Nonagenarian’s Pamphlet Helps Trigger Spanish Protests

Central Madrid’s Puerta del Sol has been immobilised for over a week by tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating against cuts to social services prompted by Spain’s dire fiscal situation. In scenes reminiscent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square protests, the demonstrators have organised themselves into dozens of committees providing services as diverse as garbage collection and education for children. And the protesters are drawing inspiration, at least in part, from a 93 year-old Frenchman. Stéphane Hessel became a publishing phenomenon earlier this year with a book - Indignez-vous! - that urges readers to get indignant.

The French are famous - or infamous - for their revolutionary spirit, which manifests itself as a propensity to protest at the slightest provocation. Still, for Hessel, it’s not enough. His 29-page manifesto, the title of which translates to ‘Get Indignant!’, is a call to arms from a man who resisted Nazi occupation and went on to become a diplomat. His book, which has sold 1.5 million copies in France alone and made him a favourite of France’s chattering classes, has five key messages: outrage breeds resistance; the economy must change; Israel and Palestine must make peace; nonviolence is essential; and culture must renew itself. It’s been translated into English as Time for Outrage!, has been translated into languages as diverse as Slovenian, Korean, Japanese and Swedish, and was published in its entirety by the US magazine The Nation (subscription required). French prime minister François Fillon has criticised the book for offering no new solutions: “indignation for indignation’s sake is not a way of thinking.” And reviews haven’t all been glowing (“What he fails to offer is any coherent new response, other than ‘indignation’”). Hessel, who is of Jewish background, has also been accused of anit-Semitism because of his attitudes towards Israel, as a result of which he was barred from appearing at the École normale supérieure, France’s elite literary academic institution (link in French).

Hessel’s success reflects a trend towards long-form publishing - such as essays and pamphlets - given a new lease of life by digital publishing. The essay is a venerable and distinguished literary form and a new UK publisher hopes to revive the form in Britain. In Australia, Quarterly Essay and Australian Book Review have been doing much the same for some years.

Related posts