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Jan
25

Michener’s Spain: Badajoz

Last week, I began what will be a series of posts on James Michener’s Iberia. You can read the first post here. This week I take a look at the first chapter of the book, which focuses on the city of Badajoz and the surrounding region of Extremadura.

Of all the colorful, historical, alluring places in Spain with which to open Iberia, the colossal book about the country he loved so much, James Michener chose Badajoz. Drawing a blank? You can try for some information here. But even that doesn’t illuminate the subject much. It would be like introducing someone to the U.S. by first discussing Indianapolis*.

Skyline of Badajoz; in the background stretches the empty rockiness of Extremadura (photo by Antonio Fiol).

Now, I’m sure Badajoz is wonderful. And some pictures I’ve seen of the city are rather beautiful and underscore a certain unique character to the place. Not to mention the fact that Badajoz has had a somewhat colorful history and has played an important role in several military engagements on the Iberian peninsula over the years. (How many sieges have the people of Indianapolis survived?) But still, surely there was a better city with which to open his book and capture the attention of his readers.

But in this you have to give Michener the benefit of the doubt. He has a method and according to that method there was perhaps no better city to put out there first. That method relates to his approach to “exploring a strange land.” Anyone who loves to travel should pay keen attention to this advice from a man who spent a lifetime exploring the world. Here it is in his own words:

I cannot remember how I discovered my technique for exploring a strange land, for I have followed this procedure for as long as I can recall. I enter the country unannounced and without a letter to anyone. I stand back and look at the scene before me, talk with anyone who cares to talk to me, then go to the bus station and buy a ticket for the end of any random line. This drops me in some village out in the country, and there I spend a couple of days just sitting and looking and talking. This produces some very dull days, but also some memorable ones.

This takes guts, no doubt, because God only knows where you’ll end up. I think I’d even have reservations doing this at the Port Authority in Manhattan (“I’m where in New Jersey?!”). But Michener does it to witness the country he’s visiting in all its authenticity, to get away from the tourist traps and meet the people, witness their lives and immerse himself in the culture. It’s clear that Michener applied a similar tactic to how he organized Iberia, choosing to cover in his first chapter the most unlikely of Spanish cities: Badajoz, the major metropolis in Extremadura, which Michener calls “that empty, rocky section of Spain lying southwest from Madrid along the Portuguese border.”

Without this reasoning, Michener seems to admit the choice of Badajoz is befuddling.

In America when I had explained to my friends that I was heading for Badajoz, they had shrugged because they had never heard of it, and when I told my Spanish friends they grimaced because they had. ‘For the love of Jesus, why Badajoz? It has absolutely nothing.’ In Spanish, this last phrase sounds quite final: ‘Absolutamente nada,’ with the six syllables of the first word strung out in emphasis.

But for Michener, no other area of Spain would suffice.

When I heard the word Spain, I visualized not kings and priests, nor painters and hidalgos, nor Madrid and Sevilla, but the vast reaches of emptiness, lonely uplands occupied by the solitary shepherd, the hard land of Spain stretching off to interminable distances, and populated by tough, weatherbeaten men with never a ruffle at their throats nor a caparisoned hose beneath them. In short, when I thought of Spain, I thought primarily of Extremadura, the brutal region in the west, of which Badajoz was the principal city.

Through his profile of Badajoz, what does he teach us about Spain in the 1960s?

  • We meet Spaniards from a city and region that hasn’t been romanticized out of recognition:
    “Badajoz was Spain and no place else… [I]t was not an exaggerated Spain, not a musical-comedy land at all.”
  • We see the changes to Spain being wrought by an encroaching 1960s’ modernity. There was the old section of Badajoz “with its narrow streets and memories of Spain as it used to be,” which to Michener was authentic Spain. But he also saw the newer developments of the city, which, to him, were indistinguishable from any other European city.
  • We learn the truth that permeates Spanish life. He describes getting swept up in a procession to honor Our Lady of Fatima, which reminded him of the “first essential for anyone who wishes to understand Spain:  in every manifestation of life Spain is a Catholic country.” And even though Spain has become much more secular since the 1960s, I think one could argue that much of what Spaniards do is still done within the context of centuries of living in a staunchly Catholic culture.

Finally, in the rural areas around Badajoz we encounter poverty at shocking levels for a European country.

In Badajoz… I had seen people dressed as well as my neighbors dress in Pennsylvania, but in no part of America could I find farmers living at the miserable level that these farmers lived. It was a miracle, I thought, that Spain maintained its tranquility when such conditions prevailed.

Due to the poverty, many extremeños, especially young men, were driven to find work in Germany. The situation has changed of course since then. But as Spain has teetered recently on the brink of financial ruin, one has to wonder if some Spaniards have begun reliving such painful memories.

Michener, with his keen sense of history, couldn’t write about Extremadura without touching on the incredible list of conquistadors who came from this harsh land. And he takes several side trips to visit the birthplace of men such as Hernan Cortes. (For more on the number of conquistadors who were also extremeños, see my post here.)

He also uses the first chapter to explore some general themes about Spain that will be necessary for the rest of the book. These include important Spanish terms, the amazing chain of paradors that makes travel a little easier for the tourist in Spain, and the almost magical quality of the bull in Spanish culture. I will explore these themes further in coming weeks.

*Dear Indianapolisians: I’m only kidding! I once spent a weekend in Indianapolis and had a good time. I remember some fun bars with good jazz and very nice people. Don’t hate me. I could just have easily picked, oh, I don’t know, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Okay, that probably didn’t help much.)

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