B. E. Marsh
(Syren)Marsh was one of the fortunate Americans to get to Spain before the rush. He arrived in Córdoba in 1954, and returned in 1960. During his time there he passed through many cantinas, befriended the locals, took in all the sights, visited the whore-houses, wrote poetry, and courted --- in the Spanish fashion (slowly, with many chaperones) --- Elena Galvez, to whom he was married in 1961.
Those of us who lived on the Iberian peninsula in those years were leeches. We knew that a tyrannical government (Franco in Spain, Salazar in Portugal) would pretty much let us live as we wished, as long as we paid our bills on time and did not hang out with those who wished to exorcise the administration. Food was cheap, wine and beer and anis and jeréz even more so, and we could find lodging for practically nothing. The peseta and escudo were kept artificially low to attract dollars, and, in southern Spain most especially, millions of peasants and lower class workers who could scarcely make ends meet had to put up with us and our ignorance of the reality of their lives.
Marsh brags about living on $2.00 a day, but the price of this was that those who ran the country (e.g., those who had favored Los Cuatros Generales during the Civil War, 1936 - 1939) hit the jackpot, ended up with extensive government awarded holdings hotels, restaurants, beach-front properties, and banks, while the rest starved.
One of my friends said one time that he realized he was taking pictures of peasants for an art show with a camera worth enough money to keep the family in food and clothing for a year. As long as we kept our mouths shut, didn't complain about the disparities, we could live like kings and enjoy the glories of a culture that was centuries old.
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Marsh tends to o'erreaching generalities. The average person of Córdoba "is a philosopher by day, a poet and reveler by night, and his revelry is heavily prone to the boisterous." He quotes approvingly Ortegas's characterization of the regional character: "The satisfaction an Andalusian derives from his climate, his sky, his blue mornings and golden twilights, is unutterable ... The true roots of his being is submerged in that elemental delight, cosmic, pure, and enduring." But, in truth, the average Andalusian of 1960 was so submerged in misery, poverty and hunger, working for pennies a day, that he scarcely had time to look at the blue mornings and golden twilights.
Marsh spends several chapters on the architecture of Andalusia. He doesn't think much of the famous Cathedral at Córdoba, citing the vandalism of Fernan Ruiz in the 16th Century with the building of a church transept across the middle of the mosque, "destroying the only building of its kind in order to throw up something that could have been built, to equal or greater effect, in any cornfield."
He refers to the famous Alhambra as "the painted lady of Granada, and a very heavily made up old lady she be."
For plumbing, for patios, for picture windows with wide views, for exaggerated decor, it is a bit of contemporary California plunked in an old world setting.
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This is a novel that will bring back memories for those of us who lived in Paradise during the high fifties and sixties. (Marsh may call it a memoir or an autobiography, but we make up our pasts - - - to please ourselves and our readers - - - so I choose to view Spanish Places as a novel.) The background is not as painted as gloriously as it should be, the leading characters are a bit foggy, his male friends are passive, inert --- but there is always Pepa. Marsh tells us he found her on "the girl street par excellence." Pepa is addicted to comic books "and I cannot describe the exasperation with which I watched her stare vacantly at the insipid pages."
Our most intimate moments involved the plate of callos (pig's intestines) which she would order at a local bar, and which she devoured without fineness, though she was good enough to share them with me.--- L. W. Milam