2019 Pre-U exams: malos y maestros

Examiners spend June ensuring a standardised and equitable marking of exams.  During this process an initial impression of topic/Topic choices emerges: that’s to say, the presentation topic chosen by the candidate for his/her speaking exam, and the cultural Topic on which candidates write an essay in Spanish in Paper 4.

Paper 1 (speaking) inspires an eclectic choice of specialist subjects for candidates’ presentations.  They range from business tycoons to the Ley de Costas, from Al-Andalus to Latin American presidents, from magical realism to Fernando Alonso.  However, the most popular single genre seems to be dictators: maybe this explains the increasing preference for Spanish over French at Sixth Form level – our francophone friends can’t match the Spanish-speaking world’s repertoire of demagoguery.

An interesting question with regard to these despots is the extent to which caudillismo permeates Hispanic culture.  There’s also the historian’s question: do these dictators leave their country in a better state at the end of their rule than it was in when they seized power (ends justifying means…)?  In a sense, this latter question is a trick: yes, Franco’s regime oversaw reconstruction and the launch of the tourist industry in Spain, with significant economic growth after 1960: but what state would it have been in without the destruction and oppression initiated by his uprising?

Topics Castro (in text - or back-up banner)Judging by choice of presentation topic, Fidel Castro remains the thinking student’s favourite dictator.  The most intriguing angle, for me, is his motivation: was he partly driven by a Freudian urge to rebel against his prosperous father?  His consistently high popularity across Latin America is another striking part of the story.

Venezuela’s dastardly duo – Chávez and Maduro – would jointly edge Franco for second place.  Pinochet continues to place respectably in the autocrat stakes.  The surprise, perhaps, is that his even deadlier Argentine counterparts in the 1976-83 junta largely pass unremarked.  Perhaps the relative anonymity of working as a junta helps to shield Videla, Viola, Galtieri and co. from the attention of later generations.

Another perhaps surprising omission from the lists is Perón, whose achievement in Topics Peron and wifepermanently banjaxing a once-thriving nation’s politics and economics is one of Latin America’s more startling accomplishments.  Perhaps the new angle on Perón should be whether he can be counted a precursor to Trump?  (Discuss…)  For the time being he escapes with less attention than his most famous wife.  (Was Eva also driven by a desire to get back at her father..?)

Some students specialise in a current affairs topic – a stimulating choice, especially when it is the subject of breaking news on the day of one’s exam.  Such was the case for those presenting on Venezuela when Guaidó launched his uprising in Caracas in late April.  Nor had those specialising in Spanish politics last winter necessarily expected a general election to be called for 28 April.  Coping with such eventualities is good training for life.

Topics Escobar (002)After dictators, the next most popular genres would be artists and drug traffickers.  This year the narcos pipped the artistas, buoyed by the Netflix series of the same name that was widely cited as an inspiration.  Escobar attracts more attention than El Chapo, with the Cartel de Sinaloa not far behind.  Even native speakers couldn’t agree on which syllable to stress in the Spanish versions of cartel, singular and plural (I don’t dare write those words in Spanish for fear of prompting further debate by where I place or omit the accent….).

Topics Frida and RiveraAmong the artists, Dalí, roughly equal with Picasso in 2018, this year fell back, as did Velázquez and Goya.  Picasso is matched only by Frida Kahlo (interest in her having been boosted by the recent production of a Barbie doll in her likeness…).  Diego Rivera remains the Perón of the art field: seldom mentioned, and straggling far behind his wife.


Three hot tips for art buffs: firstly, if you’re getting over-familiar with Spanish/Mexican Topics Guayasaminartists, consider studying the ‘Ecuadorian Picasso’ Guayasamín (a good excuse to visit his amazing home and gallery in Quito).  Secondly, if you want to reinvigorate your view of Dalí, his teatro-museo in Figueres is a superb gallery even by Spain’s high standards: it’s about one hour north of Barcelona by car.  Thirdly, if preparing a presentation on an artist, it’s worth taking in to the exam some pictures to discuss (you’re allowed up to three): it brings the subject to life, though beware, it leaves you with less time to discuss other headers.

As to the new Paper 4 syllabus, we hear that nearly all the Topics and Texts were studied.  One exception was Vargas Llosa’s La tía Julia….the comic story of an 18-year old’s first adventures in life and love whose subject matter and intellectual pitch is ideally suited to the Pre-U age range.  (If anyone has worries about teaching it, please see p14-16 of our February 2018 edition via the Past Editions tab above.)   El cine de Almodóvar remains the most popular Topic (in Pre-U’s early years it was shunned: what ten years of publishing indicative content can do for a Topic…).  Bodas de sangre was the most popular text, with Lazarillo and Borges close behind.

What Papers 1 and 4 both require above all is ‘ATQ’ (‘answering the question’), and a peacock-like display of language skills.  See the post-results Examiner’s Report for more details…

BAS editor Robin Wallis