The Economist: On Sant Jordi Day Catalans lust for literature
Care Santos begins every Diada de Sant Jordi (Saint George’s Day) the same way: by inscribing a copy of her latest book, and leaving it in a public place as a gift for a stranger. “I used to dream of being a writer,” she says. “If someone had told me that I would get to experience Sant Jordi as an author, I would have gone crazy with joy.”
In Catalonia Sant Jordi is a curious blend of Valentine’s Day and an open-air literary festival. April 23rd marks the feast day of the region’s patron and coincides with the day both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes are said to have died in 1616. Traditionally men buy women flowers and women get men books (though people do not strictly adhere to these gender distinctions today). Street stands pop up in Barcelona and other Catalan cities, while authors meet with readers and sign books all day. As Carlos Zanon, a novelist, puts it, the day is “absolutely inclusive”. Jorge Carrión, whose English-language non-fiction work “Bookshops” includes a chapter on Sant Jordi, says that “your readers come to you in person and explain why your books are important to them.”
The roses allude to Sant Jordi’s legendary slaying of the dragon and liberation of a princess, which—according to local lore—took place in the Catalonian fortress town of Montblanc. In the spot where the dragon’s blood was spilt, a rose bush grew. The bookish side of the festivities has more recent, entrepreneurial roots. In 1931, publishers looked to boost sales and sought to merge an existing “day of the book” event that was already occurring each October with the “day of the roses”. The purported commemoration of Cervantes and Shakespeare now looks as much a clever marketing scheme as historical fact, with many contending that Cervantes died on April 22nd and still others pointing to conflations between the Gregorian and Julian calendars.
It has proved a compelling story nonetheless. Barcelona’s publishing houses are said to earn 5% to 8% of annual sales in a single day; new books are launched in March and April to capitalise on the event. In 2008 Carlos Ruiz Zafon sold 120,000 copies of his novel “El Juego del Ángel” (“The Angel’s Game”) in just 12 hours. Florists do even better, taking in 40% of the year’s income on Sant Jordi. One study found that rose prices peak at 8am, and then decline as demand and the quality of available flowers falls—ending the day at just one-sixth the price. A trade in second-hand roses picks up after lunch. No doubt, hearts are broken by dinner.
The event has been affected by shifting political tides. It took on added significance following the death of Francisco Franco, as the Spanish dictator censored books and curbed use of the Catalan language. Barcelona “lived a different atmosphere yesterday. Different, absolutely, from the Sant Jordi of other years.” La Vanguardia, a daily newspaper, wrote of the first post-Franco event in 1976. “There was a call to democracy. To freedoms.” Now, as the region bids for independence from the rest of Spain, Catalan-language literature has become ubiquitous at the street stalls, accounting for more than a third of the books sold.
In 1995 UNESCO designated April 23rd World Book Day, but in Catalonia events maintain a local feel, with flags and banners emblazoned with Sant Jordi’s cross. The day is a celebration of love, literature and the love of literature. This year, as always, Ms Santos will use the same fountain pen to sign books for readers; the only thing that changes is the colour of the ink she uses. In recent years it has been green, purple and chocolate brown. This year she opts for deep red with a particularly appropriate name: “Dragon’s blood”.