Spain is not merely a cultural museum for outsiders

One book that recognises this, and one that fails to do so.

The Village Against the World
Dan Hancox
Verso, 288pp, £14.99

The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior
Christopher Howse
Bloomsbury Continuum, 256pp, £16.99

One consequence of the eurozone crisis has been a shift in British perceptions of southern Europe. The return of widespread poverty to countries previously seen as perpetual holiday zones has revived memories of the old continental divide between the industrialised north and the fundamentally peasant, agrarian south, where Greece, Spain and Portugal laboured under postwar fascism. So the publication of two new books about Spain, both from the serious end of freelance journalism, seems to be particularly opportune.

Yet neither book pretends to offer an analysis of that country’s current situation. Instead, Dan Hancox’s The Village Against the World tells the story of Marinaleda in Andalusia, a communist community of 2,700 people functioning – just – within the contemporary state. As Hancox shows, the experiment has real significance in raising Andalusian political awareness and as a model of how to redistribute agricultural wealth and control.

Local knowledge of individual rights and of the needs of Andalusia as a whole springs from the region’s historic and contemporary rural poverty. In the 1930s, on estates belonging to the family from whom the marinaleños would eventually win independence, “Starving labourers who attempted to plough the fallow land were beaten by the police.” In the 1980s, 50 per cent of Andalusian farmland was owned by 2 per cent of the area’s families.

One of the questions to which Hancox returns in his thoughtful, take-nothing-for-granted account is whether tough conditions necessarily produce resistance or whether effective action needs a charismatic leader such as Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo.

So this engaging book is as much a study of idealism in practice as it is of life in a highly unusual pueblo. Hancox lets us experience village routine without pretending to know more than he does or resorting to “funny because it’s foreign” clichés. When he encounters a heatwave, for example: “You try and sweep the dust off your patio, one marinaleña told me, and find yourself dripping sweat straight on to the floor you’re supposed to be cleaning.”

The respectful, intelligent writing places the villagers at the centre of their own story – and that story is fascinating. The Village Against the World discovers the near-feudal patterns of Andalusian land ownership, recounts the pueblo’s struggle with the local landowner and ends with questions about whether Sánchez Gordillo will continue to lead the village in years to come.

Marinaleda’s struggle first became widely known in the 1980s. In 2012, it was back in the news when Sánchez Gordillo led a series of symbolic raids on Andalusian supermarkets, “redistributing” goods to impoverished locals. These gestures of solidarity with the poor beyond its own community illustrate what Marinaleda stands for: a belief that the land “belongs to those who work it”, in “the sovereignty of food” and that food is “a right and not a business”. Its project is utopian, not locally self-interested; its resistance is not only to the state but to the workings of global capital. The village-owned olive-pressing factory, bars and outdoor theatre that Hancox visits are the fruits of a six-year campaign of land occupations, hunger strikes and battles of principle that finally ended in 1991, when the government granted the villagers 1,200 hectares from the duke of Infantado’s extensive estates.

Landowners also feature in Christopher Howse’s The Train in Spain: “Born in 1926 . . . the 18th duchess of Alba . . . inherited seven dukedoms, 19 marquessates and 23 titles . . . She attracted attention by her wealth, gusto and mischievous disposition . . . Her palaces and works of art were breathtaking.”

Howse isn’t interested in the cost of those “palaces and works of art” or the workings of Spanish society. Legends, architecture and the local history of the wealthy cram the pages of his tourist guide with busily researched detail. To some extent, this justifies the astonishingly brief introduction to the book and its raison d’être. “This is a book about Spain, not about trains,” the first sentence reads, before Howse, in the next, boards a “single-carriage train . . . in the foothills of the Pyrenees”.

But is it? This is not a study of how Spain became its contemporary self. It isn’t concerned with climate or citizenship, cultural life or economics. It doesn’t even reveal Howse’s passion for Spain: curiously, this travelogue omits the first-person singular. The omission produces stylistic distortion. When Howse and his companion eat in Sahagún, “Only a man and a woman were dining . . . They ate a plate of jamón, then a leg of lamb. There were kidneys on the menu, too.” It also seems to distort the book as a whole, making it feel oddly purposeless.

Slow travel is about quality, not quantity; flavour, rather than flavourlessness. Trains allow their passengers to see the context of a country’s great cities, the influences and resources that have produced local culture and Culture. The traveller sits right next to a country’s citizens instead of observing them from a hotel terrace.

Yet the coherence and chaos of contemporary life – and of the forces that shape it – are missing from Howse’s account. It’s as if he has forgotten that Spain is a society that exists for itself, rather than a cultural museum for outsiders. Perhaps he travelled first class.

Fiona Sampson is the editor of Poem. Her latest book is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

Mayor of Marinaleda and member of the regional Andalusian parliament representing the United Left (IU) party Manuel Sanchez Gordillo (R) embraces an activist of the Andalusian Union of Workers Union (SAT) as they take part in a protest. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder