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Roads To Santiago: Detours and Riddles in the Land and History of Spain Paperback – 6 Mar 2014
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In recent years, Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom has developed a reputation as a major European author and, in this magical evocation of 1,000 years of Spanish history, this is shown to be more than critical hyperbole. Through his erudition and graceful writing, Nooteboom has produced the definitive work on one of the most over- worked literary pilgrimages of our times, the journey to Santiago de Compostela.
The book is never a straightforward journey, but instead distils Nooteboom's lifelong fascination for Spain through some remarkable meditations on life, art, history and religion. There is scarcely a page which is not thought-provoking. The passages on Velazquez and Seville-based artist Zurbarán are wonderful, as are the author's meditations on the paradoxes and discords within Spain, his thoughts on the effects of the barren plains on the Spanish soul and his ruminations on the history of conquest and loss which the country has undergone. Most remarkable of all is Nooteboom's ability to convey the sense that, though time has progressed, it is people, attitudes and customs which have stayed still: "Sometimes it is as if Spain is out to preserve the past for the rest of Europe."
Roads to Santiago is a book which everyone with more than passing interest in Spain ought to read. --Toby Green
"One of the great books about Spain" (Tristan Garel-Jones Observer)
"His prose is as sturdy as a good Rioja, and equally delicious" (Sara Wheeler)
"With this immensely attractive book, Cees Nooteboom joins a select band of writer... who have the rare ability to evoke the soul of a nation. No one with a feeling for Spain should fail to read this book" (Daily Telegraph)
"Invites the reader to share the excitement, experiences, even food, that the author has encountered while weaving his way through [Spain] slowly and deliciously... Mr. Nooteboom lingers in out-of-the-way places most tourists miss" (New York Times Book Review)
"Nooteboom plunges fervently into the fabric of Spain itself" (San Francisco Chronicle)
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Not so. The author - it seems a poet and presenter in The Netherlands, has used Compostella as a vehicle on which to hang an account of his lonely meanderings throughout Spain - and Teneriffe- and Portugal. The meanderings are geographical, historical, personal and about art history, architecture and philosophy, also politics and literature, and as such are usually well written and interesting.
But: they are accompanied only by a basic map of Spain, showing places, but not his route; and a few poor b/w photos. The meanderings are random and poorly organised; its often hard to establish what century and province he might be in.
The Camino crops up occasionally, and he gets out of his hire car and walks a bit of it one day; and resolves one day to do it all. He should.
He is obviously good friends with a number of ancient sculptures, but alive human beings are kept well clear of. In fact he has little time for anything less than a few centuries old.
He does succeed in conveying something of the mystery and dark side of Spain, no mean achievement, but the underlying facts are swamped by waffle and thus, for this reader, failed to stick in the memory.
A great pity - a tough editor could have made this a classic.
He cannot pass by a cathedral or a church without describing it at length and in excruciating detail. He tells us more than we can possibly want to know about every single one he visits - and he makes extraordinary efforts to visit even the remotest chapel rumoured to exist at the end of some heat-blasted track on some frying-pan plain. [see photo p.183]. A glance at the list of illustrations shows this. For me, his obsession [a word I think even he uses] with church buildings became tedious and the relief at the quality of the writing about his own view of Spain beyond this obsession became more and more welcome as the book progressed. I found it increasingly difficult to plough through yet another weighty passage on yet another cathedral, hoping and waiting for him to break free into the fresh air of the Spain beyond the church door and his insights into Spainish literature and culture. In the end, finishing the book was a struggle: the sheer bulk of all that ecclesiastical description had worn me down.
If none of the above appeals, then, don't worry. It did not appeal to me before I picked up this book. Nooteboom will engender in the reader a positive experience that will linger with them for many years to come. Now, I want to go to Spain.
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