After a year of solid writing and research, and much trawling back through years of anecdotes and memories, I am pleased to have completed the first draft of my non-fiction work exploring Australian perspectives on the cultural history of Spain.
Combining memoir, travelogue, art history and social analysis, The Beautiful Obscure: Australian Pathways through the Cultural History of Spain is a book that reflects on 30 years of living with Spain – its people, language, art, politics, religion, history and culture – as an integral part of my life.
The title The Beautiful Obscure refers to a reference in Tobias Smollett‘s 1755 translation of Don Quixote, where the knight-errant decides to retreat to ‘Beltenebros’ – a quiet place in the Sierra Morena, those mountains that divide La Mancha and Castile from Andalucía – and there,withdrawn from the world, to meditate on chivalry and love, while gripped by madness, fury and despair. ‘Beltenebros’ is translated by Smollett as ‘The Beautiful Obscure’.
Quixote’s choice is effectively both beautiful and obscure – romantic and isolating – and the two words sum up my own path through a discovery of, and immersion in, Spanish cultural history: it is both beautiful, in the sense of providing constant aesthetic and personal fulfillment, and yet obscure, in the sense that for most Australians that cultural history is unknown and therefore entirely unfamiliar.
For my own interest as a writer, and hopefully for the enjoyment of future readers, I have made sure the contents of the book do not rehash all the endless clichés about Spain. This is not a book about bullfighting, wine and tapas, gourmet chefs or flamenco dancing.
This book aims to do two things: firstly, to track key elements from the last five hundred years of Spanish art and culture, with an emphasis on those that have had an impact, directly or indirectly, on the development of Australia.
Secondly, this is a book written about Spain from the grassroots level: Spain lived in truck-stop cafes and marginalised suburbs, with immigrant workers, small business owners, the disabled, hospitality workers, cleaners, rural hoteliers, priests, housewives and farm labourers. This is a Spain steeped in love and ritual, of complex beauty, superstition and tragedy; this is about a Spain that is constantly both ordinary and splendid. This is the Spain that is lived every day by Spaniards, and eschews the advertising slogans and inflated hype of governments and tourist commissions.
And in that very tactile and immediate Spain is found more strangeness and charm than in any glossy evocation of chefs, dancers, eaters, drinkers and party goers.
Connecting to the historical and cultural development of Australia, significant attention is paid to:
- the many adventures of Spain in the Pacific, and how her sailors mostly went mad seeking the elusive continent of Australia;
- the influence the Reformation-Counter Reformation split in Europe would have on the future nature of the Australian enterprise;
- nineteenth-century Australian explorers, governors and administrators such as Mitchell, Light, Gawler, Sturt, Brisbane, Bourke, Gipps and Darling who all, to a greater or lesser extent, cut their teeth fighting in Spain with Wellington against the forces of Napoleon;
- the most significant attempt to settle a Benedictine presence in Australia, which survives to this day at New Norcia;
- the merging and diverging styles of nineteenth century art as Spain’s overseas empire fell apart and Australia began to grow in confidence as a nation; and
- Australian participation in the Spanish Civil War.
In the contemporary period, the book looks at:
- our joint participation in ‘Coalition of the Willing‘ and the Iraq War, under Prime Ministers John Howard and José María Aznar;
- our experiences of terrorist bombings in Bali and Madrid (notwithstanding Spain’s other long-term problem with Basque separatist terrorism);
- our social and governmental responses to Islam;
- our attitude to and policy responses towards refugees from across the water;
- the question of memory and forgetting: in Australia’s case, the ongoing blight of dispossession and the legacy of contemporary indigenous affairs, and in Spain, the attempt to legislate, via the ‘Law of Historic Memory‘, the opening up of Civil War wounds to the clear light of day.
In the final stages, the book examines Spain’s progress through the recent and devastating financial crisis, and how her southern European traditions, blending the diverse and apparently contradictory elements of Catholicism and anarchism, are both providing the wellsprings for change.
And lastly, The Beautiful Obscure closes with a meditation upon the nature of travel, discovery and reality, looking at two inimitable models: Don Quixote and Ludwig Leichhardt.