Review by Alvah Bessie: Iberia by James Michner

by Rebeca on June 4, 2009

[Editor’s Note: As part of the tribute to Alvah Bessie, we are running several of his book reviews that he wrote for┬ánumerous publications. Below is the first one of the series. Special thanks goes to Dan Bessie for typing and forwarding these reviews]


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.


{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob Zumwalt June 4, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Rebeca, a nice surprise to stumble onto your web site.

I think I would have liked Mr. Bessie.

His review suggests a flaw I’ve noticed in Michner’s writings — or at least an absense: the professional observer never got too close to his subjects. His talent was in the broad strokes of narrative and theme, rather than up-close psychological detail. A cautionary tale for writers with a big canvas?

Michner’s slightly right-wing, lukewarm political slant is something I never thought about, but that insight rings true, as well.

Rebeca June 4, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Thank you, Bob. Alvah was a remarkable person (and also makes a fascinating character). I have more reviews coming for tomorrow. Please stop by and read what Alvah has to say about Hemingway and La Pasionara.

Michele June 4, 2009 at 12:46 pm

Dang, you are adding to my book list quicker than anyone else around!! I’ve got a fascination with the Spanish Civil War these days and am hunting up books like mad. Thanks…

Rebeca June 4, 2009 at 12:59 pm

You have come to the right place! Next month, I am doing a SCW 73 nniversary special. However, if you want to learn more about the war. Here’s a few books, I can recommend:

Helen Graham’s A Very Short Introduction: The Spanish Civil War. This is the Oxford series. Tiny book, even tinier typeface, but a good intro.
Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War
Paul Prescott’s, The Spanish Civil War
Peter Wyden’s The Passionate War

Also read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bells Toll. According to the Lincolns and ALBA, he simply did not get it.

And if you can get an inexpensive copy, get Alvah’s Men in Battle. That’s first hand experience mano-a-mano combat.

Lastly, you can watch I believe a great British doc series on the War on Youtube. Just type in Spanish Civil War.


Randall Radic June 4, 2009 at 1:36 pm

Rebeca, you really should consider writing the man’s biography, and perhaps a history of the Spanish Civil War as a sequel. Or combine the two. It’s obvious you are an expert on the subject, which is probably quite rare in today’s world.

Rebeca June 4, 2009 at 1:40 pm

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about it. I have no clue how to go about it. I guess I should start reading more biographies.

Vincent Alati March 23, 2015 at 7:46 pm

I have read a good number of Michner books, and must say Iberia reads more as a travelog than an historical novel, that lacks a worthy crafted plot with characters that resonant a theme of a country that is still struggling with a unified identity as a nation.

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