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Books on Ibiza

Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

Norman Lewis
Sunken Treasure

Over the past forty years, at least eight writers have disguised Ibiza and Formentera by providing elaborate aliases, some of which have already been encountered in this series. They have done so in order to draw a veil over the real-life source, something they considered especially precious and rare. Thus did they not only keep critics and readers completely in the dark, but starving libel lawyers were also denied gainful employment. Ibiza is no longer that secret untouched paradise though, and the time has come to do a little rescue biblio-archaeology, raising these forgotten literary works to the surface from the depths where they have lain hidden for so long. Exhibit number one is the work of New York novelist Robert Goldston who opted for a Spanish mainland alias, when he transferred Santa Eulalia del Río to the Catalan coastline in his The Catafalque (1958), calling it ‘San Pedro del Rio’. Subtle. Two years later, Barbara Comyns, an English novelist whose work has recently been revived by Virgo, called Ibiza ‘Ciriaco after the island’s patron saint, St Cyriac of the Baths († 304 AD), an obscure Roman martyr whose feast day (8th August) coincided with the day the Islamic citadel was stormed in 1235. For serious bibliomaniacs her Ibiza memoir, Out of the Red, Into the Blue (1960) is almost impossible to locate outside the British Library (I found mine in an Andalusian cortijo, once owned by a member of the Bloomsbury fringe). 1965 was a bumper year for Formenteran aliases: John Mercer successfully disguised the Pitiusa menor as ‘Puertoviejo’ in his Lizard Island Expedition (1965), a boys’ adventure tale about finding a sunken Phoenician port at the very tip of Cap de Barbaria; and Jacques Peuchmaurd called it ‘Palicorna’ in a novel (Le Soleil de Palicorna) which not only won the prestigious Prix des Libraires, but was also made into a film and translated into Spanish. Back to the Pitiusa major, John Anthony West called Ibiza ‘Escondite’ (‘Hideaway’) in Osborne’s Army (1966), a novel about beatniks taking over an island which is on the verge of selling its soul to package tourism; he plonked it down rather unconvincingly somewhere in the Caribbean, but to anyone even vaguely familiar with Ibiza, the original inspiration is clear in almost every single sentence.

The fashion for disguising Ibiza was very much a phenomenon of the 1960s, but there are two later exceptions: when Peter Kinsley published The Pistolero in 1980, a thriller which touched on the sensitive subject of the Spanish Civil War, he decided to call Ibiza ‘Nostrumare’, putting more than just literary sleuths completely off the scent; and in 1998 the French cult cartoonist Georges Bess created Escondida, a comic-book set on a spaced-out Formentera. Mystical, surrealistEscondida (‘Hidden’) makes an interesting makeweight to John Anthony West’s ‘Escondite’. I wonder if George Bess (no relation to the Manchester winger) is aware of his American literary soul-mate.

We are down to our final alias, a classic creation of 1962. It is an archetypically Pityusan name, the clues being obvious to even the most fumbling literary Watson. In the novel which is this week’s subject, Ibiza is ‘Vedra’ - ‘the old man of the sea’ (veteranu) or ‘rocky’ (petranu) according to toponymist Enric Ribes, who has researched the etymological origins of the mysterious colossus off Ibiza’s west coast. Ibiza here has been shifted one thousand four hundred miles to the south-west and made part of the Canaries, a shift so drastic as to have fooled even the book’s French and German publishers. The author is Norman Lewis, and the novel is The Tenth Year of the Ship.

Let us begin with the jacket blurb:a story of cultural and environmental destruction. For a century and a half, the Tur family have excluded anything likely to disturb life on their remote island in the Canaries. Then a regular steamship service is established, and the stagnant feudalism is replaced by the tyranny of speculators.’ And now a few facts: Norman Lewis (who has never, as far as I have been able to gather, visited the Canaries) came over to Ibiza for the first time in 1955 or possibly 1954 (he is famously ambivalent about dates) and stayed for a couple of summers in Ses Estaques (‘The Mooring Posts’), a large villa on the outskirts of Santa Eulalia later demolished to make way for a hotel. He had by then already written three novels and four travel books, and was beginning to attract considerable attention as the new Graham Greene thanks to a dry prose style and his taste for exotic locales – Algeria, Naples, Thailand. He had spent a couple of summers in the early 1950s in a fishing village in northern Catalonia, but had been obliged to move by the sudden arrival of tourism. It was perfectly clear to him from the start that the same was about to happen on Ibiza; it was only a question of time.

The title of the novel under consideration refers to the steamship connection between ‘Vedra’ and Las Palmas. Ten years after its inauguration the outside world is beginning to make its presence felt:

The ship whose advent they had prepared was a microcosm of the outside world, overspilling with the contagion of unrest. It lit fires and put out fires of its own making. It carried a new invasion of the germ of syphilis and new medicine for its treatment; it smuggled in dangerous thoughts and brought modern inquisitors on the search for political heresies; it provided new incitements to the flux of life in the form of stimulating fashions, books and films, and a variety of ingenious methods previously unknown on Vedra for cutting off the flow thus stimulated. In the first year alone came the complete equipment for two cinemas, a fleet of taxis, the petrol to run them, and the pipes, seats and pans for several hundred of the almost indecently commodious lavatories that fashionable city-dwellers on the mainland now installed in their houses. The ship disturbed the thoughts of the people of Vedra who travelled in it by the vision of Babylons by the shores of alien seas. In the ship came speculators who bought up whole streets of Vedra town for ‘development’ in the interests of a future Tur could not bear to contemplate … These men had offered Tur a fantastic price for land that was of nothing but sentimental value to him, and had smilingly refused to take no for an answer. The ship had arrived like a sudden and dreadful change of climate that freezes or drowns in slime the mastodons of another age. Yet never a week passed without Tur being there with the others to see it steam into port.

The Tenth Year of the Ship, pp. 64-65

The year that Lewis was scribbling away outside Santa Eulalia - 1956 - was also the tenth year of Ibiza’s regular steamboat connection with Barcelona (inaugurated in 1947). For later readers, the irony is that the ship was nothing compared to the airport just around the corner (1958). In the novel, Don Flavio Tur is the island’s richest and most powerful landowner, the leading figure in a band of local power-brokers whose other members are Arturo O’Neill (Guardia Civil), Commander Perez (Colonel of the Garrison) and Don Firmín (the Bishop’s secretary). In the first chapter the population of the port and half the island is gathered on the quayside to await the arrival of a new Civil Governor from Madrid; word is that a rounding-up of unwanted local beats is about to take place, which may affect the two foreigners who play a leading role in the story: Laura a nice English schoolteacher who has succumbed to a handsome fisherman and earned the wrath of his prometida; and Beckett (Lewis’s alter ego), a dissolute painter who has become involved with Don Flavio’s nymphomaniac daughter. Like Lewis himself, Laura has a rather poor opinion of her own tribe:

If there was anything spurious in a person’s character, Vedra could be relied upon to bring it out. One had only to remember the annual quote of fake suicides among the members of the foreign colony - the overdoses of barbiturates and the wrist-slashing, which were the histrionics of bored, hemmed-in, and also demoralized people. They were emotional cannibals who fed on each others’ tensions, and she had certainly provided a juicy bone for them to pick over this time.

p. 23

Santa Eulalians with long memories recall how Lewis shunned the expatriate community there, preferring the company of local fishermen whose boats were moored just in front of his shoreline villa. It is the plight of these fishermen which forms an interesting foil to the dilemmas which face the island’s oligarchy. Both are locked in a life-and-death struggle against the modern world. For the fishermen their adversary is the modern trawler fleet which has begun to invade their traditional fishing grounds; for the landowners the enemy are the speculators who are promoting tourism, thus destroying not only the traditional labour market, but also the island’s traditional way of life:

Next year, or the year after, the ship would bring plant for a factory twice or three times the size of the one that had burned down. The three defeated trawlers would be replaced by an invincible score. Tur’s peasants, enticed away by La Palomita and leaving his lands deserted, would discover a new kind of servitude, disguised as freedom. Their bondage would not be to a master of flesh and blood, who could be to some extent manipulated, or even moved by compassion, but to a brass-gutted Moloch known as the shareholder; voracious, pitiless and - above all - stone deaf. Capitalism had arrived, and the only way to survive was to join forces with it as Valentin had done. It couldn’t be fought … But in any case, it was too late.

p. 244

Norman Lewis is an eloquent chronicler of the destruction wrought on traditional societies the world over in the name of economic and technological progress. In the Foreword to his selection of travel pieces, A View of the World (1986) he wrote: “I cannot think of any single place that I have written about that did not appear to have gone downhill - sometimes disastrously so - on a subsequent visit ... It is not possible in the face of such calamities to keep silent, to remain a perpetual spectator.” It is time, indeed, to point to the island which is the real ‘Vedra’. If you can get hold of a copy, you will find a book rich in description of many aspects of traditional Ibiza, from methods of disposing of unpopular dogs to the exact recipe, as we saw last week, for making the traditional peasant cocktail, suïsser (called here alemana). The French translation, L’île aux chimères (1963) has just been republished; and thanks to the book’s blistering attack on western capitalism, a DDR-German version also exists, Das Zehnte Jahr des Schiffes (1970).

In a fortnight’s time we will return to the theme of early travel-writers, exactly where we left off. We will begin with the first of three remarkable Edwardian scribblers, early emissaries from the Anglo-Saxon world who visited Ibiza at a time when it was as little-known in sophisticated London drawing-rooms as the dark side of the moon. Some things, it seems, are destined never to change.

Martin Davies

martindavies@liveibiza.com

 
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