Sunday, January 08, 2006

Voices of the Old Sea

There are many more ways of being pre-modern than there are of being modern, or postmodern even.

That important insight fed the literary imagination of Norman Lewis, perhaps the last century's greatest travel writer, yet it has seemingly slipped past Kwame Anthony Appiah who made The Case For Contamination in last Sunday's New York Times magazine: An article described by the Consumerist as "stellar". It is certainly thought provoking.

The Princeton philosopher's argument can be summarised as follows:

  • Yes, globalisation can increase worldwide homogeneity but it also has the potential for creating new cultural blends
  • It would be wrong to trap people(s) within islands of traditional homogeneity that they long to escape and which in many cases no longer make economic sense
  • Much of what we take to be authentic traditional culture is simply the result of earlier mixtures
  • There are two basic approaches to international culture today: cosmopolitanism and counter-cosmopolitanism, aka fundamentalism. (Though I'd say there's a case for recognising laissez-faire free market capitalism as a powerful third option.)
  • Fundamentalists are universalist without being tolerant. Cosmopolitans believe that there are many values worth living by and nobody can live by all of them. (Though it might be worth trying...)

I doubt that Norman Lewis would have been greatly enthused by this Rushdie-like call for accelerated intermingling and hybridity. An article he wrote in our own Sunday Times magazine in 1968 about Amazonian massacres led to the formation of Survival International, an organisation which seeks to protect tribal peoples and their often unique pre-modern lifestyles.

After several business careers involving cars and cameras, Lewis worked as an intelligence office for the British government before settling down as a man of letters. In all he wrote 13 novels and 14 travel books. He had a natural gift for going incognito: "I'm the only operson I know who can enter a room, stay there 5 minutes, and leave without anyone having noticed I was there." Colin Thubron once described him as "the most anonymous person in the room".

In Voices of the Old Sea his narrative presence on the page is characteristically elusive, which at first I took to be one of the many literay devices which distinguish this work from the less remarkable kind of travel journalism.

In 1948, citing obscure medical reasons Lewis sought to share the confined life of an isolated community and picked the fishing village of Farol on the Costa Brava, "drawn by its reputation of being the least accessible coastal village in north-east Spain." (I couldn't find it on a modern map of Catalunya. Perhaps Lewis changed the name to avoid furthering the contamination.)

Farol's inhabitants were "non materialistic, generous, poetic and superstitious in the extreme". Not religious in the usual sense however. The only time the local priest was ever likely to see the male members of his flock in church was when they arrived with a bride, and even then they would often mutter counter charms throughout the wedding ceremony. Anyone that attended confession was regarded with deep suspicion by the rest of the community.

Lewis spent three successive seasons in Farol and his account of the first, where incipient modernity was just a nagging itch, was for me the most enjoyable. The first to feel the logic of modern "economic sense" were the neighbouring peasants of the dying cork forest. Lewis paints a sad picture of their attempts to pick up basic fishing skills as their traditional livelihood vanished remorselessly.

The fishing community of Farol was run along largely matriarchal lines and inundated with cats. The peasants were stoutly patriarchal and supported a famished pack of man's best friends. Lewis affectionately nicknamed them the Cat People and the Dog People respectively. Both had long looked up to the family of Don Alonso, the local landowner. Now a marginalised figure, Lewis reports how the old don spends his days cutting out obituary notices attended by a stunted old crone who was once a celebrated beauty who sat for portraits in Madrid. He informs Lewis (Appiah please note) that his people want "strong leadership and limited horizons".

At the start of season two one of the largest of the abandoned cork mansions had recently been occupied by the corpulent and effective former black-marketeer Muga, who made no secret of his determination to turn Farol into a tourist destination. One of the first manifestations of the forthcoming makeover was a road along the beach, which the fishermen feared outsiders would use to stare out to sea, thereby bringing ill fortune to the catch.

Muga appreciated that visitors from the wider world "had to be protected from the unpleasant facts of life" which meant that many aspects of coastal life, starting with the food, had to be made gradually more tasteless. When Lewis first arrived in the village the returning fishermen would sit in small groups in the bar beside a massive carved figure of a mermaid and recount the day's adventures in blank verse (in Castellano, deemed more poetic than their native Catalan.) By the time he bid farewell to Farol for the last time the bar has fallen under Muga's management and the mermaid has been packed off into storage somewhere. Yet the fishermen were still hoping that the tourist 'plague' would follow the course of all epidemic diseases and die off leaving them to return to their pescas.

It's a wonderfully well-written account of localised social change charged with Lewis's disarming humour and plenty of strange Spanish customs - such the local vinicultural tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly-pressed grapes. It's hard to tell how much embelishment Lewis allowed himself; I would say a fair bit. (He wrote the book many years later from old notes.)

"I am looking for people who have always been there", he once observed, but ultimately it is the uniqueness and the taste of confined lives that Lewis appears to regret the loss of, not necessarily their unsullied authenticity. (However it's probably a good thing that the inhabitants of Villanueva are no longer burning out the brains of live bulls according to their own ancient customs!)

There are many values living by and you cannot live by all of them - such is Appiah's cosmopolitan creed for the globalised world. It's just a shame that the "many" might be becoming a few without the need for further intervention by the massed ranks of the intolerant.

Incidentally, during the 50s Lewis misplaced his first wife Ernestina in Guatemala when she commenced an affair with a relative of the then president. His (now sadly out of print) novel about indigenous insurgency in Guatemala The Volcanoes Above Us sold 6m copies in the USSR, for which he recived a country dacha in lieu of royalties.


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for your review of "Voices of the old sea".
(I hope you'll excuse my mistakes in English, as it is not my mother-tongue.)

I just read the book for the first time, - as to my shame I had never heard of this writer before - curious if I would find any recognition and reminiscences of a long time ago,when from the mid-fifties until the mid-seventies I yearly spent a long summer on the Costa Brava. (in Aigua Blava near Bagur, or Begur as they say now, you can find that one easily on the maps).

I thoroughly enjoyed the style of writing of Lewis, and yes, indeed I recognized a lot.
So I really had a good time reading the book.

However, up till now I am also convinced that his "Farol" never was an existing village, not by name and neither by what he describes about it.

Obviously like you, I googled all maps of the coast between Port Bou and Barcelona; although "Farol" seemed focussed on Figueras as the most nearby bigger "town", and on Palamos as the most nearby bigger fishing-village. But near Figueras and Palamos I was sure never ever a village, or even a cove, in recent history had existed with the name "Farol" , because I knew that part from 20 years driving through it, walking, sailing and rowing along the coast, with especially my father's love to find any spot that was "difficult to reach". That part exactly the most, and the more Northern part as well as the more Southern part just slightly less....
I could not find any "Farol" along the Costa Brava on todays maps, not on the old and detailed ones of my father, not in old (detailed) descriptions in books and sailing-diaries of the coast, not in my old books of black-and white snapshots or on the 16 mm amateur-films from a few years later, and neither did it ring any bell in my memory, while all the other names still seemed so familar ( I even know a "Sa Cova" like I had visited it yesterday, but no "Farol" ever there in any surroundings...)
Well...I first arrived there in 1956, so that was 6 years later than his 3rd season that Lewis described in his "Voices of the old sea".
So may be in the meantime the old village had changed it's name or so...? but even in that case it would have been logical to find something about the old name in the documents of the fifties, while also it seems very strange that this "Farol" would have been the only, and just the one and only village that had gotten a different -untracable- name, while ALL other villages, towns, creeks and settlements in that region still had the name they had since decades or ages (even if some changed from Castillian to Catalan again).
The word "Farol" means "(street-) lantern" in Spanish.

Anyway, whether Lewis for his book re-named an existing village to make it unrecognizable to the rest of the world, or if he just made up the name as well as the village itself, that as such does not lessen the charm of his book.
Nor does it lessen the convincingness of how he describes the process of rapid change/transition from financially poor and rough but balanced rural/fishing life with old traditions to a sudden new era with a tenfold of money, comfort, luxuriousness and lessening of poverty, but also to the loss of the "security" that was formed by generations-long unwritten rules and solidarity.

As there seem some clear anachronisms in his "Voices of the old sea", I am pretty sure that even if this book is catogorized by others as a "travel-description", it far more is "half travel-story/half fiction"; in the way that, 34 years after he had visited "Farol", he used his notes from that episode to construct a work of merely fiction. Absolutely helped by realities he had seen/experienced and noted down there long ago, but also re-arranged and mixed up and with added things that only developed later to construct the novel/travel-story he wanted to tell and that proved his convictions.

Nothing wrong with that of is, what do you call that in English ?...."a poet's license??"

And whomever would care about those "anachronisms", things that absolutely did not happen along the Costa Brava in Lewis' fourties that he writes about???
(a small example of such an anachronism is that Lewis makes Don Alberto tell the farmers of Sort that they would not want their wives to work for Muga as a chambermaid because then their wives would have to wear the trousers that Muga supplies - suggesting that in 1950 this was the "uniform" for chambermaids in the upcoming tourist-industry. And those trousers would have been supplied because by them the guests would have been derived from the view of the legs of working women.
Now this seems complete nonsense!!!
Maybe between 1950 when Lewis left and the year 1956 when I first arrived there a non-successfull experiment had happened and completely vanished without any trace, but on from 1956 I never ever saw a chambermaid in trousers: not in a 5 star hotel, not in a small and primitive village-thing, and not in anything in between, along everywhere on the Costa Brava and from there inland.
All "chambermaids", if they did have any official working-clothes, had a stiff white "uniform" (or a bit less white if it was in primitive circumstances, but even then you could not imagine how they could manage to look so crispy, seeing that the washing often was still done in the local river...) with wide but elegant slim-falling skirts far over the knee that did not expose much of the legs even if they were bowing for some work, and over it was a small apron, mostly with some sort of blue in it.
And it stayed like that all over the Costa Brava, also in the sixties.
And even when the Spanish government started to build their luxurious Paradors, the chambermaids there were dressed in skirts.....
And even in the seventies, when those "uniforms" became more fashionable, shorter and simple,
it were still skirts for the women...

Moreover: for the daughters of "simple" but very respectable people like fishermen, peasants, handymen etc. on the Spanish coast, even if they were overflown by tourists from other parts of the world and they made good - and deserved- money out of it, it lasted till far into the sixties before they ever were allowed to wear trousers without getting trouble with the so important family...or social cages from their village.....or school....or priest.....
No, of course, that did not count for the real Spanish upper-classes, who were more fashionable, elegant, refined and up-to-date in even their trousers than all the tourists together from England, France, Holland, Germany and let alone the U.S.

I suspect, with a smile, that Lewis when he finally 34 years later wrote his book about "Farol" from the notes he had made so long ago, amongst other things mixed up his own fear for the new times with visions of nurses in hospitals, who by that time all over the world were dressed in practical trousers instead of skirts.....though not the chambermaids in Spain......LoL!!

On this aspect I can only recite the comment of Jeremy Treglown in the literary supplement of "Times" from July 9 2008 - about a biography on Lewis:
"There is a paradox, of course, in the extreme social conservatism of Voices of the Old Sea. Wasn’t it a kind of anthropological nimbyism on Lewis’s part, a selfish wish to defend an environment in which he liked to spend time but which – unlike his friends there – he was free to take or leave? Few people in 1980s Spain whose parents had been peasants, after all, would have seriously wanted to return to the condition of their ancestors. Meanwhile, Lewis’s visits, we learn from the biography, were made in a large Buick, in the holidaying company of his partner of the the time and their children. You wouldn’t guess this from Voices of the Old Sea. Lewis was a secretive, contradictory man who nursed his inconsistencies because they fitted his understanding of how the world worked. "

To conclude: I nevertheless enjoyed the book a lot,
and what makes a difference of some neglegible 10, 15 years in the light of history?? (nothing, of course!)
So, that is not really important.....

I am still trying to find out wherever, in which fishing-village on what now is the Costa Brava, Lewis stayed during some seasons between 1948 and 1950. -arriving with his Buick, wife and children of that time, who he completely made dead and non-existent in his book!
I am convinced that "Farol" never existed and is a make-up of various real experiences and facts as well as fantasies/constructions of his mind, but also I am convinced that one specific place on that coast there must have been his inspiration/anchor to write this book.
And I am very curious which sea-village that could have been...

Anyone having a serious suggestion???

I like it very much that other people are writing about this book also, and am appreciating it.
Thank you again, for your review.


Anonymous said...

It is not a large carved mermaid that decorates the bar in 'Farol', but a stuffed dugong, nicknamed 'the mermaid' by the locals. Its removal from the bar at the behest of Muga represents one of the significant moments in the erosion of the village's local identity.


Anonymous said...

Does rather throw into question a lot of the interesting and most exciting accounts in his other journalistic books, doesn't it? Who ever queried any of his 'facts'?

Belinda Parris said...

Reading the book for a second time I would say Lewis wrote it from memory some 35 years later without filling in the socio-economic gaps he would have had as a young man. I think the village of Farol is actually further south and that he has mixed up and introduced names of rivers and places either deliberately, or forgotten facts due to time, so as to safeguard people's identity. Cork trees and the industry flourished at the time in Palafrugell, so it could e Palafrugell (the dog village) and Calella or Llafranch (the cat village). It could also be Estartit and Toroella de Mongrí. It is unlikely, despite the mention of the river Muga, to be Roses. At one point they take their catch to Palamós so it doesn't perish, so the village must have been tiny and Palamós not that far off. His interpretation of the fishermen choosing Castillian because of its poetical nature over Catalan is also very unlikely. It would have been a case of changing languages depending on who was present in the bar and the Alcalde, the owner and mayor would have definitely been a friend of the Franco regime, so Catalan, being prohibited, would only be used when out of ear-shot or in defiance.