8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
A genre all of its ownReviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies
Driving Over Lemons, Chris Stewart, London: Pantheon Books, 2000. pp247
Recently, back in London, I took a walk down Charing Cross Road to stock up on paperbacks. Are books getting duller with the years, or is it I who am at fault? Then my gaze fell on a pile of books entitled Driving Over Lemons with the sub-title "An Optimist in Andalucia". A glance at the back cover revealed that the book was by a man who had retired as the drummer of a popband called Genesis and had bought a farm in Las Alpujarras, which is described as "an oddball region south of Granada." But for the fact that I happen to know this "oddball" part of southern Spain, I would not have acquired a copy by handing over seven pounds sterling, receiving back a penny in change.
Before starting on page one, I read the quote from a review in the Sunday Telegraph -- surely the most Thatcherite of all the British Sundays -- that appears on the front cover where the book is described as "the best 'good-life abroad' book in years." The reviewer, I immediately realised, had neatly named a new genre of writing, a genre to be added to the detective novel, the thriller, the gardening book, etc. It is a genre all of its own, quite distinct from the travel book, and, like most books today, it caters not to the reader's interest in literature, but to his desire to pass such time as he has to himself with the least possible effort or to acquire some knowledge about such subjects as the tending of his garden, the food that he and his wife consign to their stomachs, and the holidays that they can save up for.
This new genre, however, has nothing to do with real life, with life as lived by the thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people who have bought copies -- a further glance, inside the book, told me that it had been published last year and had been reprinted nine times. No, this is a genre of writing that has a specific readership -- those who already have a Porsche and a Mercedes in the garage, a town house and a fully equipped cottage in the "wilds" of Sussex, and enjoy expensive holidays in those romantically primitive places where a Hilton or a Sheraton have conveniently built a hotel.
Such books, started perhaps by the British author Peter Mayle with his bestseller about setting up home among the quaintly amusing French in Provence, are for those who no longer entertain acquisitive ambitions in the materialistic world to which they are hitched.
So, like the millions who dream of the luxurious life they could have were they to win the lottery, these others indulge themselves in a perverse dream of giving everything up, all the comfort and security they have striven to acquire, in exchange for the harsh realities of life in some out-of-the-way place in the sun. It could be called the "if only syndrome": if only I was just a bit younger, if only my wife was a bit more adventurous, if only I didn't have children to educate, if only I had the courage, etc.
Las Alpujarras are the sparsely populated mountains south of Granada, the area to the east of the road from Granada to the Mediterranean coastline that faces Morocco. It is the area to which the last of the rulers of Granada fled with a few followers after being driven out of their final foothold in the lost paradise of Muslim Spain. Some twenty years ago, I came across a group of western Sufis who had made their home in the little town of Orgiva in the foothills of Las Alpujarras, and now, according to the present book, there is a community of Buddhists occupying one of the villages. The area -- still -- possesses all the ingredients of the simple life, and the present book describes the way in which the author and his young wife overcome the trials and tribulations of making a home on a patch of mountain in a tumbledown house without a water supply or electricity.
Such a move cannot be recommended for everyone who wishes to escape from the nine-to-five routine and the boredom of commuting. It should be noted that before ever going to seek a new life abroad, the writer of this book, having retired at an early age as the drummer of a successful pop group, was earning his living as a sheep shearer, something that requires skill, strength and a sound back, and that both he and his wife were fluent speakers of Spanish before they ever ventured to become peasant farmers in this remote area.
The book makes for enjoyable if undemanding reading. It deals with the few neighbours they have, who are peasants and farmers, the various animals that are an essential part of their isolated existence, the repairing of their house and the acquisition of a flock of sheep. There is also a gruesome description of a matanza, something of a social occasion when the pigs for the coming year are slaughtered, thus providing the hams that are an important part of the local diet. It is a gory business and is accomplished by the participants fortifying themselves, at the first light of day, with generous quantities of alcohol.
The book is now on the bestsellers lists, and the writer will be faced with the quandary of deciding what to do with all the money he has made.