Review: Ghosts of Spain

Review: Ghosts of Spain

Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent PastGhosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is still a mystery to me how so many Spaniards can function on so little sleep.

Late one night in Madrid, as my friend and I finished eating our dinner on Spanish time—which means we get home around midnight—we were walking back to our apartment when it suddenly began to rain. First, it sprinkled; then, it drizzled; and soon it was pouring. Without an umbrella (here amusingly named paraguas, “for water”) we were forced to take cover in a bar.

As we stood there, looking out at the rain washing down the tiled streets, I heard somebody behind me say, in accented English, “It’s finally raining in Madrid.” I turned around and saw that it was the Spanish waitress, looking pensively out at the rain. Beside her was a bald patron, with the same thoughtful look on his face. “Oh, Madri’,” he said, in a thick Scottish accent. “It’s a beau’i’ful ci’y. Jus’ beau’i’ful.”

To me, this moment summarized my reaction to this city so far. It’s lovely here in Madrid. I had never planned on moving to Spain; I wasn’t even particularly interested in visiting Spain on vacation. It was a mixture of chance and opportunity that prompted me to pick up and fly over here; and consequently, I had no idea what to expect. The most pleasant surprise, for me, is how easy it has been for a New Yorker to feel at home here. Madrid has many of the positive qualities one finds in New York City: bustle, inclusiveness, diversity, variety, nightlife. Added to this, Madrid is safer, cleaner, cheaper, and, most conspicuously, much more relaxed.

The besuited man (or woman) walking quickly down the street holding a disposable cup of coffee is an omnipresent figure on the streets of NYC. Meals are quick there; people swallow their food and keep moving, often simply eating on the go. The $1 pizza, which you can get by throwing a dollar at the cashier, who then throws you the slice in return so you can eat it without breaking your stride, is perhaps the quintessential New York meal. You can do anything in NYC—anything except slow down.

In this respect, Madrid is quite the opposite. Rarely do you see people running for the trains, for the busses, elbowing their way through crowds. Virtually nobody eats while walking; and disposable coffee cups are a rarity, as coffee is normally drunk sitting down. When Madrileños eat, they like to take their time. They sit and chat, for perhaps hours, sipping their drinks and occasionally snacking on tapas and raciones. Here, the waiters don’t bother you; they serve you your food and disappear. Often, I have to chase them inside in order to get the check; but this is probably because I am an impatient American.

As a consequence of this generally relaxed attitude, I’ve found adapting to life here to be extremely pleasant (despite my ignorance of the language, which is a constant impediment). And I’m glad that, to help me through my own transición, I have Giles Tremlett as a guide, a British journalist who has been living in Madrid for decades.

This book is about the historical imagination in modern Spain. Through thirteen chapters, Tremlett examines some of the political fault-lines that run through the country. He begins with an examination of Franco’s regime and its aftermath. There is, apparently, no safe way to talk about the past in Spain—not even something which, to me, should be as uncontroversial as Franco’s fascism. But different political parties propose competing interpretations of the past, which of course reflect their different interpretations of the present. Hard as it is to believe, but the horrible bombings of commuter trains on March 11, 2004, were also the occasion of political squabbling, as the right-wingers insisted that ETA (the Basque terrorist group) had something to do with it.

To tell the story of modern Spain, Tremlett takes the reader across the country: from Madrid, to Bilbao, to Barcelona, to Galicia, and even to Spanish jails and slums. He examines flamenco, Basque and Catalan separatism, Spanish art and cinema, political corruption, gender relations, prostitution, tourism, and much more, as he attempts to pin down the quickly changing country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his background, his method is journalistic. He focuses on the sorts of things that would make the news; and his writing-style bears the hallmarks of his profession—impersonal rather than personal, intended to convey information rather than emotion or analysis.

Like every book, this one isn’t perfect. Although Tremlett packs an impressive amount of information into the book, his analyses are often superficial, or just nonexistent. He has the journalistic habit of letting others do his thinking for him, merely reporting their opinions. Thus, while informative, I didn’t find Tremlett to be a penetrating guide. What’s more, though I generally found his writing quite strong, I sometimes felt that his style, which he obviously honed while writing shorter pieces for newspapers and magazines, did not have enough forward impetus to carry me through a whole chapter. In a longer format such as a book, more organization, more interconnection, more integration is needed than Tremlett is accustomed to; and thus his chapters sometimes seem scatterbrained, disconnected—too much like a list of facts and quotes.

(I’d also like to note, in passing, that Tremlett’s comma-use is the exact opposite of mine, which I found continually irksome. He typically omits commas where I would include them, and includes commas where I would omit them. For example, he writes “He or, normally, she is joined…” whereas I would write “He, or normally she, is joined…” Admittedly, this is surpassingly trivial.)

These are fairly minor complaints, however. Really, all things considered, it is hard for this anglosajón to imagine a better book to read as an introduction to this fantastic country. I still have a great deal to learn—not least Castellano—but at least now I have had a grand tour of the place. And perhaps one of these days, as I wander back from another late dinner, I’ll bump into Tremlett himself, and gratefully shake his hand.

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Review: The New Spaniards

Review: The New Spaniards

The New SpaniardsThe New Spaniards by John Hooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The New Spaniards is an updated and revised edition of The Spaniards, which was originally published in 1986. The revisions were extensive, and thus this text does not feel at all outdated. For subject matter, Hooper casts as wide a net as he can in the span of 400 pages, tackling subject after subject in a succession of pleasantly short but informative chapters. One learns here of Spain’s government, history, economy, culture, music, cinema, monarchy, military, sexual mores, as well as some of the ‘centrifugal forces’ (as Hooper calls them) in modern Spain, the separatist movements in the Basque country and Catalonia.

It is useful to compare this book (as David does) with Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain. The books are, at first glance, quite similar: they are both about modern Spain, both were published in 2006, both are by British journalists who have spent much time living here, and, most importantly, both have yellow covers. But the approaches taken by the two authors differ considerably. Tremlett is personal and immediate; he is married to a Spaniard, has children in Spanish schools, and thus has a lot invested in the future of Spain. His book is thus more anecdotal; he frequently writes in the first person, telling us of his travels throughout the country, the people he meets, the food he tastes, trying to convey some sense of what it’s like to actually live here.

Hooper, by contrast, although he spent many years here, is now living elsewhere. Perhaps as a consequence of this, his tone is much more detached and (as much as possible in a book of this sort) objective. His writing gets straight to the point; he keeps the reader’s interest, not through storytelling or flashy prose, but simply by presenting insightful information clearly and succinctly. Thus, although somewhat dry, I often found the book hard to put down, as it is a veritable feast of facts, figures, particulars, and generalities. So I am heartily grateful, both to Hooper and to Tremlett, for now I feel fairly knowledgeable about my new home.

And what a fascinating place to call home. I’m somewhat ashamed that I had so little interest in Spain before I came here, for it is a country well worth knowing. As many Spaniards like to point out, Spain is “different.” Just the other day, someone remarked to me that “Europe begins at the Pyrenees,” which is a saying here. There is, apparently, a widespread notion among Spaniards that Spain is quite unlike other European countries. Perhaps this is because Spain didn’t fight in either World War I or World War II, and lingered under a repressive regime until the mid 1970s, more or less isolated from the anxieties of the Cold War.

But Spain is changing quickly. Arguably, the theme of both Hooper’s book and Tremlett’s is “change.” Justifiably so, when you consider that Spain went from a Catholic society where divorce was nigh impossible to one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage. And perhaps because many Spaniards think that their country lags behind, they have fully and enthusiastically embraced modernity. According to Hooper, moderno has unambiguously positive connotations here (something which I haven’t had enough time to verify yet). But one only has to skim the history of modern Spain to be convinced that, in the last forty years, Spaniards have thrown themselves into the future. Indeed, Hooper begins this book with the results of an international survey which found that, in Spain, there exists the biggest difference in basic values between the young and the old.

Though, of course, some things change and some remain the same. The Spanish attitude to work is, as far as I can tell, still quite different from both the United States and the northern European countries. After witnessing how much people work in New York, a Spanish friend of mine, with a worried look on his face, told me “Work is good, but there are other things in life.” Simply by walking around Madrid, which I’ve heard is one of the most hardworking parts of Spain, I notice a big difference. In New York, at rush hour, the streets are filled with legions of men and women dressed for work, cramming into the subway, all with vaguely worried looks on their faces. Yet here, rush hour is not very noticeable; in fact, it took a few weeks for me to notice it at all. True, at certain times of the day, the metro is likely to be more full of nicely dressed people; but never is it packed, and nobody runs for the train or tramples you on their way out the door.

The cultural attitude that has been programmed into me since birth is that work is a duty, and the more and the better work you do, the more worthy you are. The money earned is a marker of personal value; and the more accumulated, the better. Indeed, I know people who are tremendously successful and who make a great deal of money, but who are loathe to spend even chump change. The attitude here is quite the opposite. Spaniards seem to regard work as a necessary evil. This is not to say that they can’t or don’t work hard—during the recession, many worked themselves to the bone, and still do—but the idea that one’s productivity is a measure of one’s dignity, and the sort of perverse pride some people in the States take in staying long hours at the office, eating at their desks, and hardly sleeping or spending time with friends—this seems to be largely absent here. And while most people I know in the States think of enjoying oneself as a privilege to be earned through work, in Spain enjoyment is regarded as a right. Thus, while the rush hour here is easy to overlook, the crush of women wearing high heels and make up, and men with gelled up hair and collared shirts, is noticeable every night of the week.

Doubtless, what I’ve just written is a stereotype, lacking in depth or nuance. But if you want something more insightful, you’ll just have to read this book. It is a sweeping and penetrating look at modern Spain, written with authority and rigor. Indeed, it is a bit hard for me to believe that Hooper is a journalist, for this book lacks that characteristic myopia of most journalism, which concentrates exclusively on the present moment. Hooper, by contrast, is scholarly and maintains a historical perspective throughout. In short, I recommend this book heartily; and I hope that it inspires you as much as it has me to ponder modern Spain.

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