Norman Simms

II Congreso Internacional. Historia a Debate.
Santiago de Compostela, 14-18 July 1999.

Reviewed by Norman Simms

I don't know about everyone else who attended this conference in Spain in the summer of 1999, but it was a powerful experience, in many ways quite overpowering. There is certainly no way to speak about every paper given, every discussion that occurred formally and informally around these papers, and the wonderful activities that accompanied the whole event. Prof. Carlos Barros must be congratulated, however, for an excellent job of organization at all levels. He and the whole team of colleagues and students who helped him.

For myself, there were three obstacles that I have to set forth before I dare evaluate some of the highlights of the conference. First, I am not a historian, and so much of the "shop-talk" either went over my head or didn't register as I tried to listen to what was being said. Second, though I can read Spanish in a halting way with dictionary in hand, since most of the talks were in that language, I am afraid I did not understand everything that was going on. Third, given the time and financial
constraints of attending from New Zealand with lectures still in session, I could not stay through the whole conference and missed the last two days completely.

Nevertheless, coming from more than half-way round the world was well worth the effort-and the expense. Let me indicate why by going back over those same three obstacles.

The sessions were held at the Palacio de Congresos, a huge exhibition hall with dozens of lecture theatres and major theatres, and this palace was hung with huge banners announcing the congress. The opening sessions were addressed by leading dignitaries from the local government of Galicia, the city of Santiago, and the university. It almost seemed more of a political
rally than a learned conference. But then as I reflected, it was amazing. Here was a scholarly meeting given the full public support of various levels of government. City and state actually saw themselves as gaining kudos from this support and this supreme effort to honour scholars from all around the world. I am to this day flabbergasted. Then I reflected again. Here was a signal to the general public and to the members of the university that these officials believed it was worth their time, energy and money to honour scholarship. And still more: the study of history and of historiography! I can still hardly believe it.

This welcome by the state, city, and university extended beyond the wonderful meals provided-sumptuous banquets-to entertainment and tours in the evenings. To eat well is not just a luxury in pleasing the palette but an opportunity to get to know colleagues from all over the world, not just from Spain and the United States, which seemed to supply the bulk of
participants, but also from India and Argentina, China and Cuba, and a dozen other countries as well.

What stands out for me in this regard though is the presentation by Judy Cohen in the hall in the city of the music and songs of the Sephardic Jews. Not only was her performance excellent, the instrumental and vocal music delightful and her explanations-in a smooth and facile shifting from Spanish to French to English to Hebrew and Ladino--but what brought me to
tears as I sat there, seated in rows as though we were in a medieval cathedral or royal chamber, was the idea that after more than 500 years since the Expulsion of the Jews in 1492 (and the persecutions and massacres that preceded that act) here, with no embarrassment, was a part of Spain honouring the culture they had sought to annihilate and, perhaps more than that, seeing itself enriched by the return of the ancient melodies, stories, and voices that have otherwise disappeared from Spanish tradition.

Because of the language difficulties for myself and many others, the conference organizers arranged for translation services, including the provision of headsets for simultaneous translation during the addresses and even the informal discussions. Top marks to the crew of young men and women who did this.

Realizing that my paper had to shifted so that I could give it, since I was leaving early, and that it needed to be cut and shaped to the new context, it was a relief to find the translators ready to take my hand-written notes and prepare themselves with just a few hours to go. Yet it was only when I sat on the stage to deliver my own talk that I understood that this service was more than a technical convenience. First, the translators spoke right along with the scholars, and that meant they had to be alert to the pauses, repetitions, and asides that many people used, though, of course, some of the presenters, wishing to cram a one-hour speech into their 20 minute allotment, raced through with no intonations whatsoever.

Second, as I looked up at the booth where the translators sat, there they were, gesticulating in a fascinating dance of the hands, a dance choreographed to show their understanding and sympathy with what they were speaking in the new language. By the time I spoke, not only was I in the mood, which caused me to do minor variations-and not so minor ones!-in what
I had scribbled down beforehand, but I also found myself waving my hands too in time to the translator. This made me understand my own talk in a way I had not been aware of before.

Aside from the plenum sessions each day when we all gathered together to hear a great scholar, there were usually two or three sessions or seminars to choose from. At the sessions there would be eight to twelve speakers at a long table, each one speaking for 20 minutes (or more, when they could sneak it past the chair), and only after all that would there be a discussion, questions from the floor or from those on stage, and comments all around. Though it meant that one had to try to keep a mental (or scribbled) note of salient points to bring up more than an hour and a half later, somehow the wait also smoothed over some differences and allowed for a synthesis of opinions to occur-well, sometimes. At the seminars the debates were more vigorous and, after the initial statements of position, more spontaneous. For the most part, from what I could see, people were polite and patient.

Can I single out a dozen or so papers for comment from the literally hundreds given at this congress? I dare not. All along, following the lead of the first congress several years ago, and now codified into a permanent programme, what emerges is an attempt to keep history under debate. That is, the key topics centre on the way in which history as a scholarly discipline must reflect on itself after the tumultuous events of the past century and how it must monitor its efforts to adjust to or resist the challenges of the technological revolution presented by the new electronic media and their impact on data collection, transcription, analysis, and abstraction. The questions arise as to where we are and where do we go now that we seem to have passed into-if not yet out of-post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-Marxism, and perhaps post-history. There were and are no easy answers, and the debate surely must go on.

Norman Simms
Waikato University
Hamilton, New Zealand