Voices of the Old Sea
By Norman Lewis | Eland | $29.99
IN HIS travel memoir Voices of the Old Sea, first published in 1984 and now reissued by Eland, Norman Lewis offers a brief, prefatory explanation of how he came to be living in a small village in northern Spain in the late 1940s and early 50s, where he boarded with “the Grandmother,” immersed himself in village life, and joined the local fishermen in their quest for tunny and sardines and other, more exotic species. It was a way of life, he recalls thirty years later, that was already disappearing, on the point of succumbing to the tourism boom – “the great alien invasion from the North of money and freedoms.” As Lewis saw it, that invasion led, almost overnight, to the irreversible corruption of a culture of “ancient virtues and ancient defects.” When he arrives in the village, where he stays for three consecutive summer seasons, it is with the intent of witnessing this storming by modernity of a small, isolated “repository of past custom and attitudes of mind.” We know from the beginning what the end will be.
In his 2008 biography of Lewis, Semi-Invisible Man, Julian Evans reveals that the village of Farol is based on the marine enclave of Tossa de Mar, where Lewis and his family spent postwar summers and where he became progressively more immersed in and fascinated by local life and custom. The family members who accompanied him – his almost-estranged wife and their two young children, together with Lewis’s older son by an earlier marriage – do not appear in this volume of recollections. Instead Lewis is alone, observing, occasionally forming associations and even friendships, particularly with the enigmatic fisherman Sebastian, while attempting to emulate the stolidity and fatalism and sense of tradition that he so admires, even as he sees it slipping further away with each passing season.
Norman Lewis is one of those writers who, identified by admirers early on in his career as “underrated,” seems destined always to be so. Evans calls him “the best non-famous writer of his generation,” a man who, unusually, managed to build a successful career in business, selling cameras and photographic equipment and, from time to time, luxury cars, while also taking extended breaks in order to travel and to gather the raw material for his writing. The constant tension between the old and the new, the very subject of Voices of the Old Sea, is apparent in his own life – the cameras and the fast cars on the one hand, the fascination with pre-modern cultures on the other, explored in fiction and in the travel writing for which he is now best known. For Lewis, the old ways are doomed, and it is hard not to feel that this is part of their attraction.
Farol is “a village under the threat of death.” The fish are getting harder to find; people’s tastes, under the influence of tourism and urban fashion, are changing (a preference for the “cosmetic” means that customers are preferring a tasteless fish that looks good on the plate to one that is flavoursome but ugly); and jobs at the new hotel pay more in a few weeks than the fishermen can earn in a season. Meanwhile, in the rival, inland village of Sort, nature and circumstances are no kinder. The oak trees are dying, and with them will go the ancestral trade in cork. Tourism, an industry that thrives on appearances, is overtaking the traditional harvesting of the land and the sea. Yet Carmela, the woman who cooks Lewis’s daily lunch, who regularly performs the “miracle of the transmutation of whatever repellent materials she had come by into a delectable dish,” persists in the belief that it is not the appearance of the food that matters but its taste. “Don’t look, sir, whatever you do,” she warns Lewis as she prepares the ominously unnamed ingredients. “Appearances don’t count.”
It might be expected that the villagers of Farol and Sort, faced equally by the threat of modernity, would be natural allies. But they are in fact bitter and traditional rivals, each contemptuous of the other’s customs and ways of earning a living. The Sort people keep dogs and the Farol people cats (“Doesn’t an obsession with cats offend you?” asks a patriarch of Sort rhetorically), all of them in a state of semi-starvation. When a pack of dogs attacks and kills the chickens of Farol, the citizens take revenge. They fry sea-sponges in olive oil, then set them out to tempt the dogs. The dogs eat the sponges, their stomachs swell and rupture, and they die. In a poetic touch, one dog, arriving too late for the feast, is “castrated and sent home with a black ribbon around its neck.” It is the language of survival, a warning to stay away if you know what is good for you.
But the age-old battle between Farol and Sort is a mere sideshow, a diversion from the real battle between progress and tradition, between now and then. It is here that Lewis does rather load the dice. The modern world intrudes most spectacularly in the form of Jaime Muga, a vulgar gangster who proceeds to turn Farol into a temple of tourism and to take its people along with him. When the grown-ups resist his blandishments, he concentrates on the children, bribing them with toys and treats in the certain knowledge that they will do the work of converting their parents for him. Muga is fat, “with a massive torso and pendulous stomach underpinned by insignificant hips and bowed legs.” By contrast, the old world is represented by Don Alberto, an aged aristocrat who is ascetically and admirably thin. Like the fishermen, Don Alberto clings to the old rituals, even as the basis for them has been long forgotten. Some of these rituals he is alone in observing; he is in effect the last man standing. Lewis discovers when he visits him that “there was no bell or knocker on the door, and visitors were forced to stand there and call out in a loud voice “Ave Maria purisima,” this being an ancient custom of this part of the world observed by no one but Don Alberto.”
Voices of the Old Sea, appearing as it did in the mid-eighties, seemed to be of a piece with the widespread resurgence of travel writing evident in works by newer and younger practitioners such as Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O’Hanlon. Lewis’s eye for the quirky and surreal seemed very much in accord with this latest, postmodern iteration of the genre. He describes, for example, without further explanation, how a village courtesan’s “discreetly managed love-life now involved her with a dozen suitors, most of whom presented her with umbrellas, the best of which she always carried with her when herding her goats.” And Don Alberto, who blames the change and decay that he sees all around on the rise of cinema and “the widespread consumption of tomatoes,” is, in best eighties postmodernist fashion, a largely fictional character inhabiting a supposedly nonfictional world.
But Voices of the Old Sea is also very much a work of the fifties, based as it is on extensive notebooks kept by Lewis during that time. Lewis records the nobility – along with the cruelty – of the old ways, even as they are disappearing. There is prosperity to look forward to, but no happy ending. Even the Grandmother bows to the times, raising her accommodation tariffs and installing a flushing toilet to please the incomers. She plans an extension to her house that will, notes Lewis mordantly, “wreck the natural unplanned charm of the building and convert it into a blot on the landscape.” For readers in 1984, the blot on the Spanish landscape, created by tourism and rampant overdevelopment, was all too apparent. And for readers of this latest reissue of Voices of the Old Sea, the recent collapse of the Spanish economy is another blot, one that adds further resonances to Norman Lewis’s humane but gloomy observations from sixty years ago. •