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  • Remembering Diego Catalán
  • Samuel G. Armistead

Late March 2008. My phone rings in Davis, California; it's an unexpected call from Madrid, from my lifelong friend, Diego Catalán. He has taken a very bad fall; a broken pelvis will keep him bedridden for three months. No hay más remedio. But in the over sixty years I have known him, we have never had a more thoroughly upbeat conversation. Perhaps it is a necessary form of self-defense. Whatever the cause, Diego, as usual, is full of new, exciting, ongoing projects. As we speak, he is finishing an important study, started years ago: a definitive and thoroughly annotated edition of traditional romances and other songs that were written in cipher to confuse spies and other potentially hostile readers, and included in secret diplomatic communications sent to Philip II by the Spanish ambassador in Paris, Tomás Perrenot de Chantonnay, in 1562.1 The texts are rich in variant readings and are a crucial contribution to our knowledge of medieval and Golden Age oral poetry. In this phone conversation, Diego seems very much himself, infinitely confident and energetic. Despite the very bad news, I am much cheered and encouraged by his positive perspective, his future plans, and the [End Page 231] general tone of his message. After a lengthy and far-ranging conversation, I wish him all the very best for a rapid and complete recovery and assure him that I will, of course, keep him posted, even while I would be somewhat out of touch, teaching the spring quarter as Visiting Professor at UC Irvine.

I will not speak to Diego again -ever. Some two weeks later, I was deeply shocked and incalculably saddened to read, in a thoughtful e-mail from his daughter Irene, that Diego had died on April 9, 2008.

Diego and I were almost the same age; Diego was born a year plus a month later than I, on September 16, 1928. We met, as I recall, during one of my earliest visits to Madrid well over sixty years ago and we became friends immediately. Diego was a fascinating and dynamic conversationalist who was greatly interested in everything: politics, world history, the current world situation, the stupidity and dishonesty of the electorate and of politicians, power and inevitable corruption, and the (god-awful) destiny of humankind. He was a pessimist from the word go, but, all the same, a pessimist with a great sense of humor - ironic, caustic, self-deprecating, sardonic humor. At the same time, he exercised a boundless, devoted commitment to what he was doing and a deep faith in pursuing and in ever broadening his and our knowledge. We shared a great number of scholarly interests and concerns: Hispanic dialectology, Romance and Pan-Iberian philology, the history of the language, and medieval Hispanic historiography and its essential, crucially important, relationship to medieval oral Castilian epic poetry and to the task of reconstructing lost epic poetry. Diego was also much concerned with an area of very special interest to me, the Pan-Iberian romancero and the immediate, urgent need to recover, transcribe, edit, and study as many variant texts and geographic modalities as possible of this gigantic tradition -the richest European oral poetry tradition in existence- as, inevitably, it approached an epoch of definitive decline.2 [End Page 232]

Diego was intensely interested in dialectology and in the history of Hispanic languages. It is no coincidence that some of his earliest fieldwork, in search of romances in 1948 (in the company of his cousin, Alvaro Galmés de Fuentes), was to center on Asturias and León, in the northwest-center of the peninsula, where the dialects were -and, at least in the case of Asturias, still are- very much alive. All of this was typical of Don Ramón's well thought-out plans for younger scholars following in his footsteps.3 Dialectology and historical linguistics would, then, be central to Diego's scholarship throughout his life, as also would be medieval historiography, the Castilian epic, and the romancero. [End Page 233]

Diego's mastery of and abiding creative interest in linguistics and linguistic history is embodied in two major books...


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