[Editor’s Note: As part of the tribute to Alvah Bessie, we are running several of his book reviews that he wrote for numerous publications. Below is the first one of the series. Special thanks goes to Dan Bessie for typing and forwarding these reviews]
A LOOK AT SPAIN BY MICHENER
by James Michener,
Random House, 313 Pages.
Reviewed by Alvah Bessie in the Marin Independent Journal,
Saturday June 1, 1968
James Michener is a professional tourist and every few years he comes up with an enormous book, either fiction or non-fiction, covering his most recent travels or continuing interest in foreign lands.
In this way he has made a considerable reputation out of lengthy accounts of Oceania, Japan, Hawaii and Israel, among others. Now he has “done” Spain, and the reader interested in this fascinating country will be able to pick up an enormous amount of undigested information – and enjoy a remarkable series of fine photographs made by a young man named Robert Vavra.
The photographs, unfortunately, are far more evocative of Iberia than the text. For while Michener presents himself as an authority on the history, language, religion and philosophy of the peninsula, its music and theater, dance, poetry and drama, painting, sculpture and architecture (both lay and ecclesiastic), its food and drink, amusement, literature and geography, flora and fauna, the most important resource of Spain is singularly skimped: its people. The aristocracy, the wealthy and “government officials” are quoted, but not the working people who constitute the majority.
Even stranger is his omission of any comprehensive analysis of the Spanish Civil War, the central fact of Spain’s recent history, or of the Spanish scene today, 30 years after the “victory” of Francisco Franco. These omissions are doubly strange, because Michener makes it plan that he was deeply grieved by the defeat of the Spanish Republic, for which he had contemplated fighting “in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade . . . Some of the men I respected most in American life were so serving, and when I thought of them doing the job that I should have been engaged in, I felt ashamed . . . ”
Why, then, didn’t Michener enlist? He gives three reasons:
1. “I was not invited.”
2. He was (correctly) convinced America would soon be at war, and “I was willing to wait until we made our entrance, satisfied that the Republic could hold out till then.” (It couldn’t.)
3. The people engaged in enlisting Americans for the Brigade were “Communists,” who he had never been able to trust.
It is scarcely worth laboring the point, but nobody was “invited” to fight in Spain; people volunteered and Michener “rarely volunteered for anything.” Less honest, however, if he was as well informed about the course of the war, as he wants the reader to believe, is his contention that in 1938 “The defense of a free democracy had been subordinated to the expanded goal of establishing a Communist government. . (Page 697). Such a “goal” never exited.
With such an interpretation of the conduct of the war it is scarcely surprising that on those few occasions when Michener refers to the war itself or details one of its more celebrated incidents (such as the siege of the Alcazar of Toledo, the fascist massacre at Badajoz, etc) he chooses to rely on accounts written by Franco apologists rather than the opposite. Example:
“Facts concerning the Alcazar are so confused and open to challenge that I have relied upon one principal source, The Siege of Alcazar, by Cecil B. Eby (1965), which is in the main pro-Franco.” (Page 140). Or, concerning the current “Bible” of the war, Hugh Thomas’ The Spanish Civil War, Michener says, “It seems to me that he writes the general truth concerning these sad events. . . ”
These “sad events” determined the subsequent history of Spain – and determine it today. Not a week passes that we do not read of mass demonstrations of workers and students, supported by priests, directed against the regime, demanding an expanded democracy and a decent standard of living (The minimum wage in Spain is 96 pesetas a day – currently worth $1.37.)
Such facts do not seem to trouble the professional tourist.