclone or desertification. Thomas Mann will not find a place in a single health resort because someone will have discovered that, deep down, the thermal waters are pollutants. Climate change is not only a certainty. It is also an industry. It functions according to the whims of supply and demand and will soon be quoted on the stock exchange. Its market is infinite because we all need to consume it, gain access to its delights so as to feel guilty and lug around with us a bad conscience that turns us into docile taxpayers, disciplined voters and exemplary fathers and husbands.

Satellite picture of the southern coast of France. © Image courtesy of USGS National Center for EROS and NASA Landsat Project Science Office.Sometimes, when the storm of disaster news gets more severe, I go out into the street and take a walk. I see the trees, the sun and the blue sky, and I begin to sweat, which is something we have always done in the Mediterranean region. I see a girl eating an ice-cream, a woman showing off her nice legs and an adolescent putting the equilibrium of his skateboard to the test. I remember when, years ago, the sun was a synonym of joy. We all wanted the sun to come out and we associated beaches, parties until the early morning hours and dips in the sea by the light of the moon with it. Today, the sun is an enemy because, with its power, it reminds us of the environmental mistakes that have been made. Rain, by contrast, which has always been considered a nuisance and a hindrance to life in this corner of the planet, is enjoying ever increasing prestige. Blackmailed by the messages of diviners and preachers, every time it rains we go out and applaud, instead of getting angry, and we consult the Internet to find out how full the reservoirs have become. So, before being a sun-lover becomes a crime, I want to say it one more time, loud and clear: I love good weather, the sun, heat and the Mediterranean climate.

Sergi Pàmies,
Catalan author

Translation: Matrix Communications AG
Copyright: Süddeutsche Zeitung 2008


    © Frankfurter Verlagsanstalt
    Sergi Pàmies (*1960 in Paris/France) is a Catalan-writing author. In addition, he works as a translator and for several feature pages and literature magazines. In 1971, he came to Barcelona where he still lives today. Sergi Pàmies has published several collections of stories and novels including You should be ashamed of yourself (1987) and If you eat a lemon without making grimaces (2006). The novel The first stone (1990) won the Ícaro award in 1991. With the collection of stories The great novel about Barcelona (1997), which won the critics' award Serra d'Or in 1998, Sergi Pàmies had his first international success.