In the winter of 1998 I found myself in an anonymous room on the top floor of a hotel overlooking the Brisbane River—standard and featureless furniture, bland abstract prints, glasses and a jug of water on the coffee table—undergoing a series of interviews and psychometric tests as part of the recruitment process towards a possible position with ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. Not only was the setting dull, as neutral and ‘non-discriminatory’ as recruitment policy would require; the interview followed suit. So conventional was the procedure that my spook hosts dusted off that dubious old chestnut the Myers Briggs personality test—a modern version of the medieval belief in the four bodily humours—to set about digging into my persona. The calibres were out, the measurements recorded: they were looking to gauge the length and breadth of a human soul. ASIS may have been looking for other intangibles, too: a heart, a conscience, signs of fear, guilt, treachery, integrity, consistency. A capacity to lie.
What could I bring to the table, by way of enhancing the international spying capacity of my government? I’d already made it through five of the estimated seven stages of recruitment covering general intelligence, appropriate university education, knowledge of international affairs and domestic politics, group role play, language skills and no doubt some other forms of screening that were going on without my knowledge. The government, so far, was still interested. Subterfuge or camouflage—the stuff of spy-craft romanticism—were out of the question, as I stood nearly two metres tall and was entirely bald. No agency could have smuggled me away for covert operations. Discretion in confidential matters? Yes. Integrity? Certainly. Stability? No—my private life just then was a shambles, my marriage coming off the rails and my daughter struggling at primary school with epilepsy and learning delays. After many years living and working in Spain, I was having trouble adjusting to the return to Australian life, and this attempt to join ASIS, thus taking a 180-degree turn in my professional career, was symptomatic of my restlessness.
Then a question came out of the blue: would I be prepared to ‘infiltrate’ the local Spanish community and report back on any adverse or suspicious activities? (How ‘adverse’ and ‘suspicious’ were defined would be explained to me, I assumed, further down the track—to say nothing of ‘infiltrate’. Two adjectives, one verb: all three carrying weight.) Here I paused, not because I was seriously considering agreeing to the proposition—by which hesitation it became clear I was indeed unsuitable for the job from the start—but because I was taken aback at the very absurdity of the idea. I knew the local Spanish community; an ethnic group more harmless, bumbling and entirely passive in their politics and relations to power would be hard to find. These folk had largely come to Australia in the period 1958–63, when agreements were signed between the Australian Government and the Franco regime, or again after 1968. They were not refugees, or activists of any stripe; after 1968 many came from third countries, having already left Spain and settled in Britain, France or Germany, from there travelling on to Australia. Spain had been long anaesthetised by its dictatorship; the country was (so the story ran) in the deepest sleep imaginable. Australia’s Spaniards—setting aside the Basques and Catalans who had, generations before, carved out a community in the cane cutting industry of North Queensland—came tamely, quietly and in small numbers. During the 1970s and 1980s their children fitted smoothly into the Australian way of life. They carried on their cultural outings, the folklore slowly rendered tame by distance, forgetting and an Australian sun that brooks so little dissent.
The community I was being asked to check up on enjoyed their own soccer club; paella Sundays; dance classes; an exchange of pastries out on the edges of suburbia in wide open fields flanked by warehouses and industrial estates. They were Australians now: labourers, cooks, cleaners, vets, scientists. Bogans. It was all dreary (and on a more existential level, often deeply sad)—what possible threat could lurk? Did ASIS perhaps want my Spanish-language skills, cultural knowledge and natural access to the community as a way of divining insights into Latin Americans in Australia? No: the language may be common, but Latin and South America are entirely different worlds. There, the popular clichés served up leftist struggles with the Americans and the CIA, serial military dictatorships, groups of former Nazis, contemporary drug cartels, revolutionary art and poetry, postcolonial theory and liberation theology. From Venezuelan soap operas to Mexican death squads, Peruvian corruption to Bolivian Marxists via Argentine fabulists, ‘Las Americas’—as Spaniards refer to their former colonies—represented a world at the same time richer, poorer, wilder, more troubled, conflicted, extravagant and deeply corrupted than anything that might have been found in the gentle motherland of European Spain.
In the late twentieth century Spain had become my second home, and despite its own difficult and tragic history, seemed altogether harmless by comparison with its former American colonies: they were still straddled with various moustache-sunglasses-and-epaulettes military dictatorships that were one of the blights of the Spanish colonial inheritance, while Spain, rid at last of her own little general, was finally rejoining enlightened Europe. By the time I was speaking with ASIS, the country had enjoyed two decades of post-dictatorial growth and social reform; the transitional democratic society was bedding down; conservatives had been elected by popular ballot for the first time in the country’s history, suggesting a further maturing of its democratic credentials. Apart from Basque separatist terrorism, itself on the wane, the path ahead for Spain seemed smooth, part of the overall post–Cold War optimism of Europe.
These were new and hopeful times; it was ‘the end of history’. In those heady days, victory hid the path into the future; celebrations and hubris clouded the road ahead. No-one could see the reconfiguration of Spain’s long and complex relationship with Islam just a few years over the horizon, in the aftermath of 11 September, or Spain’s ill-fated commitment to the Iraq War, the March 2004 Madrid bombings courtesy of al-Qaeda, or the contemporary struggle to identify and neutralise local cells of radicalised youth with one eye on the Middle East’s eternal wars. The local Spanish community I knew in Australia held no potential turncoat jihadists, no secret plotters and schemers against any government of any stripe. For sure they complained about their lot, grumbling and cursing those in power, but this is everywhere a national pastime. I was at a loss to imagine what useful information might be found for ASIS.
The critical question came again: would I be prepared to gather information on the Spanish community? I hedged; I equivocated, and in that brief loss of nerve—or demonstration of integrity—my future as an ASIS operative was sealed. I did not have the right stuff. Or, perhaps, I did not have the wrong stuff. I would not be called upon to spy on Australia’s Spanish community or, should the opportunity arise, on the activities of Australians in Spain.
My interviewer, a pleasant and professional woman, like me in her early thirties, thanked me and we said goodbye. There was no formal indication that the process was over, but it was clear enough. I heard no further from ASIS, or any arm of the Australian Government, in relation to this recruitment process. Along with my personality measurements and psychological profile, the strengths and weaknesses of my heart, my conscience, my roughly outlined ambitions, my cultural and language skills and my catalogue of personal problems were all filed away, possibly in some underground archive deep in the cold ground of Canberra.
So why not inform? A future role with ASIS was, at the time, an attractive prospect. I was still young and naive enough to feel a certain allure to the role of ‘Intelligence Officer’. After a decade in Spain I was home again, teaching at one of the gum tree universities and, notwithstanding the many challenges my daughter’s illness was throwing up each day, I was bored with life. After Spain, Australia seemed politically tame and emotionally cold; human relationships depended more on manner or artifice, and less on those robust exchanges of truth by which Spaniards engage with each other. I had lost cultural reference points, and those that mattered to many of my colleagues seemed by and large inane. Life was so much safer, duller. Yet I was not bored enough, it turned out, to enter into this hypothetical pact with ASIS. I may not have had much, beyond language and a few cultural preferences, in common with many of the local Spanish community.
They were good people, but lost, adrift in that loss of identity the first and sometimes second generation of immigrants can suffer. They spoke English badly, but mixed with broad Australian accents; they were neither here nor there. The Spain they had left behind had moved on vastly and was now an unrecognisable country for them; Australia, on the other hand, would never be truly home, for so many reasons. They could not return, for their children had grown up here, and had families. The family ties bind tight in Spanish culture; indeed, they often provide the singular central meaning to a life. Yet the local ‘ethnic’ community, roughly composed, sad at heart and loosened from its origins, still represented Spain and Spain was, for me, more than just a European country. It had come to provide the half of my own identity; it gave me a second language whose riches were untold; whose unfolding poetry, refrains and lucid flow, whose hypnotic rhythms and beautiful words both announced and garlanded a new way of seeing the world. Its people had been unfailingly generous in their friendship and love, and unfailingly generous where they might not have afforded to be so. ‘A Spaniard’s generosity, in the ordinary sense of the word, is at times almost embarrassing,’ writes George Orwell in the opening pages of Homage to Catalonia. ‘[Then] there is generosity in a deeper sense, a real largeness of spirit, which I have met with … in the most unpromising circumstances.’
Spain was a country that had given me much more than I could ever give in return, and taught me much more than I could ever have imagined I needed to learn. I was deeply in Spain’s debt, and the last thing I would agree to do would be to infiltrate, in whatever manner might have been proposed, the quiet innocents of their community, in the search for intelligence content. In that hotel room in Brisbane in 1998, the prospect of betrayal was impossible to contemplate.
Three encounters came to mind as I sat in that antiseptic space, first while considering the proposal and then again after my decision had been made clear: three meetings with Spanish citizens, of greater or lesser import, but each of which held a special weight for me. These three seemed to stand in on behalf of every other of my thousands of encounters, and to hold out a restraining hand, asking for my discretion …
I remembered a decade earlier: twice a week clambering up two flights of broad marble steps from Madrid’s Gran Via to an arts college where I was studying film-making. Our guest lecturer was Antonio Drove, an obscure Spanish film director, a hunched man with a quiet voice who mumbled his way through his sentences, chain-smoking black tobacco; he seemed permanently miserable. I was later to understand this better: Drove, a great admirer of Hollywood director Howard Hawks, whom he constantly referenced in his classes, is considered one of the great wasted talents of Spanish cinema, a man who brought his considerable skills to precisely the wrong period in history; he died in Paris in 2005, largely forgotten. ‘Antonio, we so spent ourselves on words and ideas, on laughter, love and rebellion, that we arrived exhausted to the time of peace,’ wrote his friend Pedro Costa in a memorial column in El País.
Drove’s classes were collections of anecdotes, stories from the trenches of cinema-under-dictatorship; his had been a constant struggle to create in very difficult times. It was only my second year in Madrid and the director’s Spanish was too indistinct (or sophisticated), as I recall, for me to grasp properly. I never spoke directly with Drove, uncertain of my grip on the language, intimidated by his aura of gloom and tobacco, repelled by his stained moustache. Yet Drove’s film class was, in retrospect, one of those turning points we appreciate after the fact: I was studying via the medium of a foreign language, accessing a vision of creativity through a new selection of verbs and nouns; an entire alternative grammar—which means necessarily another universe—was opened up (to say nothing of the richly layered visual vocabulary of this alternate world).
I was one of only two foreigners in the class, the other being a short, plump, red-haired German girl, Cristina, who lived in Lavapiés, not far from my own apartment on Calle Toledo, who had shacked up with a filthy and—as it turned out—deceitful Argentine. Cristina was one of the countless West German Atomkraft? Nein Danke! hippies of the 1980s, diving into the relative squalor of inner-city Madrid. In contrast her flatmate Claudia was a blond-haired Rapunzel-like Bavarian, in Madrid to study business and tourism, and with whom I embarked on a stumbling and ill-fated relationship that came to a swift end when she fell into the arms of an impossibly glamorous Spanish jazz musician, his well-funded bohemian lifestyle just the right balance for her highly polished, middle-class Weltanschauung …
The second person who came to mind that day was the tobacconist Maruja, a middle-aged woman of immaculate manners, Old Castilian to the very core: proud, broad-hipped, elegant, powdered. Maruja’s father had been dragged from a car on a quiet road outside the town of Soria during the Spanish Civil War and summarily executed by Republicans; the childless Maruja and her blustering, barrel-chested husband Pedro adopted me as their (albeit wayward) son. I recalled, with fondness and a deep feeling of nostalgia, Maruja serving anis pastries and liquor on Saturday afternoons when I made my regular visits to their apartment on the Calle Mayor, accessed via five dark storeys of narrow stairs: a quiet but splendid apartment, with Maruja’s mother, in her nineties, always present yet never visible—she was permanently affixed to some mechanical aid, hidden behind a curtain, in that hushed space full of sepia photographs of Franco’s Spain, family weddings and first communions, a world of Catholic lace and prayer. Meanwhile Pedro chortled and chomped his way through a cigar, declaiming his love of Cuba and Fidel Castro, whose three-hour speeches he would take in and happily ruminate on.
The intricacies of the cigar rolling process, coupled with Castro’s pronouncements on the dignity of labour, would bring a tear to his eye. And finally Sonia came to mind, my classmate some years later in the second year of my Russian studies at the state-run language school in Barcelona. Sonia was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met, yet she was tiny, deeply depressed and suicidal. She wrote poetry and shared samples with me: her visions were inward-looking, wracked by sickness of both body and soul; her common tropes were fevered limbs and poisonous intestines, filtered through a carefree sexuality. She was studying Russian as homage to her great love, Andrei Tarkovsky; she could wax lyrical and circular for hours—not unlike a Tarkovsky film—on his cinematic poetry. We would often sit in the echoing corridors of the language school, on wooden benches and talk and smoke, our imaginary worlds before us as our fellow students came and went, in and out of French, Arabic or German classes.
Sonia discussed her sex life frankly; she was incapable of feeling love, she told me—her poems were full of physical self-loathing—and when the need struck, she was given to choosing men randomly from the street or any bar and just as soon discarding them. It would have been difficult for any man to resist this pint-sized siren, with her pale skin, her highly refined cheekbones, her chocolate eyes, her exquisitely shaped body. Sonia was brilliant with words; she dressed in brown and black, simply but elegantly, with red lipstick and very straight, coal-black hair. She always carried literature and tobacco, which sustained her in life. I once visited her apartment in the grid of Barcelona’s Eixample district, a vast and spacious place, empty of almost all furniture but magnificent with its stained-glass doors, its nouveau fittings and tiled floors; it was the height of early twentieth-century Catalan bourgeois style.
This Catalan urban splendour, so admired by millions of tourists every year, was built—lest we forget—on the labour extracted from a wretched and largely illiterate working poor, many of whom had come to Barcelona from the wastelands of the Spanish south to live and work in cramped Dickensian misery. There was a complicated story, involving sexual favours with some family member of the landlord, to explain how Sonia had come by such a treasure. The place was, however, forlorn, sterile, and Sonia in a bad mood the day I visited. She made tea, smoked incessantly and read me a poem in which her eyes had been inverted, and gazed inwards to a ‘mirrored world of crimson slime, and bile, and the troubled beating of a heart …’ Not long after that, Sonia disappeared from our Russian class, and I never saw her again.
These three Spaniards—personal encounters drawn randomly from thousands in my memory—had come to me in those few moments of pause in the hushed, clinical space of the Brisbane hotel room. The stained and gloomy genius Antonio Drove, born out of time; the motherly tobacconist Maruja, carrying the burdens of a murdered father, a communist husband and a crippled mother through life; and the diminutive, polished elegance of the poet Sonia: I could not betray what they had shared with me. In the light of knowing them, the proposal to inform on their former compatriots seemed sordid. It would have meant a rejection not just of the people, in the abstract, but the entire mental and emotional edifice that was Spain.
For all its folly and corruption, for all its deathly bureaucracy and adherence to convention—Catholic, brutal and melancholy convention—Spain was the teeming alternative half of my heart and soul. My first decade there had been no bed of roses; the country drove me to maddening frustration, even anger, on many occasions. But it had won my abiding affection, through its art and music, its densely layered geography, its inimitable language and vocabulary, its pensiones and cheap restaurants, its unceasing noise, its grandeur and squalor, its constant poetry and endless conversations, its palaces and rural priests, its curious engagement with the metaphysics of the world, its love of the Virgin Mary so intimately related, if paradoxically, to an obsession with luck, chance, superstition, magic and witchcraft; and above all, its people. The Spanish people, from top to bottom of their creaky old social hierarchy, had offered me a love I had neither expected nor deserved. ‘Intelligence’ would have meant, by extension, a betrayal of the trust placed in me by a second family. That was a line that proved impossible to cross.