You could be forgiven for reading this novel and thinking it is a historical account of an incident in the Spanish Civil War. Written by the Salamanca university lecturer of my Spanish tutor, it is a story about war which seems so unbelievable that it cannot be true. Cercas puts this very sentiment into the mouth of one of his characters:
‘Did you know lots of people thought it was a lie?…’
‘Doesn’t surprise me.’
‘Because it sounds like fiction.’
‘All wars are full of stories that sound like fiction.’
A man escapes a firing squad, Republicans are shooting Nationalists at the end of the war. He escapes into a forest, thinking he is safe. But there he runs into a militiaman, who inexplicably turns and walks away instead of shooting him. The escaped man, a fascist, becomes a national hero and the soldier disappears into history. This is their story. Cercas examines memory and forgetting, winners and losers in war. Who is the hero, the escaped man, or the soldier who let him live? I have read it three times, and each time I get more from it. Unmissable.
5 to remember
el soldado – soldier
la adivinanza – riddle
increible – unbelievable
verdadero/a – true
la ficción – fiction
This is another classic of Spain, written by short story writer and essayist VS Pritchett in 1954. He had travelled extensively in Spain prior to the Spanish Civil War and this book charts his return. His description on the second page of flying over the reddish-brown, yellow and black Iberian Peninsula, looking down at the high plateau and gorges of La Mancha, the dark green of olive trees, the dust and the dirt, will be familiar to today’s Easyjet passengers en-route to Malaga and the South. Pritchett’s style is perhaps old-fashioned now, but this book is crammed with history and politics, and stories of real people such as the flamenco artists in Madrid who will perform for a bottle of brandy and a cigarette. This is old Spain, it is easy to forget that when this book was written Franco was in power and the Civil War had finished only 15 years before.
On the last page he describes a conversation which could happen anywhere, at any time, after any war. The author asks in a café who destroyed the bridge over the Ebro.
‘The others,’ he said.
‘But who are the others?’ I said. ‘Fascists or the Reds?’
‘The others,’ he said. ‘In a civil war,’ he said, ‘it is always the others – and whoever wins is right.’
5 to remember
los otros – the others
siempe – always
otro/a – another
antes que – prior to
el regreso – the return
And if you’d like to tweet a link to THIS post, here’s my suggested tweet:
‘In a civil war, it is always the others’: THE SPANISH TEMPER by VS Pritchett #Spain #books http://bit.ly/2wsrTXp via @Spanish_Valley
This is the best book I’ve found to date about the history of Spain, starting with pre-history and taking in the Romans, the Moors and the Christians, the Reconquista, Felipe II’s palace El Escorial and the long line of royalty, the Spain of Cervantes and Don Quixote to today via Goya, Velazguez and Picasso. Don’t be put off by the fact that it looks a little like a school textbook. The story is told in chronological order, and each chapter has a summary of key sites worth a visit. Williams is a journalist and this shows in his writing style and balanced reporting. Full of names from history that feature of street names in towns and cities around the country, the book is an accessible telling of a complicated history. He brings to life the true story behind two of Goya’s most renowned paintings, ‘The Second of May’ and ‘The Third of May’ in 1808, a year Williams says is equal in national importance as 1492 – the year the Moors left Granada, and Cristóbal Colón set forth to the New World.
5 to remember
los romanos – the romans
los moros – the moors
los cristianos – the christians
el palacio – palace
la familia real – royalty
Spain was in the tight grip of General Franco in 1954 when Morris first wrote this book and the picture she draws is relevant to today. She portrays a country on the edge of Europe, a grim place to exist in the strong grip of State and Church, but despite all this it is a place filled with generous people as is today’s Spain. She describes a land rich in coal and minerals but no oil, where industry is confined to three tight geographical regions – Madrid, Catalonia and the northern coastline of Cantábrica, Asturias and the País Basque. So Spain is an agricultural country, rich in the holy trinity of wine, wheat and olives, in which 60% of land has never been cultivated. The book has to be read always with the date of writing in mind, but still, this description will seem familiar to those who live here today. She devotes a chapter, ‘Soldiers,’ to war and describes navigating the country by its castles. Spanish castles are frontier fortresses, she says, ‘pushed southwards century by century as the Moors were expelled and the Spanish kings moved their capitals from front to front.’ Here in Andalucía, many of the white hill towns so beloved to coach parties are named for this reason – de la Frontera generally denotes a border town. Arcos de la Frontera, Jimena de la Frontera, Jerez de la Frontera, Vejer de la Frontera. There are many small towers and castles on hilltops alongside the major A-roads, still looking 360° for invaders. These watchtowers of battle are a constant daily reminder of Spain’s warring heritage.
5 to remember
hoy – today
el país – country
el lugar – place
el carbón – coal
la agricultura – agriculture
This excellent little book is part of the series ‘A Very Short Introduction’ and is a blow-by-blow account of the Spanish Civil War. A confusing war with complicated names, political intrigues, fractured parties and much in-fighting, Helen Graham explains the origins of the war, the domestic and international contexts, and is particularly good at the social impact. If you have ever been confused by the various factions on each side, the connections with the wider international scene at the time, and the inescapable network of links with the days preceding World War Two, then this book will help bring clarity. Although Helen Graham is an academic writer, she is Professor of Spanish History of the University of London, the book is more accessible than other Civil War books I’ve read.
5 to remember
excelente – excellent
confuso/a – confusing
complicado/a – complicated
el nombre – name
los origenes – the origins
My copy of this classic was bought in the gift shop at the Alhambra in Granada and has a beautiful aubergine-coloured cover. It is a special edition to mark the 175th anniversary of the first publication of the American writer’s stories. Irving was a writer and diplomat, lodging in rooms at the beautiful Moorish palace. This book is a collection of stories and folklore that he collected during his time at the Alhambra, delightful tales of lost treasure, lovelorn princesses and brave soldiers. Irving wrote at the time of his fears that his writing was insubstantial: “How unworthy is my scribbling of the place.” My favourite tale is that of the mason, who is taken blindfold by a priest in the middle of the night to build a vault underneath a fountain at a secret destination. He labours for a number of nights to build the vault, finally helping the priest to load heavy urns into the secret space. He is paid each night with a piece of gold. The mason keeps the secret for many years, until one day he is asked by a curmudgeonly old man to do some repair work on an old property previously inhabited by a miserly priest who died suddenly. There are rumours of ghosts and the clinking of coins at night, and no new tenant can be found. The mason recognises the fountain, offers to live in the house rent-free and repair it for the owner. The mason becomes one of the richest men in Granada, and the clinking of coins is only heard in daylight from that time on.
5 to remember
una copia – copy
el clásico – classic
la edición – edition
hermoso/a – beautiful
el escritor – writer
One of the things we promised ourselves we would do when we moved to Spain was drive around the countryside. So when the morning dawned chilly and grey, we decided it was time to drive to Teba, a hill town in the sierra north-east of Ronda. Thanks to its hill-top castle, it is a landmark for travellers for miles around and can be clearly seen from the Easyjet flight as it turns left over the lake at Fuente de Piedra and heads coastwards to Malaga airport.
Memorial to Sir James Douglas [photo: Wikipedia]
As often happens when we visit these small hill towns, we get completely lost and go around in circles as the road signs always tell you the way to the centro but omit to point the way out. On one such trip to Teba in our early days, I was driving and actually grounded our little Peugeot at the crest of a steep hill. The last thing we expected to see in the middle of town is a statue to a Scot, Sir James Douglas. He was a loyal friend of Robert the Bruce who, on Bruce’s deathbed in 1329, agreed to take his heart on Crusade and fulfil a pledge which Bruce was now unable to do. Sir James, together with said heart in box, travelled south and arrived at Teba during the Reconquista when the Christians recovered al-Andaluz from the Muslim kingdoms. Sir James fought in the Battle of Teba in 1330, holding the stronghold of Teba against siege by the moors. At the tumult of the battle it is said Douglas caused chaos by tossing Robert the Bruce’s heart into the fray.
5 to remember
The castle at Teba [photo: Wikipedia]