Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Book Review: Spain by Jan Morris

"Spain is one of the absolutes. Most States nowadays are willy-nilly passive, subject always to successive alien forces. Spain still declines in the active mood. She is not a great Power, but in her minor way she is one of the prime movers still - still a nation that sets its own standards." - page 22

Jan Morris, travel writer extraordinaire shows us an in-depth look at Spain in which we traverse time and space, examining the rich and varied history of the country. We are exposed to Spain's triumph as a world power and her slow but inevitable slip into relative obscurity on the world stage. We see her domination of world events and her global isolation, her tolerance and persecution of peoples, her Jekyll and Hyde personality. This duality plays out over the history, the landscape and the peoples of Spain.

The Good:

One thing I believe is most important in travel books is providing a flavour of the country to readers. Jan has this talent in spades. Here's a taste of Spain in Jan's description her description of the running of the bulls in Pamplona.

"Blood runs, men are often wounded, poor padded blindfold horse are gored, the bull inevitably dies and is dragged out for beef. They crowd all around, that Greek chorus of the bull-ring, with its little cigars clenched between its teeth, its cardboard sun-visors on its foreheads, its one-peseta cushions plumped beneath its bottoms on the hard seats - the crowd all around seems animated, to the foreign eye, chiefly by a brutish lust for blood." - page 31

Morris ties in the history of Spain to explain her slow evolution from world power to industrialized nation. She portrays the Spanish as a fearless and sometimes brutish people, quoting Philip II as saying he "ruled the world with two inches of paper." She also notes though that "between 1814 and 1923 there were forty three coups d'etat" and that Spain was "strategically so inessential that the First World War contemptuously passed her by." The truth of this is such that when I was learning about WWI, I never questioned why Spain wasn't involved.

The other attractive aspect to this book is the writing. As always with Jan Morris, the writing draws you in with its rich, descriptive detail. She's able to dig into the truth of a place, to get to core of what it is to live there. The sentences just drip with gorgeous imagery.

"You are seldom halfway in Spain. It is either fearfully hot or frightfully cold. You are either a good man or a bad one, either very rich or very poor, either a fanciful church-goer or an out-and-out disbeliever. The light is brilliant, the atmosphere is preservative, the colours are vivid - so vivid, for all the vast monotony of the meseta, that sometimes this seems like a painted country, as the mauve and purple shadows shift across the hills, as the sun picks out a village here, a crag there, as the clouds idly scud across the candlewick landscape of olives or cork okas, and the red soil at your feet seems to smoulder in the heat." - page 46

The best thing about Jan's books is that they're not just about travel. She includes literary references, historical detail, personal memories and more. My copy was less than 200 pages but felt so full. It was the home of Roman emperors, a bastion for artists like Goya, Dali and Picasso, an inspiration for Hemingway and a country that at the time believed "Cervantes mocked its pretensions of chivalry in the book that is said to have killed a nation."

The Bad:

This book was published in the mid 70s and I wondered how this wonderful picture of Spain could still be current. Here Morris references the Spanish Civil War, an event only 30 years prior to the book. From this I could only imagine that her description of Spain would be somewhat archaic in today's age.

"The time-lag still makes Spain an anachronism among the nations. Her industrial revolution is really only happening now, and in many ways she retains the simplicity, even the innocence of a pastoral nation." - page 26

Morris does update her books with every publishing but barring a complete rewrite and a return to Spain, I don't think she can accurately capture what Spain is today. The most you can hope for in this book is a description of the Spain that was. Nonetheless though, the book is a fantastic introduction to a country full of conflicting opinions and traditions.

The Ugly:

Somebody find Eli Wallach.

Rating: 4/5

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