The term "romantic traveller", once used indiscriminately by Spaniards to describe any foreigner with a passionate interest in Spain, seems particularly applicable to Jason Webster. Though alert to the ugly, absurd and kitsch aspects of modern Spain, he is an author whose two previous books, Duende and Andalus, have greatly furthered popular notions of this country as an exotic, passionate and essentially Moorish land. Aided by film-star looks, a youthful earnestness, and an endearing vulnerability, he has won the hearts of thousands of readers nostalgic for the days when writers such as the young Laurie Lee could set off across Spain equipped with just a rucksack and a violin.
Webster is now well into his thirties, happily married to a flamenco dancer, and has acquired an idyllic retreat in the Valencian countryside. His days as a fundamentally innocent and at times introspective wanderer would seem to be over. But, at the start of ¡Guerra!, he hears that his bucolic surroundings harbour an unmarked mass grave from the Civil War. Soon afterwards his wife is called away on a foreign engagement; and he has an unfortunate encounter with some right-wing thugs. All this encourages him to embark again on his travels, with a view to exploring the darker side to the country that he has perceived up to now in a very glamorous light.
As with Giles Tremlett's recent Ghosts of Spain, it is in many ways a shame that ¡Guerra! does not focus its investigations on the grave that provides the book with its compelling opening pages. More and more civil-war graves of this kind are now coming to light, and the whole issue of what to do with them is revealing both of lingering tensions within rural communities, and of the efforts of a minority to recover forgotten aspects of a past of increasing irrelevance to Spaniards today.
Instead of using his intimate knowledge of the Valencian world to examine the war and its legacy in a local context, Webster has bravely opted for an ambitious overview that involves him travelling all over Spain and down to Morocco. He is not perhaps the best person to search for general truths about the conflict. Subtle analysis is not his strong point, nor can he be relied upon to make the detailed research necessary to understand the extraordinary complexities of Spanish politics of the 1930s.
Worries about Webster's suitability for his chosen task are heightened by his failure to mention the most penetratingly clear synthesis of the circumstances leading up to the war - Gerald Brenan's masterly Spanish Labyrinth. More worryingly, the personal encounters that rigidly alternate with his historical chapters seem at first largely intended to highlight the most offensive of all stereotypical images of Spain - notably, the inherent cruelty of the people. Thus he is abandoned in the middle of nowhere by an unpleasant taxi driver; or has his luggage stolen in a grim Zaragoza.
Yet, as with his two previous books, if you are not convinced by Webster as a serious commentator on Spain, you are likely to be seduced by his powers as a storyteller. Such familiar incidents as the assassination of the poet Lorca are retold with such panache that you are made to feel that you are reading about them for the first time. And the narrative of his own miserable experiences is redeemed by the arrival of the transsexual and delightful Kiki. As ambivalent in her views as in her sexuality, Kiki not only helps to extend Webster's awareness of the ambiguities of history, but also succeeds in making him question the romanticism of his attitudes.
With ¡Guerra!, Webster concludes what is being promoted as his "Spanish trilogy". I only hope now that he devotes himself to the writing of either pure autobiography or fiction. Freed from a sense of obligation to reach some meaningful conclusion about his adopted country, his considerable gifts as a writer might be allowed fully to shine.
Michael Jacobs's 'Ghost Train through the Andes' is published next month by John MurrayReuse content