Review: Iberia

IberiaIberia by James A. Michener
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a sense no visitor can ever be adequately prepared to judge a foreign city, let alone an entire nation; the best he can do is to observe with sympathy.

Travel writing is like love poetry. All travelers and lovers are convinced that their experiences are unique, and therefore worth writing about; while in reality most travel stories and love poems express nearly the same basic sentiment, over and over, with only minor variations. Both genres are easy to write and hard to read, which is why far more travel blogs and love poems are written then read. Even brilliant writers sometimes make fools of themselves.

James Michener is not a brilliant writer, but he has done a fine job in this book. And for once in my life, I think I am actually qualified to judge, since I have been to about 80% of the major places he visited. Not only that, but I myself have written about my travels in Spain.

As I said before, Michener is not a brilliant writer; but he is a highly competent one. There are very few parts of this book that are memorably good, but very few that are memorably bad. The best thing that can be said for his prose is that you can read him for hours without getting tired or bored. The only parts that stuck out as bad were in some of his descriptions of churches. For example, I got completely lost in his description of the Toledo Cathedral, even though I’ve been to it—which is a bad sign.

His approach to travel writing is not very different from that of Bill Bryson: go someplace, find an interesting tidbit from the history, and then describe a few nice buildings or whatever. Apart from this, however, the two men are quite different. Michener is very much preoccupied with what in earlier times was called ‘culture’: painting, literature, architecture, music, and so on. Thus much of this book consists of descriptions and appraisals of Spain’s artistic and intellectual life. He covers flamenco, zarzuela, the music of Tomás Luis de Victoria, the paintings of Velazquez and El Greco, romanesque, gothic, and modernist architecture, the philosophy of Seneca, Maimonides, and Averroes, and much else.

But most of all, Michener is concerned with history. For him, Spain is a kind of window into the past, and he spends many pages on his so-called ‘speculations’. Mainly, these speculations deal with the following question: Why was Spain once so great and is now not so great? Personally, I found him to be a pretty mediocre historian, academically speaking; but he knows how to find a good story and how to tell one. And it is true that you learn quite a bit about Spain’s history in the course of this book.

Michener spent about thirty years traveling in Spain, on and off. As a result, he is able to cast a wide net, covering almost every major city in the country. Most of the chapters are centered around one city—Barcelona, Madrid, Salamanca, Seville, Santiago, Córdoba, Toledo—but Michener inevitably ends up leaving the city and touring the surrounding areas. (The exceptions to this are his chapters on the Guadalquivir Marshes and bullfighting.) Not only that, but Michener is very digression-prone, so he will often pause to tell you some bit of history that interests him. Thus in the course of these 900 pages he travels through nearly all of the country, the only noticeable exception being the Basque Country. It is an encyclopedic travel book.

Some people have said this book is outdated. To a certain extent this is true. Michener first came to Spain as a young man, which must have been in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and then continued his visits until the books publication in 1968. Thus you obviously can’t find anything here about the great transformations and dramas of post-Franco Spain. Apart from this, however, the book has kept its relevance. Every time he visited somewhere that I had been, I found little to no discrepancy between his description and my experience. All the beautiful cathedrals and churches and plazas are still standing today, just as lovely as when Michener saw them.

The only section where the book’s age really made itself felt was in the chapter on Madrid. In one section, Michener adds excerpts from several conversations he had about what would happen when Franco died. What is most fascinating is that nobody saw what was coming. In fact, many people insisted that democracy could never work in Spain and that Juan Carlos was just a weak little boy. A mere seven years after this book’s publication, Franco would die, Juan Carlos would take over, and then the new king would effect a masterful transition from fascism to liberal democracy. Of course, Michener can’t be faulted for missing this.

I am not sure whether this book can be enjoyed by somebody who is not at least planning on visiting Spain. It’s simply too long and too detailed. For those who are planning a trip, the book can be profitably skimmed, and indeed that might be the best way to read it. But frankly this may not a great travel guide, if only because it can make you feel inadequate and envious. You see, Michener was a successful novelist with plenty of time and disposable income on his hands. As a result he went everywhere he pleased, stayed in whatever hotel he wanted, spent months driving around eating, drinking, seeing bullfights. Every time he goes to a new town the local professor comes to talk to him about the local history. He gets private tours of every monument. In short, he has many experiences that aren’t available for the rest of us.

On the whole this book is a very well-done piece of work. It is not poetic, not profound, but it covers a lot of ground in a highly readable way. But the book suffers from several faults. First, it is simply too big and sprawling. Michener needed a better organizing principle than “Hey, this is all the stuff I liked in Spain!” This lack of an overarching organization really wore on me by the end of the book. There are only so many buildings I can hear described in agonizing detail, there are only so many times I can hear him say “This is one of Spain’s finest plazas,” or “This was one of the best meals I had in Spain.”

This is related to another flaw. For travel not to be frivolous, I think it must change you in some way, if only subtly. Well, Michener is certainly not a superficial person, and I think he was deeply affected by Spain. Nevertheless, at times I wondered whether all this travel—all this eating and music and art loving—was just another, more sophisticated version of consumer culture. Of course this is a bigger question than this book; and in fact it can be asked about all modern travel. At what point does the itch to go to a new city and to see all the sights become just as frivolous as the itch to buy the newest iPhone? At what point does travel stop being a rewarding experience and start becoming a consumption of experience? And by the way, this question can be asked of books too, especially on Goodreads: at what point does reading stop being a form of self-learning and start being a form of conspicuous consumption? Probably there is no clear line, but in any case there were several times during the course of this book that Michener’s urge to see and know everything about Spain struck me as the urge to consume the country.

The third flaw was Michener’s preoccupation with authenticity. He often talks about finding the ‘real’ Spain, and I find this grating. He goes from place to place, finding each one more ‘authentic’ and more ‘Spanish’ than the last. I admit that I have had experiences in which I couldn’t help saying to myself “This is so incredibly Spanish.” Just the same, I am deeply suspicious about this idea of authenticity in travel. Every tourist looks for something that is unique to the area they are visiting. This unique thing—whether it’s a dish or a genre of music—becomes profitable and then becomes commodified very quickly by locals hoping to earn some money. Thus a kind of arms-race ensues, with tourists trying to find out where the locals go and locals trying to find out where the tourists go. The whole thing is silly. And the silliest part is that often the locals are not fond of the ‘authentic’ local attraction. I know Spaniards who dislike flamenco, and I’ve met Germans who insisted that the best food in Germany is Döner Kebab.

These flaws are all certainly applicable to myself. I offer them in the spirit of comradeship and not of spite. All things considered, this book is really a marvelous tour of Spain. Michener did a fine job in a difficult task. If you read it, you will learn a lot, and you’ll get many good ideas for trips too. Michener is a clear writer, a knowledgeable guide, and a genial companion. More than that, this book has a special significance for me, since we are two writers with similar experiences, similar flaws, and roughly the same interests. This book spoke to directly to me in a way that few other books have, so I am sad to be putting it down.

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