Tag Archives: Spain

Under the Sun: Lottie Moggach

This cautionary tale, set in the British ex-pat community in Spain 2008/9, follows the failed dreams of graphic designer, Anna. Anna’s London career was just taking off when she met dickhead artist Michael. But Michael “declared he’d had enough of London,” and suggests a move to Spain. Anna is initially reluctant, but she flies out, finds a finca, and buys it. Naturally she has to sell her flat, but Michael can’t sell his as it turns out his “mum’s company” owns it. So Anna plonks all of HER money, and later an inheritance, into this money-pit finca.

When the novel opens, Anna and Michael are living in the finca and entertaining two snotty houseguests, old chums of Michael’s from his Oxford uni days. The visit serves to illustrate to Anna just how she and Michael have grown apart.

As Anna’s savings were being converted into septic tanks and concrete underlay and eyelet curtains, his feelings towards her had changed. There were no huge rows, nothing to grasp onto; but his disdain could be felt like a drop in temperature.

Poor Anna, who didn’t realise that the relationship had an expiration date, wakes up one morning and finds a note from Michael telling her he’s back off to London and where to find the car in the airport’s long-term parking. Charming. Anna isn’t doing well after the break-up. For one thing, she’s been dumped, but she’s been dumped after jettisoning her career, and ploughing all her savings into a remote money pit in Spain. To top if off, the financial crisis means she can’t sell; she’s stuck–along with an entire desperate ex-pat community who see their dream lives being flushed down the toilet as the bottom falls out of the real estate market. It’s probably no wonder that Anna turns to drink….

2009 finds Anna running a bar, but it’s more that’s she’s ‘minding’ a bar as there’s no real tourism, and members of the British ex-pat community are skint. So when a man appears and offers to rent Anna’s finca for 600 Euros a month, she jumps at it, no questions asked. …

Under the Sun shows the inherent unhealthiness of the British ex-pat community. They mingle only with each other, don’t speak the lingo, and don’t like the locals (a mutual feeling). The entire area is overrun with illegal African immigrants who are smuggled in and then harnessed into servitude through debt to their smugglers. The desperation of the British ex pats, who feel that the Africans don’t belong, rises from them like a bad smell. The ex-pats juggle throwing more money into these properties to attract buyers in this competitive market against … why bother? But then who has extra money to spend? They collectively, eagerly, anticipate someone coming along to buy their Spanish properties so that they can escape.

She hadn’t cleaned up since the last time she had customers in, three days before Christmas, when the expats had gathered to watch the Spanish national lottery on TV. They’d all entered as a group, with a single ticket, and expectations were high. This, they were sure, would be the thing that saved them, that would wipe out the problem of their houses being worthless and the effects of the rotten euro on their pensions.

In their wake, ex-pats leave behind their abandoned, houses, animals and possessions. Those who remain, mostly over 50, have car boot sales, and even while desperate to sell their homes, they maintain the fiction that they ‘are living the life’ and to talk about wanting to return to the UK is treason. Under the Sun explores the inherent unhealthiness within the insular community. The ex-pats have no idea what is going on under their noses. They have no clue about local politics. They have no clue how the locals dislike them. Wrapped in their own warped little world, they somehow think they have brought the UK with them, and while they have imported their culture, that’s about the extent of it. Anna, who is in a muddled affair, doesn’t grasp the delicacy of her position. This is a very entertaining read. IMO Anna’s behaviour was ill-advised and in real life, she probably would have ended up dead. But the value here is in the remarkable sense of atmosphere–all these dreams turned to the worst possible outcome.

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Filed under Moggach Lottie, posts

Down Below: Leonora Carrington

Regular readers of this blog are familiar with my fascination for books set in asylums, and that brings me to artist and writer Leonora Carrington’s short book: Down Below, a New York Review Books release. The book runs to 112 pages and includes a substantial background of Leonora Carrington’s life as a lead-in to the period she spent in an asylum. And here’s the rich and influential  for you, her nanny was “sent out” in 1940 in a submarine to “fetch Leonora back” from the asylum. At least she got lucky there. Marina Warner’s introduction shows Leonora clearly already on the rebellious side when she met, at age 19, the married artist Max Ernst. After Ernst sorted his “genital responsibilities,” they lived together in France until the German invasion. At that time, Ernst was arrested and Leonora fled to Spain.

Down Below

Down Below covers Leonora’s flight to Spain, a journey fraught with strange thoughts, danger and portents of death. She meets a man named Van Ghent and imagines he has “nefarious” powers:

I was still convinced that it was Van Ghent who had hypnotized Madrid, its men and its traffic, he who turned the people into zombies and scattered anguish like pieces of poisoned candy in order to make slaves of all. One night, having torn up and scattered in the streets a vast quantity of newspapers which I believed to be a hypnotic device resorted to by Van Ghent, I stood at the door of the hotel, horrified to see people in the Alameda go by who seemed to be made of wood. I rushed to the roof of the hotel and wept, looking at the chained city below my feet, the city it was my duty to liberate. 

She plays in the park at night, decides that Van Ghent is the “enemy of mankind,” and visits the British embassy where she tells the consul that the war is “being waged hypnotically by a group of people–Hitler and Co.- who were represented in Spain by Van Ghent.” The consul decides Leonora is mad, she’s passed through the hands of several physicians but ends up, finally, in an asylum in Santander.

From this point, everything goes downhill. The narrative becomes much more surreal as Leonora claims to be “transforming my blood into comprehensive energy–masculine and feminine, microcosmic and macrocosmic.” After reacting violently to staff, she’s strapped down and force fed through tubes inserted into the nostrils. She loses sense of time and place, and as the narrative becomes more surreal, it’s impossible to know what is real and what is imagined. She believes she’s the “third person of the Trinity,” and imagines a country named Down Below where she will be ‘purified.’

This is all quite painful reading, and the author’s matter-of-fact tone doesn’t make it easier or any less depressing. This isn’t an it-can-happen-to-anyone asylum memoir as Leonora clearly had problems with reality, had some sort of psychic breakdown, and with her violence and behaviour, she desperately needed help. Unfortunately, the treatment she received seemed to make things worse. Leonora Carrington is considered a major figure of the Surrealist movement, so it’s perhaps not too surprising that her memoir of the time spent in an asylum should resemble a surreal nightmare. Down Below has a patchy history and was “reconstruct[ed]” which probably explains the occasionally truncated feeling of the narrative.

Review copy

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Filed under Carrington Leonora, Non Fiction

El Verdugo by Balzac

Balzac’s El Verdugo is around 15 pages on my kindle edition. It’s a change of pace which places us in Spain during Napoleon’s campaigns, and the story opens in a moment of deceptive peace with a ball in the background. Balzac uses balls a lot in his stories, but then these were grand social events with opportunities for courtship and great intrigue. El Verdugo seems to include both scenarios in the opening scene with young French Major Victor Marchand looking at the town and the ocean while leaning on the terrace parapet of the Chateau de Menda. The château belongs to the Marquis de Leganes, a grandee of Spain who has 5 children–3 sons: 30-year-old Juanito,  20-year-old Felipe, and the youngest son is 8, and two daughters. Marchand noticed that during the evening, the eldest daughter kept casting glances “expressing extreme sadness”  his way. Perhaps she’s in love with him? Marchand may be in charge of the French troops there, but he is the son of a grocer, and while he notes Clara’s interest, he cannot credit that the Marquis would allow his daughter to marry the enemy–a commoner to boot. But romance is in the air, and, after all, it’s a romantic setting:

The beautiful sky of Spain spread its dome of azure above his head.

The scintillation of the stars and the soft light of the moon illumined the delightful valley that lay at his feet. Resting partly against an orange-tree in bloom, the young major could see, three hundred feet below him, the town of Menda, at the base of the rock on which the castle was built. Turning his head, he looked down upon the sea, the sparkling waters of which encircled the landscape with a sheet of silver.

Marchand has received a dispatch from Marechal Ney which warns that the English may soon send men to the region, so Marchand must be vigilant and remember that the Marquis and his family are enemies. Marchand’s thoughts are conflicted as he gazes out across the parapet, and notices that something is wrong….

Balzac, that great observer and chronicler of human nature, always manages to get to the heart of the matter. Is there anyone who can describe so accurately the viciousness of family politics when it comes to the division of a family estate? In El Verdugo which means The Executioner, Balzac examines the nature of divided loyalties, punishment and human cruelty. Does an adherence to a moral code of behaviour trump family loyalty? There’s one chilling scene in which executions take place against laughter and feasting. Balzac, a writer of great compassion, seems to argue that the anguish of suffering set amidst feasting and laughter shows human behaviour at its worst. By the story’s chilling conclusion, we ask ourselves which were the noble acts of courage and who acted callously and with supreme cruelty. Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley. Prepared by John Bickers and Dagny

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