Monday, January 9, 2012

A guided tour through Spain

Farewell Spain, Kate O'Brien

I bought this book many years ago, when I first discovered Kate O'Brien's books, and then let it sit on the TBR pile.  When I finally read O'Brien's Mary Lavelle last year, the Spanish setting was so vivid, so much a part of the story, that I could hardly wait to explore it again in Farewell Spain.

This is a complex book, with many layers, not simply the travelogue that I was expecting.  Written during the winter of 1936-1937, it is also a passionate protest against the ravages of the Spanish Civil War, and an elegy for the Spain that she knows and loves.  She fears not just the disappearance of that Spain, but also of Europe itself, through war, and even more war's aftermath, accelerating a drive toward uniformity:
     "If European society survives its next crisis, if science, having destroyed us, permits or maybe compels us to live again, it is to a very new sort of life that these races will be beckoned back . . .
   "The woes and beauties wrought hitherto upon the map by differences of language, faith and climate will be no longer worth consideration for - even if they are still potential - they will be controlled, patrolled by science, the international dictator, which in any case, by air-travel, radio and television will have made all possible novelties into boring fireside matters-of-fact . . .
     "Meanwhile we wait for our old, shaggy, warted world to go off in its last fit. And we count our ill-starred blessings - the junk we have accumulated and so obstinately loved and sought to increase. Temples, palaces, cathedrals; libraries full of moonshine, pictures to proclaim dead persons, quaint legends, quainter personal conceptions . . ."
Farewell Spain is her protest, her defiance, her theses nailed to the door for all to see.  But it is not an angry book, or a sad one (though there are moments of both).  "I write as a sentimental traveller," she says, but she is never that.  And since this is Kate O'Brien, it is a beautifully written and wonderfully readable book.

O'Brien takes the reader on a tour of northern Spain, along the Costa Verde all the way to Compostela, before heading south to Avila and Madrid.  She then travels north again, ending up in Bilboa, where she herself worked as an Irish "miss" and found the inspiration for Mary Lavelle's similar experiences.  Rather than a straight-forward narrative of one trip, O'Brien weaves together memories from different visits over the years.  Reading this I was reminded again how little I know of the geography of Spain.  I kept an atlas open while I read, and I frequently resorted to Google maps to locate the towns she mentions.  O'Brien also frequently refers to Spanish history and literature, and while I recognized some of the names, most of the references went over my head.  One exception was the chapter on Teresa of Avila, whom O'Brien claims as a feminist and "the greatest woman in Christian history."  I have read her Autobiography, and completely failed to understand her great work on mysticism, The Way of Perfection.  But O'Brien's frequent quotes from her letters make me think I need to look for those soon, as well as O'Brien's own monograph on this first woman Doctor of the Church.

I also have to admit myself shamefully ignorant about the Spanish Civil War, the shadow of which hangs over this book.  "As I write [in the first chapter] Irun is burning . . . The café on the corner is a heap of broken stones. A few men stand dejectedly about with guns."  O'Brien, though a proclaimed pacifist, is firmly on the side of the Republicans in the struggle against Franco and fascism.  She links this civil war to the American one: "But at least a war waged on the clear insistence - that government of the people by the people for the people shall not perish from the earth is one very impressive if horrible way of saying something which must never, never be denied . . ."  Franco's government reacted to this open partisanship by barring her from Spain for twenty years.

I was glad to learn from the Introduction that, after the ban was lifted, O'Brien returned many times to Spain before her death in 1974.  If I am ever lucky enough to travel there, this book will be the first thing I pack.


  1. So you also read with online maps handy. It slows down the reading but adds so much enjoyment and depth. I am a pushover for references to paintings and will always stop to go look up an unfamiliar work. Also music on YouTube. Slow reader here. - Fay

  2. Oh yes, maps - because I have such a poor visual memory, and have forgotten so much of the world's geography. And I also look up paintings, and buildings as well. I took forever over Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, because I was back & forth with google. I hadn't thought of music, though - thanks!


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!