Top critical review
The search continues
on 22 May 2014
The most striking aspect of Jason Webster’s Duende is the unavoidable feeling of sadness it evokes. Webster sets out to discover duende, the essence of flamenco, in an attempt to find some kind of self-fulfilment. He inevitably finds the shadow flamenco world elusive and surrounded by insurmountable barriers for a guiri such as himself. Instead of succeeding in breaking into the authentic culture he stumbles from pale surrogate to paler surrogate, falling in with other wannabes in Alicante, unrepresentative hucksters in Madrid and, in the event of its regular tocaor being indisposed, a dance school in Granada.
En route he indulges in a rather pathetic affair with an older bailaora, gets sucked into a world of cocaine snorting and autotheft, and is befriended by a mysterious Englishwoman whose almost total lack of relevance to the supposed flamenco theme at least lends some authenticity to the story: a good novel would never feature anyone so unconnected with the plot.
Given that Webster himself is in control of the account, it’s difficult to judge exactly how accomplished he becomes as a flamenco guitarist, but some of the narrative regarding the different palos (flamenco styles) is instructive and verifiable. It’s not on its own, however, a good way to go about learning about flamenco.
Something it possibly will do, though, is extend your knowledge of Spanish swearing: there’s an abundance of examples scattered through the book, which gave me something to say when I found the word “treaded” written instead of “trod” (page 300).
Although I found the opening few pages somehow unsatisfying – it’s definitely not unputdownable – I managed to get into it partly, I guess, by lowering my expectations, and partly because there is quite a good story, though little of it gives a typical view of the culture Webster set out to describe.
Given its history, and that of its principal exponents, the Spanish gitanos, flamenco has become notorious for its impenetrability. There is even debate – I was caught in the crossfire of one in a bar in Seville – about what actually counts as flamenco. The couple trading opinions over my head were discussing the merits in that respect of fandango. Any claim to have broken into the world deserves suspicion, and to his credit Webster seems to realise the extent of his own failure.
What is mysterious is his initial choice of venues: Alicante he admits himself is not a centre for flamenco; Madrid offers a range of “flamenco experiences”, but probably only insiders know which are the real thing. Granada looks a better choice, especially the Albaicín, but why not Seville or Cadiz, both of which have excellent reputations?
So, sad and imperfect, but some good bits in between.