Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: 'The Tomb in Seville' by Normal Lewis

The Tomb in Seville: Crossing Spain on the Brink of Civil War (2003)
Norman Lewis (1908-2003)

150 pages

In the fall of 1934, Norman Lewis, his long career as a travel writer still ahead of him, traveled with his future brother-in-law to Spain. The trip was at the behest of his future father-in-law, Ernesto Corvajas, who asked that "[we] pay our respects at the family tomb in the cathedral [of Seville], and discover if any memory, however faint, had survived of the Corvajas in the ancient capital of Andalusia." (p.2) Over half-a-century later, shortly before his death, Lewis wrote of his adventures, in "The Tomb in Seville."
Lewis and his brother arrived at the Spanish border at a particularly tense moment in what was a destructive decade in Spanish history. The 1930's in Spain saw on-going political crises in the 2nd Republic, which had been formed in 1931; crises that would eventually lead to civil war in 1936. A year before their arrival, in November 1933, the center and right wing parties had won a majority in the elections. After the elections, the Spanish president asked a politician from the center to form the new government, which angered the right wing, and as the summer of 1934 wore on, the right wing weighed withdrawing its support completely from the government. At the same time the left wing, frustrated by its losses in the election, had leaders crisscrossing the country, preaching revolution. In the late summer and early fall of 1934, huge strikes by the left wing parties heralded the beginning of the "October Revolution," which failed everywhere in Spain, though required the army to put down an armed uprising in Asturias. (For more details on the years of the Spanish 2nd Republic and the Spanish Civil War: The Spanish Civil War)

On leaving London, Lewis notes that he and his companion were only able to get a ticket as far as the French-Spanish border, their travel agent explaining that the border was closed much of the time due to the on-going strikes and general country-wide disruptions in Spain. The pair was eventually able to cross over into Spain, but would have to circumnavigate much of the Iberian Peninsula to get to their destination of Seville, the direct route blocked by the flare-ups of unrest and violence. They traveled on foot, by train and occasionally taxi, sometimes sleeping in the countryside. First working their way south, they eventually made it to Madrid, where they joined the locals in dodging the crossfire between the various political factions, as the strikes continued, and the left and right wing parties battled one another. The direct route from Madrid to Seville closed to them, they ended up having to travel west into Portugal, south to the Mediterranean, before crossing back into Spain, and eventually reaching Seville. Once in Seville they could finally fulfill the original purpose of the trip, searching out the brother-in-law's family tomb.

The destination is, however, not so much the point of the story Lewis tells of the trip; their time in Seville is ultimately rather anticlimactic. The true charm of the book lies in the discoveries and adventures during their travels, such as finding in the countryside people living in furnished caves --- "rent free and cool in the summer" (p. 18); traveling with a train car full of servant girls heading for the far away big city to find work --- "cheerful, muscular, uninhibited ladies" (p. 103); or describing the Spanish custom of paseo, roughly translated as a leisurely evening walk --- "the woman who had waited on us at table, and had received our compliments in the matters of service and food with obvious pleasure, [requested that we] escort her in the first paseo of the evening … and we spent the hour and half of the paseo strolling girl in arm in the company of several hundred local citizens in the gardens by the sea." (p. 4)

And, he does not leave out the negative in what they find: "the bus that went to Salamanca at half past seven in the morning seemed at first sight a foolhardy sort of vehicle to travel in." (p. 81); "we decided to devote [the day] to a health-giving walk out of town, to be followed by a swim in the river if we could manage to reach any part that was free from pollution." (p.35); or, "[on] market day [in Salamanca] country folk who crowd in to dispose of their produce … provided an unusual tourist attraction, for many of them were from the most backward and poverty-stricken area of the whole country and were even beginning, on these grounds, to make an appearance as curiosities in the brochures disturbed by the local Patronato de Turismo." (p. 84)

However, overall, Lewis brings a dry humor to his writing, that softens the telling:
[Our view of the street] was bisected by a gently sloping wall behind which occasionally passed the heads and shoulder of citizens of Madrid who were walking with their hands held aloft [to show they were not fighting]. From time to time an exceptionally heavy volley would ring out and any of the moving busts in sight would be suddenly withdrawn from the field of vision, although whether the owner had been struck down, or was adopting a prone position out of prudence, it was impossible to say. Immediately adjacent to the doorway on the station wall an alluring travel poster bore the inscription in English 'Spain Attracts and Holds You. Under the Blue Skies of Spain Cares are Forgotten.' (p. 43)
He describes all of these encounters in short vignettes that give the feeling he is writing a long letter to a good friend, describing occurrences on his trip. In fact, Lewis' style can require an adjustment for a reader used to a more traditionally-sequenced description. Although the trip is told in geographic order, there is often only a brief transition from one step in the journey to the next. Lewis will describe an event or encounter in significant detail, and then suddenly move to the next encounter down the road, often without much more than a few words of transition. The focus is more on the adventures that he and his companion had as they traveled through Spain and Portugal to their destination in Seville, than in a simple relating of how they finally arrived.

These 'pictures of words' provided by Lewis are wonderful glimpses into Spain in the 1930's, a country still mostly isolated from the rest of Europe, lagging behind in the industrialization and modernization that much of the rest of the continent had experienced to that point, but also in the sometimes negative effects industrialization and modernization inevitably have on local traditions and culture. His feeling of the romance and wonder of exploring a new world come through strongly in this engaging book.

Other reviews / information:
A review in The Guardian.

A review by Julian Evans, who has written a biography of Norman Lewis.

A review in The Independent.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

No comments:

Post a Comment