Tertulia, vol. 45
In preparation for our annual hike in Southern Spain, I have finally read the acclaimed essay La España vacía. Viaje por un país que nunca fue (2016, Empty Spain. Journey through a country that never was.). If you know Spain’s Mediterranean coasts, you might be surprised about this book title, because the coast is densely populated. The interior of the country looks much different. These areas have been losing inhabitants ever since and the trend continues. Every hour, on average, the rural parts of Spain lose five inhabitants.
La España vacía is a book written by journalist and writer Sergio del Molino. It is a kind of essay that combines various genres, like literary analysis, travel logs, memoirs, and «crónica». The book reflects on the phenomenon of depopulation in the rural parts of Spain, which leaves vast areas of the country empty and abandoned. The author explores the history, culture, and landscape of these regions, and how they have not only been affected by topographic factors such as the uninhabitability of the terrain as such, but also by socio-economic factors like industrialisation, urbanisation, and neglect.
Unlike political decision-makers in the cities, Spain’s literary history is proof that many writers never completely turned away from these empty parts of the country, but rather created a rich mythology of an imagined Spanish countryside. In this sense, the «España vacía» has never been empty in the literal sense of the meaning but is full of inspiration, imagery, and stereotypes according to del Molino.
I liked the free-flowing style of the book with its mix of techniques and genres. I also liked that it can be read as a complementary literary history of the country. Del Molino refers to many canonic Spanish writers who helped create the myths of rural Spain, starting with Cervantes’s legendary La Mancha, romantic poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, Benito Pérez Galdós, Miguel de Unamuno, Azorín, to more contemporary writers like Miguel Delibes or Julio Llamazares. He ends with writing about a new trend that Josefina Gómez Mendoza calls neo-rural story-telling or a return to the country («neorruralista») in her review of the essay: Writers leave the cities in search of their roots. However, it is not these well-known names of the Spanish canon whose work I got to see from a different angle, but the many personal anecdotes and memories of the author and the people he portrays that enriched my reading. Del Molino also leads us to different areas depicting the rich cultural diversity of the country. I must warn all those who may expect coherent academic work to not be disappointed because this is definitely not what del Molino aims at. The book represents a loose, personal recollection of ideas. By no means does del Molino tend to polarise and start the eternal discussion about the «two Spains» again, using new and different labels. On the contrary, I find it important that the book is written in a very conciliatory tone, as Antonio Muñoz Molina also points out in his review of the book.
Sometimes, even for me, the ends got a little bit too loose. Some associations were a bit too long and far-fetched for my taste, like the story about the burnt Welsh houses right at the beginning of the book or the digression about life in the Argentinian countryside. All in all, however, it has been a very interesting read. I learned a lot about parts of Spain that I hardly know, like Castilla-León, Aragón, Extremadura, and some areas just two hours away from Madrid.
I got to see a glimpse of solitary Extremadura last year when we hiked from Monesterio to Mérida and I hope to continue exploring the Spanish countryside by following the sign of the Jacobean scallop. This Good Friday we will head to empty Spain again, namely to the «Camino mozárabe» in Andalucía. We will walk from Granada to Baena in the province of Córdoba. I will keep you posted about our journey. In the meantime, enjoy the Easter break and let me know what you think about Sergio del Molino’s book.