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William Chislett - "Y Viva Espana"?
on 30 May 2014
William Chislett is a former journalist who has been based in Spain over the years not least during his stay as the Financial Times correspondent in Madrid during the democratic transition of the 1970s. His knowledge of this intriguing country is second to none and frankly in a market which has been cornered in the UK by the ubiquitous historian Paul Preston its good to hear another voice. The title of the book almost suggests a "Spain for Dummies" style thesis when in fact this is a sprightly romp through the entirety of Spanish history from the legacy of the Moors, the rise of the Spanish empire and the Golden Age right up to Franco, the emergence of King Juan Carlos and finally topped off with the blessed transition back to democracy.
Chislett reflections and analysis are crisp and often witty. He is particularly good on Franco fatigue with a dictator who looked at one time that he many live forever. He mentions the long running joke that thousands of Spaniards "had short index fingers for every year they tapped surfaces with it while saying that this really was the year when Franco would die". The dictator left the perception of a country which was a backwater with nice beaches packed with tourists. The poison legacy of the civil war, the all pervasive role of the Catholic church and the growing distance of elites from the population give Spanish society its own highly distinctive character. "Spain is different" might have been a tourist slogan in the 1960s but it does encapsulate the frustration of a country still defined by stereotypes. Chislett highlights the usual suspects not least bull fighting, the siesta, Flamenco and Don Quixote. In respect of the latter Cervantes legendary character would have a fine old time in Modern Spain titling at wind farms with the country being the second largest producer of wind energy after Germany.
Chislett's book is jam packed with wonderful little factoids but the primary purpose of his book is bring the reader up to date with the recent economic crisis despite the fact that at least one Spanish institution Banco Santander came out of this all guns blazing and hoovered up many of its sickly British counterparts. In this context despite the model of a largely peaceful democratic transition tensions loom large. He notes a failure to tackle judicial reform, and the abiding challenges posed by regional nationalisms particularly in wealthy Catalonia and the more militant Basques. Equally he reflects that the Spanish economic boom of past decades has led to "the myopic political class, increasingly perceived as a caste, being widely blamed for an unsustainable economic model excessively based on bricks and mortar and far too little on knowledge". This passage of course could equally apply to another country with a considerable former empire, namely Britain.
This reviewer enjoyed Chislett's book "Spain: What everyone needs to know". Indeed the author skilfully navigates through complex events in Spanish history from which the reader emerges clear headed and thankful for properly understanding key events. At less than 200 pages this is not a heavy read and those approaching Spanish history and society for the the first time this is a "libro" well worth owning.