Miracles do happen, and Spain's peaceful transition to democracy is one of them. Perhaps, then, smaller miracles might occur in the south-eastern corner of Andalucia, especially if you have the guardian spirit of the "Santo Custodio" watching over you, as is the case with the village of Frailes in the province of Jaén. This is an immense landscape of olive-covered slopes, holm oaks, walnut, cherry and almond trees, framed by the distant profile of the Sierra Nevada: border country, a land of emigration and, after the Civil War, of hunger. In his poem "Andaluces de Jaén", Miguel Hernandez asked ironically "To whom do they belong, these olive groves?" As a popular song, it was banned under Franco.
There are hints of the war in Michael Jacobs's account of village life. Though gruesome, they remain folkloric. The señoritos have departed, leaving their antique houses and remains of a spa. The young make for the city, even if only for the nightlife. Still, Frailes has a nightlife of its own and at the Pub Guaniero, the song of the summer is un movimiento sexi. It's the same at the Bar Lady Diana or the Discoteca Oh!, an Eighties throwback above the inn where the author finally settles.
Luckily, Discoteca Oh! seems more of a hang-out for late-night chatting and drinking. The landlady has only ever had two other guests, preferring to install her family. Whatever made you come to the ugliest village in Andalucia? Jacobs is asked, as he contemplates its dismal modern accretions. The village opens itself up with gifts of watermelons, squash, giant marrows, jars of goats' cheese, shyly left by people in funny outfits. It is all very scrumptious, but there is a weird history of suicide. Could the walnut trees promote some strange suicide gene? The author goes truffling off to find out.
Jacobs is a romantic, and he casts himself in the role of Literary Traveller. If he wasn't so sincere, it would be irritating. He is saved by his total engagement with the rhythms of rural life, whacking olive trees with gusto, complicit in ghastly slaughter, learning to make black pudding with his arms plunged elbow deep in blood, signing a cross - in the Name of the Father - in the mixture.
Many of the Fraileros have the same name, and their nicknames have a kind of poetry. A man called "Chica'" (girl) runs a bar called Chica Boy. Matasuegras (Killed-his Mother-in-law) has inherited his title. There is a crop of Custodios named for the Guardian Angel and when Jacobs finally does the Route of Miracles with El Sereno, the saint bears an uncanny resemblance to a photo of a faith healer he had heard of years earlier. They certainly have the same dodgy fringe.
El Sereno, once night-watchman, is a jaunty old party with a penchant for writers. Serenity is not his watchword. Thrusting his serenolio from the world's tiniest press on all comers, it is he who with his rasping yellow Suzuki becomes the author's cicerone and companion. Their adventures form the beating heart of this book. Waterfalls appear where there was drought, and Frailes is put on the map by an effort of will that is nothing short of miraculous. Thousands, it seems, are fed by the gardener with a giant paella pan. The priest's procession of St Anthony mingles with crowds who have come to witness the opening of a cobwebbed cinema, tricked out with the old staff and an aged sex symbol. It's a finale worthy of Fellini.
This rusticana a la Espagnola is a heartwarming and informative narrative. It should be read by everyone thinking of buying a house in Spain. The author is, and I hope that the renewal of Frailes is not an illusion.
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