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A good read: Extremadura in literature

Just as guidebooks to Spain rarely dwell on Extremadura, literature featuring the region is also a slim volume. In the most famous Spanish story of all, Cervantes' Don Quixote spends 900-odd pages roaming the landscape of neighbouring La Mancha, but apparently never sets foot in Extremadura. The best-known English writers on Spain have also tended to pass it by. When, in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Laurie Lee busked his way from Vigo in the north to Málaga on the south coast, he somehow gave the expanse of Spain's least populated region a wide berth. Browse the bookshelves, or Amazon, a little further however, and you'll find some fascinating books that evoke the landscape and culture of the extremeños.

The most celebrated is The Family of Pascual Duarte, by Camilo José Cela. Set in the deeply troubled 1930s, it's the story of a peasant awaiting execution for a string of killings, including that of his own mother. Sitting somewhere between Albert Camus' The Outsider and Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin, this brief existentialist masterpiece deals with the extraordinary hardships of rural Spain in the first half of the 20th century. When it first appeared in 1942 it provoked outrage, and was banned by Franco's authorities. Cela went on to win the Nobel prize for Literature. Here, Pascual Duarte remembers his home town:

"It was a hot and sunlit village, rich enough in olive trees, and (begging your pardon) hogs, its houses so bright with whitewash that the memory of them still makes me blink, a plaza all paved with cobblestone, and a fine three-sprouted fountain in the middle of the plaza. No water had flowed from the three mouths of the fountain for some years before I left the village..."

In 1928, VS Pritchett, grandfather of the Daily Telegraph’s cartoonist Matt, drew a colourful picture of the region in his first book, Marching Spain.

“I was marching through one of those immense uninhabited wildernesses, the despoblados of Extremadura. The sunlight crackled and split and splintered among the oak scrub and blazed spurting like blinding gas flare from the great boulders...After some miles I heard the familiar aqueous talking of sheep bells in the wilderness, and at last overtook the outskirts of an enormous flock of sheep babbling northward. There were four huge dogs, like mastiffs, with them, and I saw the shepherd, a weird man clothed in fantastic bits of sheepskin and cowhide, lichened with age…” Maybe it’s a little overwritten - the simile and metaphor count is sky high - but it is affectionate and respectful, and many of the scenes he describes are just as they are today.

In 1968 the American author James Michener took the unusual step of kicking off a tour of Spain for his book Iberia in Extremadura. “Why here?” he was asked, a question we’ve often had too. He had come in search of the conquistadors who left behind towns like Trujillo and Medellín to seek their fortune and shape the new world of the Americas.

“When I heard the word Spain, I visualized not kings and priests, nor painters and hidalgos, nor Madrid or Sevilla, but the vast reaches of emptiness, lonely uplands occupied by the solitary shepherd, the hard land of Spain stretching off to interminable distances and populated by tough, weatherbeaten men with never a ruffle nor a caparisoned hose beneath them.” Michener also scores points for correctly identifying, and exuberantly trying out, perhaps the most used word in the Extremaduran lexicon: estupendo.

Less enthusiastic was the Anglo-Irish writer Honor Tracy, who complained her way through Extremadura in the 1950s. In Silk Hats and No Breakfast she travelled admirably alone during the dark days of Franco's rule, but she’s rarely content. Her description of the parador in Mérida is, however, spot on.

“As a drowning man comes up for air, at Mérida I sent economy to the devil and stayed at the parador. It was a charming house, solid, washed white, with ancient coats of arms above the door and storks nesting in the turrets on the roof...The meals were delicious, if gargantuan, and...the whole place had the easy-going friendly air of all good Spanish hotels, as if to squeeze money from the visitor were not the end and aim of life. But the keenest pleasure of all was to stand in a snowy bath-robe and watch real water pouring into an actual bath.” You could write that today and scarcely change a word. This too: “Nearly all the guests were wealthy French people, hurriedly ‘doing’ the Roman remains before they passed on to the more notable cities of the south.”

Any reader interested in Spanish history should get hold of a copy of Richard Ford’s classic Handbook for Travellers in Spain, published in 1845. Original editions of this pioneering guide sell for hundreds of pounds, but you can get a three volume reprint for around £50 or a heavily abridged paperback, entitled Gatherings from Spain, for a fiver.

We strongly recommend the full version, a masterpiece of erudition, eccentricity and love for Spain, with copious supporting quotations from Spanish, the Bible and classical authors in untranslated Latin and Greek. At one point he accuses Spanish writers of leaving nothing in their inkstand, no deja nada en el tintero, apparently unaware of his own incontinence. His opening chapter, entitled Preliminary Remarks, fills 212 pages.

These days, some of his observations will rankle - for example he regularly highlights the Spaniard's Arabic heritage with the words 'like the Oriental…' - but his knowledge of las cosas españolas is astonishing and highly entertaining. And he's a fan of our favourite region, to which he devotes a generous chapter. Here's a representative sample:

"Birds of prey of all kinds abound; and in the summer, flights of turtle-doves come over from Barbary to breed, and as they are never molested, they scarcely avoid man's approach, but coo about in pairs, images of connubial felicity: they alight in the wild olive-trees, like the one sent forth by Noah after the Deluge was subsided."

"The entomology of Estremadura is endless, and perfectly uninvestigated - de minimis non curat Hispanus; but the heavens and earth teem with the minute creation, and in these lonely wastes, where no human voice disturbs the silence, the balmy air resounds with the buzzing hum of multitudinous insects…"

"Estremadura, we speak from repeated personal investigation, abounds in objects of interest to the traveller, although hitherto it has been much neglected, from lying out of the ordinary track of those who, like wild geese, follow the one the other."

Hear, hear.

The details:

The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela, first published 1942, translated by Anthony Kerrigan, 1964, Little, Brown

Marching Spain by VS Pritchett, first published 1928, paperback edition 1988, Vintage

Iberia by James A Michener, first published 1968, Random House

Silk Hats and No Breakfast by Honor Tracy, first published 1959, Methuen, paperback edition 1962, Penguin

Handbook for Travellers in Spain by Richard Ford, first published 1845, reprint 1966 Centaur Press

Gatherings from Spain by Richard Ford, first published 1846, paperback edition 1999 Pallas Athene

Photos by Andy Teare and Peter Barron


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