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Jan
18

Michener’s Spain: An Introduction

“I have long believed that any man interested in either the mystic or the romantic aspects of life must sooner or later define his attitude concerning Spain.”

Chief Spainiac in Charge, James Michener, seen here in 1991 at the age of 84 attending an observance in Hawaii commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Thus did James Michener write the unforgettable opening line to Iberia, his classic non-fictional portrait of Spain. It’s quite a statement. Read it a couple of times carefully. “Any man”? Really, James? Not just those who have traveled to Spain. Not just Europeans. Not just Westerners. No, anyone anywhere in the world. And that’s just the first point in a list of rather surprising claims about the allure of Spain on the human soul, all packed tightly into one sentence.

If this were any other writer, even Ernest Hemingway, I might be willing to dismiss the sentence as hyperbole. But this is James Michener, a writer who chose his words deliberately, with care, laboring for hours over sentences. No, this isn’t hyperbole. Michener, the greatest Spainiac ever, in the opening to his masterful tome, outlines the causes of the mania people from all over the world have developed for Spain.

I finally found time to read the book. It sat on my shelf for years beckoning. I’m not going to bother with a traditional review. There’s too much to say and too much that would be left unsaid. For now, I’ll go as far as this: Read it. Then read it again. It’s timeless despite being written in the mid-1960s. It’s balanced. And it’s written by a writer who considered Spain his “second home,” who once found canned gazpacho in a grocery store in Pennsylvania and it brought tears to his eyes. There are a lot of books out there trying to define Spain. They might be worth reading. But not until you’ve read this one.

Over the next several weeks, hopefully on Mondays (Mondays with Michener? ), I plan to explore the chapters little by little. There’s no way to review a work like this in one post. Heck, I can’t get past the first sentence. And with good reason. It’s loaded and deserves a little more inspection.

How exactly does Michener define the pull Spain exerts?

We already established that he is apparently speaking about people around the world. He then goes on to define them a little better. These people have one of two qualities about them: they pay attention in some degree (are “interested”) in “the mystic or the romantic aspects of life.” Who might that include? He seems to be painting with a broad brush and yet it’s specific enough to create a portrait of whom he speaks. He speaks of those who take an interest in love, chivalry, adventure, passion (i.e. “romantic aspects of life”) etc. And he speaks of those who seek some sort of connection to the ultimate reality or meaning of our existence (i.e. the “mystic” aspect of life). I would think there’s a little of the romantic or mystic in almost all of us. Indeed, being romantic or mystical is really part of the human experience. So again, Michener hasn’t really narrowed the field much.

The final point is the kicker: All these people the world over who have that romantic or mystical itch, at some point in their lives, must “define” their “attitude concerning Spain.” In other words, a love of Spain is not guaranteed. Rather, Michener, explains later in his introduction, one is “haunted” by Spain and must decide how to respond. Hence, history gives us James Michener but it also gives us Francis Drake.

Okay, I’ve beaten this well written sentence enough with my gibberish. But I do maintain that Michener chose each word carefully and so such analysis is necessary before diving into Iberia. Because from the introduction Michener then dives into the country he loved so much and in it he introduces a cast of characters who are all in their own way defining their attitude toward Spain. Michener, however, is careful to point out in his introduction that defining one’s attitude toward Spain does not equate with understanding this complex nation.

I knew then that Spain was a special land, and I have spent many subsequent trips endeavoring to unravel its peculiarities. I have not succeeded, and in this failure I am not unhappy, for Spain is a mystery and I am not at all convinced that those who live within the peninsula and were born there understand it much better than I, but that we all love the wild, contradictory, passionately beautiful land there can be no doubt.

I’ll be exploring his love of Spain over the coming weeks and I’ll proceed in the way Michener organized his masterpiece. Here is how Michener divided his book by chapter:

* Badajoz
* Toledo, Cordoba
* Las Marismas
* Sevilla
* Madrid
* Salamanca,
* Pamplona
* Barcelona
* Teruel
* Santiago De Compostela

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