(Reviewed by arwen1968)
In 1842, a nobody called George Borrow wrote a detailed, 550-pages-long account of his day job. Sounds boring? Well, it isn’t: Borrow’s day job was to sell bibles in war-torn, Catholic Spain.
Anybody familiar with Catholicism knows that even today Catholics are discouraged from reading the Bible – lest they should interpret it the ‘wrong’ way. According to Catholic doctrine the Bible is so difficult that common people need guidance to understand it; and who better to give that guidance than the Pope and the Church? And if this is the case today, you can readily imagine how Borrow’s evangelising efforts were viewed in Spain in the first half of the 19th century: the Englishman was, in fact, peddling a forbidden book in a country where the very name of Martin Luther was an anathema. A country, moreover, which was torn by a brutal civil war at the time.
The causes of the First Carlist War – Borrow travelled Spain with his bibles from 1835 to 1838 – are explained by Borrow himself very succinctly in a couple of paragraphs, halfway through the book: in 1830, Ferdinand VII set aside the Salic Law of Succession (excluding females from inheriting the throne), making his daughter Isabella his heir in place of his brother Charles. Charles rebelled, and in the following fifty years three Carlist wars devastated an already impoverished Spain. In addition to the issue of succession, the wars were further fuelled by the political issues of the time which pitted liberals against conservatives, Catalans and Basques against the central government, staunch Catholics against seculars… in short just about everybody against everybody else.
And into this war-torn country walked George Borrow, a lowly employee of the Bible Society of England, determined to publish and sell a Spanish language Bible to the masses.
Self-righteous, intelligent and determined, with a real talent for languages, Borrow was your classic missionary. His run-ins with Spanish bureaucracy and the justice system (if the word ‘justice’ can at all be applied!) leave you gasping with laughter at the absurdity of it all. With his load of bibles (frequently confiscated), Borrow takes you gallivanting all over 19th-century Spain, from Seville to Santander, from small Castilian hamlets to the streets of the capital. En route, he fell in with bandits, Gypsies and rogue soldiers; held conversations with book-sellers, Spanish Prime Ministers and British Ambassadors (not to mention the Swiss treasure-seeker of Santiago de Compostela). He was aided or hindered – according to inclination and interest – by inn-keepers, small-town mayors and aristocrats. He was imprisoned, offered marriage and nearly executed as a spy…
It’s not his style that captivates you; his prose in itself is quite unremarkable. Yet his book is hard to put down: he holds you with his sharp-eyed observations of the people around him, his descriptions of the landscape through which he travels and, most of all, with the story he has to tell.