Isabel brought a book today. The title is “Spain: A Portrait After the General”, and the author is Robert Elms. The book was published in 1992. We like to read books about Spain written by non-Spaniards, in my case to try to falsify my hypothesis that it is virtually impossible to do such a thing (i.e. write a book about a country in which you haven’t lived for a long time) without committing awful errors. My personal opinion is that it is even harder to be fair to Galicia, the little forgotten corner in the north-west of Spain, where I come from.
This book was given to Isabel as a good one, meaning that the person from which we borrowed it honestly thought it is one of the best, most serious and rigurous. Unfortunately, the book belongs to the library so we can’t keep it for more than 1 day and therefore I cannot read it. I have read, however, the chapter on Galicia.
It is appalling.
After the bad experience, I did some quick research on the web and Robert Elms seems to be a BBC presenter in his forties. He has written at least another book on Spain, which I haven’t read and which has received an award (Travel Book of the Year or something like that). From his biography on the BBC website and some information I got from the book, it seems that he is quite in love with Spain. In his own words, he is a Hispanophile.
From talking to other people, I gather the book “Spain: A Portrait After the General” is quite serious, and the depiction of Spain quite accurate. However, me being Galician, I cannot forgive that little chapter. The chapter on Galicia is plenty of incorrections and what I often call JOVFAAPOVs, i.e. judgements of value from an alien’s point of view. This means that, when you go to spend two weeks living with the monks in Tibet and you can’t find a pub there, you have the right to mentally note “there are no pubs in Tibet”, but you would be bloody stupid if you voiced to everybody “I hate this place. They don’t even have a pub!”. Not to mention writing a book saying “Oh, don’t go to Tibet. They don’t have pubs there”. That’s a JOVFAAPOV.
Robert Elms cannot find beauty in Galicia because he is looking for pubs, not for meditation. The magnificent beaches and scenery, the best seafood in the world, the great wines, the amazing people, the awesome fashion design and the breathtaking architecture are all there, but he is not looking. He is only looking at (and profoundly misundertsanding) the dishevelled houses of Malpica, which you can only appreciate after spending uncountable days with fishermen. And at the colourful tale of cocaine smugglers in Pontevedra. Of course there are cocaine smugglers in Galicia. No place in Earth is free of problems. But you don’t devote three quarters of your travel account to them while not even mentioning other more interesting and beautiful sides. I must admit that it is easier to see the junkie begging on the street than the thrill of the 700 metre-high cliffs near Malpica.
Imagine a travel book on Thailand that spends half of its pages talking about child prostitution. Or a travel book on England that describes with full detail how English football hooligans are feared across the world. That’s not fair. But that’s exactly what Robert Elms has done with Galicia.
With regard to incorrections, there is a funny one. Robert Elms, in his battle to destroy the public reputation of my beloved country, states in his book that “Galician is known for producing devout and authoritarian leaders. El Cid, the greatest of the Spanish warriors chiefs was a Gallegan.” Gallegan means Galician. This is as wrong as hilarious. Everybody in Spain knows (you are told so at school when you are a little kid) that El Cid is the epitome of the Castillian, of the “real” Spain, as opposed to those little odd provinces scattered around (and including weird language speaking barbarians such as Galicians, Basques and Catalonians). El Cid was born in Vivar, province of Burgos, the superlative Castillian province. I have no idea where Robert Elms took this crazy idea from, but it is even more funny than wrong. And it is wrong. If you are a 12-year old and write in your history exam that El Cid was from Galicia, they will give you a zero automatically!
I’ve tried to find the e-mail addres of Robert Elms on the web to no avail. So my only cure is to write this here. If you are reading this, Mr. Elms, I would be pleased to give more details to you on this matter.
Robert Elms gets it right with most of Spain, but blew it with Galicia. As Isabel says, his monumental misunderstanding, at least, demonstrates that Galicia is different to the rest of Spain.