A return to find poverty... and vitality

Gerald Brenan spent many years in his house in Churriana.
Gerald Brenan spent many years in his house in Churriana. / SUR
  • books

  • Gerald Brenan (1894-1987). The Face of Spain (1950)

One couldn’t wish for a better travel companion than Gerald Brenan. His honesty, curiosity, humour and deep knowledge of Spanish history are all on display in The Face of Spain, written after he and his wife, the American poet Gamel Woolsey, revisited the country in 1949. It was their first visit since they’d fled their home in Malaga at the outbreak of civil war in 1936. Brenan is at once tour guide, sociologist, historian and journalist, giving his reader a rich variety of perspectives on the Franco-ruled Spain he and Woolsey saw ten years after its civil war ended.

In 1949, after ten years under an oppressive dictatorship, many Spaniards were suffering greatly. It was in beautiful Cordoba, the second stop on his itinerary, where Brenan received his first view of the human carnage wrought by war and Franco’s regime. Walking past him on the street were “children of ten with wizened faces, women of thirty who are already hags... I have never seen such sheer misery before”.

Brenan talks to a huge range of local characters on his travels, who are only too willing to show him around their towns or villages, often with great pride: their very Spanish warmth and hospitality, despite their greatly reduced circumstances, is deeply touching. Most of the men and women he met attributed the civil war’s ensuing, pervasive poverty to two main causes. First, Franco’s Falangists, who were more concerned about making themselves rich than they were about improving agricultural methods or the life of the working classes, especially land workers. And secondly, the huge black goods market, monopolised by those who could afford its exorbitant prices - namely, Franco’s local representatives and the wealthy businessmen whose staff were enduring such poverty.

Brenan discovered, though, that a positive aspect of this thriving black market was a form of social mobility. The author and his wife were profoundly moved when they returned to their old house in Churriana, Malaga, to find it unchanged from when they left it with their devoted trustees, a married couple named Rosario and Antonio. Brenan and Woolsey were also stunned to hear the story of María, Rosario’s sister, who after 13 years of sheer hard work was running her own successful grocery store.

“The civil war, the famine and the black market,” writes Brenan, “have led to a social revolution in which, all over Spain, people of energy and determination have risen out of poverty to affluence.”

Though Brenan doesn’t shy away from describing the poverty and divisive social tensions left behind by the Spanish civil war, this is by no means a gloomy or heavy book. He had, for example, a great eye for Spanish women; and, judging by the frequency and pleasure with which he observed them passing in the street, while sitting next to his wife, Brenan must have mastered the surreptitious approving glance. This is from the last chapter, as he sits in a bar in Madrid, savouring the final days of his travels before returning to England: “[W]hat strikes the foreigner most is the fact that [Spanish girls] are so conscious of their beauty. They sail along….without any of the doubts and hesitations that affect even beautiful girls in England.” He also takes appreciative note of their wonderful dark hair and the eloquence of their “large brilliant eyes with their clear whites which can throw a signal as far as one can throw a tennis ball”. Brenan, it seems, was not only a connoisseur of history and Baroque architecture (two of the book’s other recurring themes).

A return to find poverty... and vitality

Brenan is at his absolute best when comparing Spain and the Spanish to England and the English, a contrast to which he returns again and again. It is evident that, like Laurie Lee, he was initially captivated by how very different Spain was from England. Chatting with a Spanish Anglophile on the train to Talavera de la Reina, he says he finds in Spain a “freedom and spontaneity” missing in England: “What in our country one gains in order and social justice, one loses in zest and vitality.” Spain, even under Franco, was the opposite of England - as in many ways it still is - and to Brenan it presented the following contrasts: exuberance versus stuffiness, heat and sun versus cold and rain, bright colours versus varying shades of grey and beauty versus plainness.

One senses that the last one was the most important contrast for Brenan. It is certainly on his mind in the final pages, which contain an excoriating - and quite hilarious - attack on the English men and women by whom he was once again surrounded in London. He saw only “plain, rounded faces that lack the distinction of real ugliness. Faces like puddings that seem never to have desired or suffered, smooth vegetable faces, placid cow-like faces….”

Like many English who fall for Spain in a big way, Brenan can be somewhat too harsh on his own people and country. But at the book’s close he admits it isn’t all bad, returning as he is “to a country whose people did not kill one another” - a rather odd concession, given that he was surely too astute to have overlooked England’s bloody civil conflicts of 1642-51. Nevertheless, grudging admiration of his compatriots’ “sensible, fair-minded, humorous” dispositions aside, it was clear that Brenan saw Spain, not England, as his true spiritual home.