I am still very diligently preparing for my vacation in Spain in September, you will notice that over the last few weeks books based in Spain or about Spain seem to be a bit of a theme. This book is yet another step on my journey to understand the complex country that Spain is.
Jan Morris published her book for the first time in 1964, when Franco’s regime was still strong and showed no signs of collapsing in the near future. My edition also includes an updated introduction from 2008, but generally the book describes Spain from Franco’s times. For such a short book (just under 150 pages) Morris packs a lot of observations and information in. She writes evocatively about Spanish landscapes, takes us through the major cities, but also invites us to travel through time and to discover all the various cultures that over the centuries amalgamated into what we now call Spanish culture.
The book shows clearly that Morris loves Spain with all of its idiosyncrasies, but she does not pretend it is a perfect country. She is very sensitive to extreme poverty, does not shy away from calling out the faults such as cruelty and stubbornness, at the same time she is seduced by Spain’s individual character, which is so different from any other European country. The landscapes she describes are extremely dramatic, the poverty she sees during her travels seems unbelievable in a European country and yet in Spain lasted for decades and didn’t seem to improve. She also describes the two tendencies that seem to lie at the heart of Spain’s struggle for balance: on one hand the push to centralize, to make all provinces subordinates of Madrid, one the other the permanent pull away of almost each province, their strong sense of identity that is separate to that imposed by Madrid. Of course in the Basque Country and Catalonia, those tendencies manifest themselves in the most obvious way, but actually this feeling of separate identity seems to exist in all of the provinces. Back when she was writing the book Morris predicted that Spain would at some point move to some sort of federated system, this has not happened yet and it makes me wonder if it’s not down to the stubbornness and tendencies towards absolutism that she also attributes to Spaniards.
The chapter about aliens in Spain was also an interesting one, where she describes the relationships with Moors, Jews, Gypsies that were never fully accepted as Spaniards, but yet had an immense impact on the country’s culture. She manages to seamlessly weave in history with the present to form a rich and vivid picture of an extremely complex country.
Two years ago when I went to Spain for the first time, I was laughing that I am actually not going to see Spain, since I was going to Bilbao and Barcelona and it is difficult probably to find two cities that feel less Spanish. Last year I went for an extended weekend in Madrid and indeed the experience was completely different, partially because of a different culture, but also because Madrid is a massive city, located centrally, with no sea, lake or river in vicinity (this was one of the mysteries Morris explained for me). This year we are going to Seville and Valencia, so I expect to get to know another two faces of ‘Spanishness’, because what I start to realize now is that there is no such thing as single unique Spanish national character, there are many many facets to it and every region brings their own features to the table. Which makes it an even more fascinating country. Now I probably should hunt for a book that would give me a deeper insight into all that changes in this great country after Franco’s death (I did read Ghosts of Spain two years ago, but I still feel I need some more understanding).
Quotes from Spain