This is the third in a series of posts on James Michener’s Iberia. You can read the first two posts here and here. This week, I stick with the first chapter and specifically the Spanish words and phrases Michener feels the reader needs to know to understand Spain.
There are some key Spanish words and phrases one first needs to grasp to even begin understanding the “mystery” of Spain. That’s at least according to James Michener, who would know better than anyone outside Spain. These words and phrases “relate to the soul of Spain and are indeed of its essence,” he writes. I’ll step out of the way and let him explain. If you’re only going to skim, allow me to direct your attention to Viva yo at the bottom of the post. For a traveler to Spain, it might be the most important (and the one that makes me chuckle whenever I reread Michener’s description). (Note: Michener’s definitions have been edited for space reasons.)
I find myself unable to define duende, yet it seems to have become the sine qua non of Spanish existence. Without duende one might as well quit the game, and I mean seriously. To say that a friend or performer has duende is the highest praise one can bestow…
…The dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua (language) defines it as ‘mysterious and ineffable charm.’ A night club has duende of all things are in proportion, all properly Spanish, and if a sense of lovely, swinging motion pervades. A singer possesses duende if suddenly she can tilt her voice in such a way that everyone automatically cries ‘¡Olé! A bullfighter has duende when he displays not bravery but unmistakable class. The essence of the word lies in its peculiar usage, as in the sentence I heard not long ago describing a dancer, “My God! He has duende upon him.” I judge from that that duende is something that no man can will upon himself, but occasionally, when he is one with the spirit of a place or with the inherent quality of Spain, it rises from some deep reserve within him. I am aware of its presence when I see it.
This is a lovely word, which my Spanish friends use a good deal and which for a long time I was unable to understand. “Does it mean grace?” I asked. That and much more. “Is it a sense of humor?” Without one you could not have gracia, but it would have to be a very gentle sense of humor, one that smiled quietly at the inanities of the world. “Sometimes you use the word as if it meant good judgment or breeding.” It includes all of that and much more…There is much in Spain that has gracia which cannot be found elsewhere.
A Spaniard would willingly travel an extra 50 miles to find a spot with ambiente. Let word get around that a restaurant has ambiente and it is filled. If a vacation spot has ambiente its registration is crowded. The antique bullring at Ronda has ambiente, so that even though it lies perched in almost inaccessible mountains, people from all over Spain willingly travel long distances to see a fight there. The entire city of Sevilla has ambiente and is loved therefore. Madrid is too young to have achieved ambiente yet, but since it has power it is respected. What bestows ambiente on a place? I don’t know. But I have often been with Spaniards who have walked into what outwardly appeared to be a rather ordinary place and have been struck instantly by its charm. “This place has ambiente!” they have cried, and in that split second I have known that it did. How did they know? How did I know? No one can explain, but without ambiente a thing can scarcely be Spanish. With ambiente it needs little else.
It has been left to Spain to cultivate not only the world’s most austere definition of honor, which means roughly what it does in French, but also the word pundonor, which is a contraction of punta de honor (point of honor). At any rate, it is not sufficient for a meticulous Spaniard to word about his honor. Many things that an American man can in all decency forgive, the Spaniard cannot. If he is a man of pundonor, he must take action against insult…
…After all, Don Quixote is an engaging study of Spanish traits not only because it lampoons the concept of pundonor but also because it demonstrates that no man ever possessed pundonor to a greater degree than the doleful knight.
Sin = without. Vergüenza = shame. A sinvergüenza is a man the precise opposite of one with pundonor. In no country of the world except Japan is it so damaging to a man to charge him with being a sinvergüenza, and when one throws this accusation against another he must be prepared to defend his judgment.
Estupendo, Maravilloso, Fantástico, Magnífico
Few Americans and no Englishman have ever mastered these peculiarly Spanish expressions for we have reserved them for things like Cecil B. De Mille movies and the circus. But observe my experience in Madrid. I had rented a car and like others found much difficulty in parking it, but at a restaurant nearby I became acquainted with a doorman who seemed to have psychic powers in determining where empty parking spaces would be. For this service I tipped him rather generously, I thought, about a quarter in American money, which he accepted grudgingly. Against my better judgment, I raised the tip to thirty-five cents, with no appreciable modification of his manners, and then to forty cents, which brought only the same surly acknowledgement. However, one day I went to this restaurant with Victor olmos, the ebullient Reader’s Digest editor for Spain, who wheeled into the parking area, slammed on his brakes, leaped from the car, and left it. When we returned, the attendant hurried for the car (he dawdled disgracefully when getting mine) and cried, “Señor, I found you a place.” “Estupendo!” Olmos said and gave the man a six-cent tip. The attendant’s face was wreathed in smiles. “Fantástico!” Olmos added. “Simply maravilloso.” The attendant nodded and I could see that he felt good all over. When I parked there I gave him a twenty-cent tip and cried “Estupendo!” and he beamed. Later on it was fantastic and extraordinario, and I had built myself a secure place in his attentions. My car came promptly now, for like a good Spaniard he needed words as much as he needed money, and the words he wanted had to be the most expansive and inflated available. In Spain words form a kind of currency which must be spent freely, and to do this is not easy for an American, yet not to do it in Spain is to miss the spirit of human relationships.
This phrase will not be found in dictionaries. Some time ago there was a competition for the cartoon which best expressed the Spanish character, and the winner, without a close second, was one showing an arrogant little boy urinating in the middle of the street and spelling out the words, “Viva yo,” which could be translated as “Hurray for me,” except that the guts of the phrase is the implied second half, “and to hell with everyone else.” A comprehension of the Spaniard’s addiction to Viva yo will help anyone trying to make his way in Spain. When the little car barrels right down the middle of the highway, forcing everyone else into the ditch, you don’t swear at the driver. You say “Viva yo” and you understand what happened and why. When you pay seven dollars for a seat at the bullfight and find it occupied by a man who will not move, you don’t punch him. You say “Viva yo” and steal someone else’s seat…
…If…one finds that the constant exhibition of Viva yo irritates him, he should probably stay out of Spain and probably Texas too.