Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Tell me how it happened

If you don't know Spain you probably won't have heard of Cuéntame Cómo Pasó, the long-running show on TVE1 (basically the equivalent of BBC1) which tracks the lives of a fictional Madrid family over time, depicting events, at any given moment, roughly thirty years n the past.

I've not often seen it but it's been quite an important show in its time, not just because it's long-running and has a sizeable audience, but because the very idea on which it's based, the depiction of the recent past, runs contrary to the practice of forgetting, or to put it another way, denying, what happened in Spain prior to the death of Franco (and the "Transition" to democracy which followed). I say "practice", but it's more than that: it's enshrined in Spanish law that human rights violations prior to the Transition may not be the subject of prosecution, and although it is not at all illegal to discuss the past there have been some very strong taboos against doing so, much stronger when the series began than they are now.

That's perhaps a bit heavier an introduction than the programme merits: it's much more a soap opera rather than a political drama, and its reference to events past can be more a way of providing period colour than of making a point. But I mention it just to give some idea of the show's importance in Spanish cultural life, and of explaining the fact that last Thursday's episode, ¡Maldito amor! ("God-damned love!" for want of a better translation) was advertised with the surprising heading:
Kárpov y Kaspárov, en 'Cuéntame': Cuando el ajedrez arrasaba en los 80
or as we might say:
the Eighties, when it was chess that ruled.
Those were the days.

Now I assume that if you're outside Spain you can't actually see the episode - do tell me if I'm wrong about that - but it begins with the central character, Antonio, coming across a transmission of the first Karpov-Kasparov match on the televisions in an electrical shop

with a crowd around the window discussing the moves. (That's Antonio with the ciggie. Do not confuse him with the Antonio Canal whose name you see - that's an actor who plays Father Froilán.)

Now you or I might be a touch sceptical that such scenes ever occurred, and for that matter feel similarly about the voiceover - the programmes are narrated by Antonio's son Carlos - which begins
En 1984, medio mundo tenía los ojos puestos en el mundial del Ajedrez
In 1984, half the world was glued to the World Chess Championship
which is the sort of claim to make you cough even without a ciggie.

You'll probably be unsurprised to hear that despite the promising opening, the role of chess in the episode is slight. It's mostly restricted to its employment as a metaphor and is not entirely convincing when it's not, since while Antonio being distracted by a pocket set in his kitchen is one thing ("estoy lidiando con Kasparov", he complains, "I'm fighting against Kasparov here")

it's quite another when we then find he's installed a horrid set that he found in a flea market

on which a couple of symbolic moves are later exchanged during an argument with Mercedes, his wife.

Yes, it turns out that the struggle for superiority between Karpov and Kasparov is a metaphor for a struggle between Antonio and Mercedes during a rough patch after thirty-six years of marriage, and as Carlos tells us
el ajedrez es un duelo mágico, como el juego del amor - en ambos hay que tener intuicíón, paciencia y asumir riesgos
which is roughly
chess is a duel of magic, just like the game of love - in both you have to have intuition and patience, and take risks
the second half of which is reasonable enough and the first half of which is not.

You might wonder why Leontxo (for whom I don't have a lot of time) tweets about himself and Miguel Illescas: the reason is that if you scroll down and have the Spanish to read it, there's a long piece about chess based on interviews with the two of them. It also provides a link to a weekly news programme from 1984, which I bet you can't watch either, which discussed the match and is the actual source of the footage, rather than a live broadcast, which Antonio sees in the shop window.

The piece goes over the usual, Leontxo-led jumps (first there was Fischer v Spassky...then Karpov reresented the old guard while Kasparov represented perestroika...) before we get on to a couple of likely claims. First, that 200 million Soviet citizens - that'd be around two-thirds of the population - were following the chess and then that thirteen million Spanish TV viewers followed the last game from Sevilla in 1987, a claim for which I can find no source and do not expect to.

And so on, up to the present day, or at least last year, when the Spanish parliament unanimously agreed that chess should form part of the curriculum, which Leontxo calls "el milagro del 11 de febrero de 2015" and I do not, since the whole point of a miracle is that something significant is supposed to happen, and nothing in fact has changed as a result of that vote.

But that's enough Leontxo, of whom a little goes a long way. I don't suppose it happened quite the way he tells it, but those were the days indeed. People don't gather round shop windows to watch television any more and if they did, it wouldn't be to look at a chess game. The past is a foreign country - they do things differently there. But I doubt they ever gathered round shop windows to watch Karpov play Kasparov in 1984.


Anonymous said...

Leontxo is maybe correct about 13 million. They cut away from a futbol match when Karpov resigned (or at least Kasparov writes that in one of his books).

ejh said...

There's two paragraphs beginning "TVE retransmitió en directo" which deal with the match on Spanish TV. I was going to translate them here but as I happen to be unoccupied this morning I think I'll write them up for tomorrow.

Name/URL said...

El 90% de esos 13 millones de espectadores, de ajedrez no tenían ni puñetera idea.

Yeah, that sums it up pretty well...

pero necesitaban saber quién ganaba de los dos porque se alineaban con uno de los dos como se alinean hoy con el Barça o con el Real Madrid

I've watched snooker just to see whether or not Ronnie O'Sullivan wins, so maybe this is not so far fetched. Chess marketing a la pro wrestling could definitely increase interest, if that's your cup of tea. (people buy wrestling pay-per-views to root for/against a major face/heel more than anything else, the whole angle is to try to figure out how to get viewers to care about X vs Y, particularly when the result is fixed)

Christian Sánchez said...

¡Maldito amor¡

sic - ¡Maldito amor!


sic - intuición

ejh said...

Thanks! I've made corrections.

nnebo said...

is karpov still in the duma after latest russia elections? i heard guardian was saying he was no longer best chess politician.