After two reviews of mystery thrillers set in Spain, I thought you might appreciate a quieter look at a little fishing village by a classic travel writer.
In the 1950′s Norman Lewis went in search of “vanished times” in the small Spanish fishing village of Farol, north of Barcelona. He found a land more like the Spain of classic literature than the energetic modernism of post-war Europe. But in the three years he spent summers working alongside the fishermen of Farol, he witnessed a transformation. He says:
By the end of my third season it was clear that Spain’s spiritual and cultural evolution was at an end, overwhelmed by the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms.
In Voices of the Old Sea, the reader meets an unforgettable cast of characters whom Lewis introduces with respect and a careful neutrality. He rents a room from the most powerful person in the community, known as the Grandmother, whom he describes thus:
She was large, dignified and slow-moving, dressed perpetually in black, with the face of a Borgia pope, a majestic nose and a defiant chin, sprouting an occasional bristle.
Everyone accepted the Grandmother’s meddling in family affairs. She decided when a couple could afford to have a child, advised on birth control, and named all children born in the village.
The countryside had once supported wealthy “cork barons” making their fortunes from the forests of cork trees. In order to maintain control over their workers, the cork barons kept roads in such poor condition that the communities remained isolated from outside influence. When metal bottle tops replaced corks in most bottles, the economy collapsed and left only fishing in Farol and poor farming in neighboring Sort. However, a wealthy developer arrives and during Lewis’ three year stay he pushes the communities toward tourism as an economic staple.
Lewis presents the point of view of people like the developer, the priest, the Alcade (mayor) in a non-judgmental fashion. Don Alberto de Soto, largest landowner, supports a paternalistic feudalism mixed with a sort of anarchism that he sees as only beneficial to the people. Working as a common laborer, Lewis gains the trust of the community members and reports the deeply held beliefs of the villagers without the condescension that so often marks this kind of memoir. The community runs on a complex system of beliefs and superstitions. Lewis genius lies in his ability to present the lives without favoritism for anyone’s point of view. That gives the reader a vivid portrait of the whole community. His physical descriptions are as crystalline as his descriptions of lifestyle and mindset.
This was Spain as I never thought of it, and had never seen it before, one of immense green prairies under the soft sun of spring. Hares were streaking in all directions, only their heads showing, leaving little comets’ tails of waving grass, and we passed a white horse, hooves out of sight, poised absolutely motionless…Miles away these green pastures met an horizon of toy villages with windmills, each surmounted by a church.
In Voices of the Old Sea, though, Lewis is not presenting a guide to the landscape so much as an almost anthropological view of a culture and the effects of change. He describes his friend Sebastian,
…who typified in so many ways the country of his birth; this thin man with a bold but melancholic eye and a head full of poetic fancies, this passive but successful resister of despots, living on little more than air and with no demands upon the future other than that it should show some slight improvement on the present.
It seems that the village of Farol was even more of a “disappeared past” than we are led to believe. According to a , not only is there no evidence of a village by the name of Farol–and I couldn’t find it on Google or on maps–but according to Lewis’ biography, he did not travel to the Costa Brava solo as indicated in the book, but instead with wife and children. It does not matter to me. In fact, I would think it a good idea to change the name of the town to protect it. Lewis was, after all, a novelist as well as a travel writer, and he had a point to make.
The major question we are left with is whether the changes in the community will be an improvement. Interestingly, the theme of destructive development in Voices of the Old Sea, describing the early 1950′s in Spain, parallels the themes of two other creations I have recently reviewed–the first, Junior Bonner, was filmed in Arizona in the early 1970′s. (You can see my review at Reel Life With Jane.) This book also relates to The Sadness of the Samurai in that the lasting effects of the Facist regime and civil war continue to reverberate.
I am eternally grateful to a hotel manager in St. Lucia who recommended Norman Lewis to me years ago. He was right–he is one of the best and most travel writers of England. We have previously talked here about his wonderful Naples ’44, his war experiences immediately preceding this sojourn in Spain, and The Honoured Society about the history of the Mafia in Sicily.
Some people think that the only way you can truly know another culture is to spend extended periods of time with them, as Lewis did with the fishermen of Farol. What’s the longest you have spent in another culture?
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