The narrative is well supplied with action and adventure, only occasionally marred by detours into religious disquisitions or attempts at fine writing; for the most part Borrow's style is plain and down-to-earth. Conversations with people met on the road are quoted at length; everyone, including countrymen and gypsies, is represented as speaking formally, in perfectly turned sentences, yet in spite of this Borrow brings them vividly to life.
The Spain Borrow describes is mostly wild and remote, infested with brigands (although, luckily, Borrow never met any on the roads). The political situation was extremely confused; a civil war was in progress between supporters of the heir-apparent, Isabella, and the King's younger brother, Don Carlos. But Borrow loved the country, and he tells us that the years he spent there were the happiest of his life.
He arrived first in Portugal, in November 1835, and was back in England for a time in 1836. He returned to Spain in November of that year and remained there, travelling widely, until August 1839, when he sailed from Gibraltar to Tangier. The book ends at this point. There is no need to try to summarise Borrow's complicated itinerary here. In fact, it would probably be better to read the book by dipping in here and there rather than starting at the beginning and going through to the end.
Borrow was a gifted linguist and he implies that he was able to converse in almost all the numerous languages he came across, including not only Spanish and Portuguese but also Catalan, German, French, Greek, and Arabic, as well as Romany. He even claims to have made limited progress in Basque, though, like others who have tried, he thinks you have to have been familiar with the language from childhood if you are to get very far. Some people in his day believed that Basque was a Celtic language, so similar to Irish that Basque and Irish natives could easily understand one another. Borrow, who spoke Irish, rightly pours scorn on this idea, though he thinks that Basque may have affinities with the 'Tartar' languages; modern linguists generally find that it has virtually no affinities with anything.
As his subtitle indicates, Borrow was arrested several times. In Galicia he was, absurdly, suspected of being Don Carlos, and one faction wanted to shoot him; but a man who had fought with the British in the Peninsula War vouched for his being English and escorted him out of danger. Another arrest occurred in Madrid and led to his spending three weeks in prison. As he had the support of the British Ambassador he was unconcerned by this, and in fact he refused to be released until he received a full apology for his wrongful arrest. But he declined offers of compensation or the dismissal of the official responsible.
Borrow took the opportunity of his imprisonment to make the acquaintance of some colourful criminals. Those who could afford it took pride in their appearance; their manner of dressing is described in detail. Prominent among these men was a burglar who had committed an atrocious murder during a break-in. He was accompanied by his seven-year-old son, also dressed to the nines, whom he was training to follow in his footsteps. The prisoners were equipped with long knives, which they used in settling quarrels among themselves, but the traditional Spanish gravity and decorum prevailed; Borrow notes approvingly that there was a remarkable absence of swearing and disreputable behaviour.
The Spain Borrow knew had hardly changed from the sixteenth century. His evocation of it is vivid and astonishing, and his book worth reading for anyone with an affection for the country.
11 November 2010