The pain in Spain

In 1897, just inland from Alicante, a young farm boy stumbled across a limestone bust jutting out of the turf. The 17-inch sculpture depicted a Bronze Age woman who, according to an archaeologist wag, sports the “best lips in antiquity”. The sculpture pointed to Spain’s melting-pot past, what with her “pure Iberian” broach, her Celtiberian earrings and her general aura of Carthage goddess chic.

In the centuries before Christ (and for a fair few afterwards), this bulky outcrop at the southwestern fringe of Europe had been a way station for traders and invaders from across the Mediterranean world. Variously ruled by the Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Habsburgs and French, what exactly is this battleground nation called España? And what, if anything, unites its residents?

In España: A Brief History of Spain, the Madrid-based British journalist and veteran Spain observer Giles Tremlett sets out to provide some clarity. It’s a bold task. In an age of specialization, a single episode or strand in history may merit entire volumes: think of Henry Kamen’s classic treatise on colonialism, Spain, 1469–1714or Antony Beevor’s exhaustive tome The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936–1939. Tremlett tasks himself with squeezing several millennia of recorded history into thirty-six fact-filled chapters.

Brevity, as the title suggests, becomes the name of the game. By Chapter six we’re already done with Hannibal and his elephants, Middle Age conquests and Muslim invasions. The early modern period (read: the “discovery” of Latin America, the expulsion of the Jews, Don Quixote and kings variously called Charles or Philip) passes at a dash, as do the reigns of the Bourbons, Ferdinand VII and Isabella II (peppered with more foreign wars, loss of empire and civil strife aplenty).

As might be expected, the recent past occupies a large part of the book. Starting from the Restoration in 1874, the last third takes us through two world wars, one grisly civil war, a thirty-six-year dictatorship and the embrace of all things democratic and European (the euro, the Euros, bank bailouts). Yet, as Tremlett begrudgingly concludes, Spain still lacks an “accepted national narrative”, even now. To his credit, this doesn’t stop him seeking one. It’s a quest that starts with the mythic; Hercules reputedly undertook one of his dozen labors in the Iberian peninsula, known as the “far West” to the Greeks, positing Spain as a final civilized outpost before the great unknown.

Next in line comes religion. In Spain, Roman Catholicism rules – or did rule until very recently. From the first Castilian kings, Spain’s pinchant for political absolutism – either monarchical or militaristic – has relied heavily on their link to the divine. When the marriage of Isabella and Ferdinand led to the fusing of the separate kingdoms of Castile and Aragon in 1474, the pair sought not national unity but “religious conformity”.

The verdad absoluta has also proved a handy stick to wave against the “other”, be they Muhammadan invaders, Jewish settlers (expelled in 1492), domestic heretics (see the chapter on the Inquisition) or industrial-era anarchists. Foreign wars served a similar “us against them” dynamic, as did empire, which, as Tremlett notes, united Spaniards not least because of the shared project of “despoiling it”.

However, Spain‘s search for a single narrative focuses primarily on the political and constitutional. It took until 1516 for Spain to have a king who could be said to rule the whole country. Born with a gargantuan silver spoon, Charles I inherited not only the crowns of Spain’s three main kingdoms (Castile, Aragon and Navarre), but also the Holy Roman Empire and much of the New World. Yet Tremlett disputes the textbook version of Charles’s ascension as Spain’s great moment of unity, arguing instead that it marked “the beginning of a process whose end lay centuries ahead.” Cue a detailed and slightly exhausting chronology of constitutional treaties, strategic marriages, civil wars, new republics, royal abdications, coups d’état and general political shenanigans.

The result for Spain? An uneasy “impasse” between a pro-nationalist establishment cemented in Madrid and a more federal-minded (and, occasionally, independence-demanding) periphery, of which the Basque Country and Catalonia are most emblematic. Couple that with successive waves of immigration (a third of all migrants into the EU in 2003 headed for Spain) and the hunt for a unifying tale grows more still complicated.

Quite who this book is aimed at is difficult to tell. In the Wikipedia age, when historical facts and figures are just a click away, the utility of a tell-all history feels on the wane. Yes, it’s handy(ish) to have in one place, but real value comes in the red thread that runs through it. Tremlett achieved that masterfully in Ghosts of Spainhis bestselling first book on the ramifications of Spain’s official amnesia post-Franco. Spain tries to carry off the same in its pursuit of a binding agent worthy of nationhood, but the theme is neither central enough nor sufficiently compelling to really hit the mark.

Most frustratingly of all, everything that makes a country sing – its culture, its music, its literature, its language, its food – is skipped over. Football gains a single paragraph; Picasso, even less. Cultural figures such as Cervantes, Farinelli, Velázquez, Goya and Lorca do get a look-in, but only as bit parts in the wider story. A notable exception is the role of women, with characters such as the Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila, the pirate-bashing María Pita and the French-repelling Juana Galán getting as much attention as Tremlett’s framework allows.

In the early seventh century, the polymath cleric Isidore of Seville sat down to compile a summary of human knowledge. His resulting Etymologiae ran to twenty-five volumes. Today we are drowning in information, so the all-encompassing history is a difficult trick to pull off. Spain is well researched, beautifully produced and, as far as generic primers go, an exemplar of its kind.

Oliver Balchis a writer and journalist based in Portugal

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