Marching Spain by V. S. Pritchett
Review by Paddy Waller
I first read Marching Spain, a classic of Spanish travel writing, when I was young and keen for adventure and along with Gerald Brenan’s “South from Granada” and Laurie Lee’s as “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” it is one of the books that most inspired me to visit and above all walk in Spain. Thanks to Pritchett ’s vivid and very real descriptions of people and the towns and villages of western Spain I was motivated some thirty years ago to explore the country.
Marching Spain is about Pritchett ‘s travels on foot from Badajoz to Leon through some fascinating countryside. The backdrop is rural and urban Spain in the 1920s and its splendid natural beauty including the Gredos mountains. However, the real beauty of this book is the writer’s ability to take you back into the Spain of that time: a country which was then way behind northern European countries, technologically, economically and socially.
Now Pritchett is a recognized expert on Spain but when he made this journey he was still a youngster and yet to gain fame. “Marching Spain” was his first book and showed beyond doubt that he had an artist’s eye for detail and descriptive prose. He has a very particular, direct, and honest descriptive style that includes the ugly alongside the beautiful. His descriptions of people he meets on his wanderings bring to mind romantic and strange characters .This one for example is typical of his style:
“He was tall and stooped slightly, a man of noble stature and with a beauty and gravity in his long striding motions. His hair grey, his eyes had the changeless blue of the sky in a dark ochre skin.”
Real people transposed in a distinctive style onto paper:
“She is tall, old and slight. Her head is a hawk. She is tawny, bird taut, and her eyes are bird bright. I heard her voice a quarter of a mile away as I came down the yellow hill. I heard her voice over a field of lilies- the lilies of San Nicolas, they call them, white floppy, and abundant as country girls – and a field fierce and indigo with lavender.”
Pritchett was not one to flinch from reality and wrote about what he saw and particularly about what he heard and smelt. In “Marching Spain” he revels in the assault on his senses: the noise, the smells and even the singing. He literally paints a picture making it easy for the reader to imagine life as it was then.
His knowledge of Spanish is such that he has no problem engaging in conversation with all types of characters on the road and he even gives us the words to the Spanish songs being sung by the ordinary people in the street. It all adds to the atmosphere along with the smells and noises. I find, reading this book again, that the writing fires up my imagination and his constant relating of the smell of acrid burning olive oil and the pungent unpleasant smell of animals really does conjure up countless images of street and rural life in those days in deepest Extremadura (land of the Conquistadors). Everywhere he walks through, the poverty is patently obvious and the presence of donkeys, sheep, horses and dogs fill the everyday Spanish life and are imprinted on your mind as part of the tapestry he is walking through.
So Pritchett is a master of description without doubt and his enthusiasm and laconic style seep into your mind slowly enabling to feel you are walking along with him observing and engaging with the people and scenery. His type of travel was unusual in his day whilst today so many of us travel the world `exploring’ new places. Travel has become almost a necessity, a drug and a huge business. Few people have the time or inclination to travel at his speed and even less have his skills as an observer, of engaging easily with the locals or have an almost chameleonic ability to blend into the scenery or town almost without upsetting daily life. Modern day travelers blog about their travel experiences but few can take us where Pritchett takes us and even less in such style. Undoubtedly he was one of the first to “Slow Travel” and what a harsh paradise he chose to do it in.
Marching Spain is therefore essential reading for those with an interest in conditions in Spain in the 1920. It was Pritchett ‘s first book and he went on to write many more and in 1954 he published The Spanish Temper, essentially an analysis of the Spanish character based on his experiences in Spain in the 1920s and 1940s. The Spanish Temper makes fascinating reading and demonstrates Pritchett ‘s observational and analytical skills and his ability to write tight and very accessible prose.
Paddy Waller has travelled extensively in Spain over the last thirty years. A keen walker he has done El Camino de Santiago, walked in the Pyrenees, Los Picos de Europa, Los Gredos, Cazorla National Park, Soria, Cuenca, Teruel and Valencia. He is co-founder and owner, along with his wife Julia, of The Spanish Thyme Traveller, a company that specialises in food, cultural and walking tours in small groups in Valencia and Teruel. www.thespanishthymetraveller.com
© Books4Spain Ltd 2012 This review may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the permission of Books4Spain or Paddy Waller.