BOOK REVIEW / Out of the cloaca into the stars: Jan Morris on a learned literary travelogue of Spain which flirts with the picaresque
Saturday 30 April 1994
BETWEEN Hopes and Memories is an apt if sententious- sounding title for a book about contemporary Spain. Not long ago the memories would have overwhelmed the hopes, and most Spanish travel-books were regretful - as Jose Ortega y Gasset once wrote, Spain was like a cloud of dust, left in the air when a great people went galloping down the highroad of history.
Spain may never get back in the fast lane again, but it is famously on the move, and Michael Jacobs' travels through it are only intermittently nostalgic. He has taken his title from a poem called 'The Journey' by Antonio Machado, in which the poet wrote of labyrinthine journeys, tortuous paths, deep crypts and ladders to the stars: it is in this spirit of jumbled expectation, feet in the cloaca, brow touching heaven, that Jacobs sets out from the Escorial to meander through the kingdom.
He is a kind of polymath: a specialist in European art history and highly knowledgeable about Spanish literature. He is also a writer of guide-books (Provence, Czechoslovakia, Andalusia, Seville. Madrid), and is alleged to have spent seven years travelling around northern Italy on a moped. This makes him a successor not so much to Laurie Lee, V S Pritchett or George Borrow, as the blurb variously suggests, as to Richard Ford, whose classic Handbook for Travellers in Spain (1845) displays just the same kind of learned, detailed but down-to-earth gusto.
The geographical pattern of the book is unconvincing. It does not really describe a journey at all, but a whole mosaic of journeys, some of its chapters reading like reprints or at least rehashes of earlier essays, some indeed like Sunday supplement contributions. This does not matter in the least. The book is far more a ramble than a quest, Jacobs being mercifully aloof to the 'finding oneself in the soul of Spain' syndrome; it alternates between moods of profound literary inquiry, wry contemplation and hangover.
If there is a theme to this long book at all, it is a theme of literature: almost everywhere he goes, Jacobs relates landscape and history to literature, and seeks out the homes, the memories, the associations and the subjects of Spanish writers. Most of these authors will be unknown to your average islander (me, for instance) and I thought the greatest pleasure of the work was the sense that one was being personally introduced to the immense company of literateurs, past and present, whose lives have given their country so much of its varied nobility.
The worst part of the book is Jacobs' persistent flirtation with the picaresque. There is something faintly embarrassing about his frequent nights on the tiles, spent with companions hazily alluded to in the manner of Lawrence Durrell or Claudio Magris, embarrassing not only because he is himself a man in middle-age, no longer an art student on a moped, but because the long roster of drunken nights and gluttony seems to attribute to Spain itself an adolescent frivolity.
It is my only complaint. For the rest Jacobs is an engaging, wonderfully informative and ever-surprising companion. He doesn't mind how he travels, whether it be on foot in the time-honoured manner of the foreign observer in Spain, or by extravagant taxi. He is interested in everyone, from grandees of modern Spain like Camilo Jose Cela ('El Nobel'), whom he didn't like at all, to the couple of English drop-outs masquerading as Irish (better-liked in Spain) whom he found shacked- up in a particularly remote and uninviting corner of Extramadura.
He can be tartly outspoken, not only about people he meets, but about other foreign writers on the Spanish trail. My own book on Spain gets off lightly, being characterised merely as 'slender' and 'straightforward', but H V Morton's A Stranger in Spain is waspishly defined as 'aptly titled'. Robert Hughes is ticked off for thinking a Barcelonan stew more traditional than it really is, and the more susceptible celebrants of romantic Spain, like the 'gushing' Edmondo de Amicis, are in general given a rough ride.
Nothing gushing about Michael Jacobs. His eye is clear, except on mornings after, his style is sceptical, and one feels throughout that what he writes is true. Whether it be a functionary in a tourist office, a touchingly high-flown village Councillor of Culture, an Islamic revivalist in Grenada or a disagreeable Galician monk, his characters are drawn without fear or favour, and add up to a grand gallery of Spanishness. I wish he had been around to interview General Franco - though in fact many of his planned appointments never happen anyway, because an interviewee doesn't turn up or it's closing day, or too late, giving to his narrative a beguiling sense of the haphazard.
One does not ask for a conclusion to such a work - the medium is the message, to travel is to arrive - but Jacobs does provide one of a kind. By the end of the expedition he has come to be more interested, after all, in the memories than the hopes - perhaps he has come to feel, with those gushing romantics of old, that the true fascination of Spain is the antique separateness it is fast losing. 'Other writers of today,' he says in his barbed way, 'might have looked for an image to convey a sense of an inherently dynamic country enjoying a new dawn.' He preferred to end by calling upon a figure of mythical decay - the last surviving ferry-man of the river Guadiana, who lives in a half-submerged village on the edge of a reservoir.
But it is proper to Between Hopes and Memories that this ancient sage, far from recalling Charon-like legends of the past, should bring the book to an end with a series of salacious jokes about monks, making his listeners laugh until they cried, and now and then popping outside to urinate against the wall of his hut 'so abundantly that the whole structure seemed to shake'.
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