Why have so many observers since Dr. Johnson found in Spain an inexplicable singularity? To intelligent Spaniards, although they may enjoy the old gambits of seeking the roots of “Spanishness,” this incomprehension has always been an irritation: they see themselves as part of Europe and resent travelers who find in the flamenco and the bullfight the essence of Spanish nationality. Other Spaniards have gloried in cultural and psychological isolationism. Spain is the unchanging mirror held up to the West—above all to the United States—in which can be observed the ugly distortions of civilizations that have forgotten the Council of Trent.
Spain’s uniqueness today is not mysterious; it springs from actual historical experience. The political anomie left by the Civil War, perpetuated by the regime’s vision of the Red Republic and the depression of the Forties, in themselves explain the quiescence of the now middle-aged. But behind these recent catastrophes lie three centuries of national frustration. Much can be explained by Spain’s continuing poverty in a century when the rest of the world was growing rich. As Aristotle observed, austerity, one of the many supposedly Spanish virtues, is an obligatory virtue for the poor—it is not “typical,” occurring only in those who have Berber blood. Humiliation and loss of the greatest empire of the world in a century when other Western powers were building empires emphasized Spanish introversion. Both Mr. Crozier and Mr. Hills stress the effect of defect by the United States in 1898 on the mind of the young Franco, sprung from a family of naval civil servants. When the Spanish fleet was sunk, it happened that the country was ruled by liberal party politicians manipulating a democratic system. Ergo Party politics had ruined Spain and, having been eliminated by generals in 1936, must not be allowed to return. This piece of historical interpretation is General Franco’s primary political principle; he uses it to prevent any genuine discussion of the problem of the succession. Debate, according to the Generalissimo, will release those “particular furies” that have torn Spain since 1808: politicians and parties.
Neither Mr. Michener nor Mr. Brossard pays much attention to historical explanation. The former’s long, diffuse book contains fascinating historical illustration; but it is the Moors, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Jews, St. James, not Prim, Cánovas, and Azaña, who fascinate him. Of course he has the middle-aged intellectual’s guilt about the Civil War, but the has no feeling for those drearier stretches of modern history, where things are gray rather than black and white, even in Spain, and which explain so much at the cost of so much boring work.
Mr. Brossard is an impressionist, who gives us sketches of the satisfied and sharp businessman, the sensitive prostitute, the progressive priest, the Civil Guard (a compulsory ingredient since Lorca made the men in patent leather hats the symbol of the brutality of the State), the expatriate American, the student rebel whose reading list starts with Walt Whitman …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.