12 November, 2007

'Spain by the Horns', Tim Elliott

This example has been on my 'to read' list for years - although I don't remember the original source, given my predisposition for all things Spanish it wasn't a surprising entry - but I was so disappointed by it. It had the feel of a book written as an afterthought - the author went travelling, recorded their notable experiences, then decided to write a book about it. This one, however, was pre-planned and the author has a writing background as well, so I was surprised at how it came together.

Tim Elliott's interest was piqued by tales of JesulĂ­n, a hugely famous Spanish bullfighter. Elliott travels to Spain to track him down, leaving a wife and two-month-old baby behind. His search is routinely thwarted and the book records his issues from Madrid to various towns in Andalucia.

My big, big problem with this book was similes. They were frequent, and frequently terrible, if not nonsensical. Some standouts were: horses with "satiny flanks glowing like copper" (apples and oranges, anyone?), "bald as bathing caps" and sweaty armpits like "burning swamps". They littered the text as if by decree - add more similes! To wander Madrid shortly after arrival "like a jetlagged zombie" doesn't need literary trickery to get across the meaning. Stars that shone "pincer sharp" sounded more like primary-school writing. And when some elderly people were "leaking sadnes like invisible ink", I confess I didn't even know what the imagery was meant to add to the description.

Further, I often found notes of condescension in the book: sardonically referring to the bullfighting publications of a Spanish academic as "a bit of light reading", or to the translators of a thousand years ago as "bookish little men". The second adjective there is really uncalled for.

The author is fluent in Spanish, which opens up a lot more interviewing opportunities for him. There are some frustratingly banal translations included, however. For example, a bar called Casa Alberto is superfluously translated as "Albert's House". Commendably, Elliott does make a genuine effort to include historical details, not only of bullfighting but also the towns he visits, as well as informative excerpts on Spanish history. It is in these factual sections where the better writing is to be found, perhaps reflecting Elliott's past in journalism. And he does give an evocative and accurate rendition of Andalucia, while acknowledging that it is its own stereotype, rather than that for all of Spain.

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