This is a book about being in a place you don’t know, not knowing what to do or what’s happening around you. It’s also about poverty and social unrest, and also about kindness and community. Laurie Lee is great at reconstructing particular times and places. I believe I have a more vivid image of Spain from reading this book than by actually being there. The different towns and villages he visits all feel unique, not because anything amazing happened as he was passing through but because he gives each of them a particular character.
Still, some things bugged me a lot while reading this. Laurie Lee is writing in the 60s about his experiences in the 30s. It’s clear that he’s writing about them as if they had just happened to him – he’s not reflecting on past memories, but going back in time and reliving them. That’s not something he’s completely able to do, though: several details are missing, probably because he couldn’t remember all of it and his diaries were reportedly lost. The effect of this was weird: I often wondered why he skipped big sections of the story – for example, didn’t he have any inner thoughts during his long walks from town to town? – and had to remind myself that because he was writing about it much later, the best he could do was give us some highlights.
Here’s a rare point where it’s made clear that he’s talking about the past:
In fact, I don’t remember meeting an official Communist in Almuñécar – though ‘communism’ was a word in the bars.
And it can’t be a coincidence that this is the chapter about the civil war, the one chapter where we can easily relate past and present, since from our vantage point we know what was about to happen in Spain. As for the other places he visited, I was left wondering if they’d changed at all in the intervening time. (Another small exception: I laughed when he described the Bar Chicote in Madrid as having become a “prophylactic night-spot for tourists” since he first visited it.)
The omissions also make the story a bit hard to believe. Maybe I’m being cynical, but he seems too naive to do this well. He arrives in Spain barely speaking a word of Spanish, and suddenly he’s talking to everyone and is welcome everywhere. At one point his violin breaks, but luckily someone he knows has a violin to give away. Then later a ship comes to save him as war is about to break loose, and then later, while climbing the Pyrenees, he finds a shelter that saves him from frostbite. I don’t doubt that these things happened, but the way he writes makes them difficult to believe. He was probably not as naive as he’s portraying himself.