Book Review

Journey to the Alcarria by Camilo José Cela

uninspiring 1940s travel writing

I read this months ago and never bothered to make a little post about it because I found it kinda boring.

I like travel writing and I like Spain (as can be gleaned from this blog’s very occasional post in Spanish and through the quantity of time spent there with the hope/dream/wish that there will be even more at a later date), so when I saw this £2 second-hand nonfiction book by a Spanish Nobel laureate, I thought I’d give it a go.

I tend to avoid reading translated Spanish literature because my Spanish is pretty much good enough to read long-form texts in Spanish, but not quite good enough for it not to be a slog: I read Spanish a lot slower and at a much lower level of comprehension than English, which means that by reading Spanish texts in English translation I’m failing to improve my Spanish and I’m failing to enjoy a text in the way it was written to be enjoyed… & as there are many novels and essays that I have put off reading in translation because I want to read them in Castilian at some undefined future point where it has become easy, this means that the Spanish writing I do end up reading is translated Spanish literature that I’ve acquired by accident, have had for ages or have been sent by a publisher for free because I used to be attractive.

So, I don’t end up reading Spanish language literature in translation that I’m excited by very often at all, which is a stupid way to behave, so I either need to bite the bullet and start reading in Spanish – even though it takes me longer than reading in English – or I need to just accept that I’m doomed to a dull, monoglot existence and engage openly in literature in translation again…

Anywaaaaaaaaaaay

Journey to the Alcarria is nonfiction, travel writing, about a youngish Spanish writer (30ish) travelling around an unfamiliar, rural, part of the country in 1946 and just, like, hanging out.

It’s not super exciting.

It’s not really very critical of the Franco regime or particularly evocative of how life is at that point in time (the 1940s), compared to how it was before: as someone who was born in 1916, pretty much all of Cela’s adult life would have during the Franco regime or the Civil War that preceded, so it would make sense that this journey would want to look into tradition and change and, well, it doesn’t.

Cela was pretty right-wing (his English language Wikipedia page has a ‘Controversies’ section) and already becoming a successful writer during the period of Franco’s dictatorship (he’d had multiple books published prior to 1946 and had even more released in-between the walk this book is based on and its 1948 publication), it’s obviously not as explorative and revelatory or critical as one would hope or require.

Then again, I read this literally months ago and don’t remember it very well. So maybe I’m completely misremembering and actually it was articulate, critical, honest and wise.

I don’t think it was though…

It’s nice to read about the Spanish countryside, but it’s nicer to be there.

(this edition is translated by Frances M. López-Morillas)

September 28th

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