L’Espagnole is a novel about an old Spanish widow whose life story unites people of different nationalities and migration paths
L’Espagnole is a novel that comes from the urgency to give voice to and recognize the beauty of the lives of migrants, the richness and vitality of their existence. The book is Raffaella Greco Tonegutti's first novel. Born in Rome in 1979, a degree in contemporary history in Rome and in African Studies at the Sorbonne University in Paris, she is a consultant at the European Commission on migration and human rights.
The story is set in Brussels, in the house of Isabel, an old Spanish widow who, in order to get by, hosts youth of different nationalities: Spanish, Greek and Portuguese. And then arrives Maddalena who comes from Italy where she has just come out of a badly ended relationship. The novel revolves around the story of Isabel, who tells about her and her husband Pablo's story. Both had migrated from Franco's Spain. Her memory becomes an instrument to connect the tenants of the house, it is a bridge that encourages dialogue, that same dialogue which is discouraged outside of the house, in a Brussels that speaks only with the coldness of its landscapes without people. From early on Maddalena is captured by Isabel's story, and soon the story becomes an obsession as she listens, suffers and feels Isabel's experiences and sees herself in this condition. At the end of the novel Isabel and Maddalena are no longer two different people, they are two faces of the same woman because what happens is recognition: recognizing that the other is another “possible you”, and that you can reflect yourself in her. Isabel's own story helps soothe her pain and helps Maddalena recognize that she can overcome her own pain as Isabel has overcome her strong pain. Although Isabel’s migration to Belgium has been difficult she has decided to stay on.
Vita Europe has met Raffaella Greco Tonegutti to talk about L’Espagnole.
Having always written essays and papers for your job what made you decide to write a novel?
The decision to write L'Espagnole comes from listening to many people's life experiences, especially women, of uprooted existences and the desire to lay a foundation for a new life. In 2003-2004 while working at the European Commission in Brussels I felt the coldness of the institutional debates on the construction of public migration policies. I felt a strong need to go meet migrants in person and then I started taking notes about migrants lives.
The book became a compelling urgency for two reasons . First of all for a political reason, because doing this job you realize how migration can be used, misused, abused and distorted for political, social and racial reasons. Seeing exclusion as the main driver of European public policies on migration was very disturbing, preventing people from meeting.
The other reason was that using migrants lives and experiences in order to exclude them as opposed to including them in society made me want to shout “stop!”, to highlight the beauty of their lives and to show everyone how beautiful their life is. The novel was born from the need to give recognition and dignity to these migrants and their lives. I was shocked to see that bureaucratic policies considered migrants shadows without lives, faces and a voice whereas I saw the incredible beauty of these people's lives and I wanted to give a face, a voice and a color to them, especially the women. In fact migrant women are the shadow of the shadow, which is the migrant. I could have written an essay that politically would have had the same value but in my opinion it would not have had the same beauty.
Memory is a central theme in the novel…
Yes, as a matter of fact all the novel revolves around the story of Isabel, her life with her husband, of her being a wife and of her being a shadow. An evil of our time is to use memory to radicalize identity: if you share my memory you are in, if you don’t share it you are out. Isabel does exactly the opposite: she uses her story to get people closer, she uses her story as a table cloth that she lays on the table and she puts together Turkey, Greece, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal. She cultivates her memory in a generous, not radical way, in an inclusive and not exclusive way. Isabel uses memory as an instrument to make all inhabitants of the house communicate. These inhabitants are the many possible migrations, the marginality, the sufferance that is behind migration paths. Thanks to Isabel’s memory a future looks possible.
Recognition is another central theme in the novel…
At the beginning of the novel Maddalena describes Isabel as strange and peculiar , then little by little their feeling together becomes the way to a recognition of oneself in the other, therefore to a possible dialogue, and to a meeting .
Recognition is exactly the opposite of what happens when we talk about migrants: there is never a glance that is really interested in the discovery, in the meeting, in the recognition. What we see happening all around us is always underlying this difference, therefore denying recognition.
At the beginning Maddalena wants to give Isabel back dignity and space, then little by little she sees herself in Isabel and she recognizes a possibility of another life and existence for herself , which is what we always want to deny migrants. We always refer to migrants as “them”, or “others”, denying ourselves the possibility of seeing the beauty in them and their story.
Why did you choose Brussels?
Because Brussels is the symbol of the “European mother”, of the city that should represent and welcome everyone. When you arrive in Brussels you get the impression that it is a city for everyone, but at the end it is a very excluding city, a city that does not manage to welcome, because all European policies don’t move towards allowing meeting, on the contrary they separate and divide. However Brussels remains the symbol of all this, I think also at global level.
There is very little interaction and communication in Brussels' society . The city speaks with its beauty, but also with the coldness of its landscapes and speaks with the voice of Alex, the only Belgian man in the novel. It is inside Isabel’s house that all different migration paths manage to interact and encourage meeting. Isabel’s house becomes another possible place, another possible public space, where memories, stories, and experiences allow recognition and sharing.
Why the title L’Espagnole?
The word “L’Espagnole” sounds good: it evokes Spain and France, it evokes European musicality, but it is also a great stigma because although Isabel has been living in Belgium for 40 years she remains L’Espagnole, the one that is not part of the group, that is not “us”.
What was the reason for using dialogues and self narration?
I wanted to give Isabel and the Isabels in the world the possibility to talk about themselves, and to narrate with beauty and without adding too much “myself”, without too many adjectives. Self narration gives the character the space to narrate and narrate about herself and to exist by narrating.
Every narration was the attempt to offer the cross section of a possible migration: every character is of a different nationality and represents a different migration path, a different possible life. Dialogue and self-narration was a choice of content and style to make the various possible stories of migration represented, in the attempt to make them interact.