Revisiting central Spain and Andalucia in 1949
Gerald Brenan is best known for his travel classic, South from Granada, which details his early bohemian existence in Andalusia where he entertained visiting members of the Bloomsbury Group. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he went back to England and never returned until 1949. The Face of Spain book is a diary and travel journal of the visit he made to assess the state of the nation more than a decade after the war, travelling from Madrid down to the area west of Malaga where he had once lived.
Franco is in power, and all the hopes of the republican movement and the International brigades have been crushed. (It should be remembered that Franco succeeded partly because of Stalin’s treacherous policy of using the civil war as an excuse to exterminate his rivals and his enemies – even though they were fighting on the same side.)
It’s not surprising that this book is not so well known as South of Granada, because all the freshness and optimism of his Spanish experience in 1919-1934 has been tempered by the terrible events of the civil war and its aftermath. But one thing that does link this book with its predecessor is his love of plants. Everywhere he goes he records the vegetation, producing something like like a botanist’s field notes.
The situation is beautiful. Ilexes and lotus trees stand around in solemn dignity and under them grow daises, asphodels, and that flower of piercing blue – the dwarf iris.
What makes his account more than a surface travelogue is that Brenan is steeped in a knowledge of Spanish history and culture. He points out for instance that the Spanish Inquisition was so brutal and prolonged for a simple economic reason. The property of heretics was seized by the torturers and paid over to the State.
Every visit to a church turns into a mini lecture on Baroque architecture, or a trip to yet another white hill town becomes a lesson in the history of the Moors in Andalucia. But everywhere he travels the human story is the same – grinding poverty, hunger, and unemployment. It’s also a ghastly reminder of what it’s like to live under a repressive regime – widespread bureaucracy and red tape, a black market, political corruption and inertia, permission required to travel.
He returns to his old home in Malaga (in a village now almost swallowed up by the airport) having left it in the care of his gardener thirteen years before. To his surprise he finds that despite the civil war, the second world war, and the era of post-war austerity, it is completely intact – books stored, rooms undisturbed, and the garden flourishing.
Everwhere he goes people complain of the official corruption and incompetence which kept most Spanish working people shackled to misery well into the second half of the twentieth century. It’s no wonder that the country exploded with relief on the death of Franco in 1975.
Amidst much generalizing about the Spanish national character, Brenan suddenly expresses a pan-European vision that reflects exactly why his opinions and impressions are to be taken seriously:
In the Federal Europe of the future we shall find it quite natural to have a second patria in some other European country – a patria of our ideals, of our super-ego. We shall each of us marry a foreign nation and those marriages, whether platonic or otherwise, will be the bond which will keep our federation of diverse speeches and races together.
To read all this at a time when the modern cities of Malaga, Cordoba, and Seville have (despite current unemployment) come into a twenty-first century as contemporary urban centres just as sophisticated as Manchester, Bruges, and Milan, is to realise how enormous a leap forward Spain has made in the last fifty years. Yet Gerald Brenan’s insight into the historical depth of what he views reminds us that much of Spain’s character comes from events that happened not decades but centuries ago,
So it might lack the youthful optimism and the amusing anecdotes of his earlier travel book, but this journal provides a fascinating insight into a modern European democracy at a time when it was a dictatorship, almost a forgotten country, and certainly a pariah state.
© Roy Johnson 2011
Gerald Brenan, The Face of Spain, London: Serif Books, 2010, pp.248, ISBN: 189795963X
More on Gerald Brenan
More on the Bloomsbury Group
More on literary studies
More on short stories