Nooteboom’s Spain

I’ve always got several books “on the go” at once. Some I take years to read, some I dip into now and then, some are my lifelong companions, some I read at one sitting and never look at again.

I put down, half-read, Cees Nooteboom‘s magisterial book about Spain, Roads To Santiago, a few months ago, but recently picked it up in order to finish it. It’s a wonderful book — dense and scholarly in parts, but with incredibly atmospheric descriptions of Spanish life, art, landscape and history.

Here’s the last paragraph of the chapter Zurbarán Treasure Trove:

“Enough. I slide back into ordinary life, the life of low houses and balconies with geraniums, the cobbles, the gurgles of the weak fountain on the village square, the cafés filled with men in black, the diminutive woman with her home-grown tomatoes, laurel, lemons, the tobacconist with the lottery tickets that never win, yesterday’s newspaper — the unchanging everyday world which has paid for the treasures of the palatial monastery behind me. I go into a shop which is empty but for the counter and buy a bag of churros for seven pesetas, and then I climb up the ancient streets of the barrio alto and beyond until I am high above the buildings. I rest for a while on a low wall under an olive tree, and watch dusk take over from daylight. Swirls of mist are approaching from the right and dark clouds gather over the low brown plain set in a wide circle of mountains. In the small town far below, a lamb bleats, a dog barks, children’s voices ring out. Grey clouds slide out from under a high cover of paler grey, a man’s voice urges his donkey on with cries of huí, hará, I watch them as they inch their way down a steep path, and then the two-toned Angelus rings out, and I realise how irrevocably I, too, belong to a late form of Antiquity.”

I can recognise in an instant the Spain Nooteboom  so evocatively describes: the olives, the lemons, the men in black, the churros, the lottery tickets, the village shops “empty but for the counter”.