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Jan/Feb 2005 Book Reviews

A Tomb in Seville

Norman Lewis
Picador (2005) 150 pages
ISBN: 0 330 43538 8

reviewed by Ann Skea


Didn't you object to having to hold your hands up when you went for a stroll?
It was all right if you didn't have far to go. That is to say apart from crossing the Gran Via on one's hands and knees.

Madrid in October 1934 was in the throes of an armed insurrection, and Norman Lewis and his brother-in-law Eugene were caught in the middle of it. They had arrived in Spain that September with the intention of visiting Seville, but the declaration of a State of Emergency closed the railways and made straightforward travel impossible. Being young and adventurous, however, and having embarked on a "quasi-religious pilgrimage" funded by Eugene's Sicilian father, Ernesto Corvaja, they determined to stay.

Seville, long ago, had been the home of the Corvaja family. There was a Corvaja palace to be found, and the Corvaja tomb in Seville's cathedral to be visited. One of Ernesto's ancestors had, apparently, been part of the entourage of the viceroy Caracciolo, "sent from Spain to Sicily following its conquest" and Ernesto wanted his children to study in Spain and maintain the family's Spanish connections. His son Eugene was reluctant, and this visit to Seville was their compromise.

Norman Lewis first wrote of their journey in Spanish Adventure, which was his first published book. Decades later, shortly before his death in 2003 at the age of ninety-five, he wrote A Tomb in Seville. The two books see that journey through Spain in the months before the Spanish Civil War quite differently. The first book was a young man's adventure story written by a fledgling travel-writer. The last, a re-casting of that journey by a mature writer whose position as "the father of modern travel writing" is, as Julian Evans writes in the Introduction, "unassailable."

Lewis's skill, as Evans rightly notes, lays in "his sensuous and civilized descriptions, his poker-faced wit" and in his fluid, self-effacing style. Lewis was an old-fashioned travel writer in the sense that there was no gimmickry in his story-telling, no conscious search for the exotic, no histrionics: just fascination with the world and the people around him and a wry appreciation of odd situations and unusual characters.

A Tomb in Seville gives the reader a fine picture of Spain and (briefly) Portugal in those early days of civil unrest, when life went on much as usual for most people. The first part of the young mens' journey took them on foot from the French/Spanish border, 110 miles through "old Spain" (as Lewis puts it) to the industrial city of Zaragoza, a Communist stronghold. Eugene Corvaja, as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, made contacts there, and his engagement with the country became rather different to Lewis's, but it gave them both a greater insight into the unrest.

From Zaragoza, they took an "armoured train" to Madrid, arriving in the middle of a gun battle between revolutionaries and infantrymen that stranded them in the station buffet. From that insecure position, they watched people going about their daily business with hands raised or crawling, depending on the frequency of gunfire. Eventually, they, too, hazarded a crossing of the road to the nearest hotel. Most hotels, however, were closed for the emergency, so they found lodgings in a working man's boarding hostel several miles from the station.

From their top-floor room in the hostel, the men had a birds-eye view of the effects of sniping on the streets below and watched machine-gun volleys rake the shops on the far side of their street. Later that day they peered into a butcher's shop and discovered that the volley "had inflicted posthumous lesions on the porkers still suspended on their hooks." The Spanish people, however, seemed to be used to such situations. Buying a newspaper had become a dangerous business, and "apart from cafe-visiting there was very little [they] dared do," but rubbish was still being collected from the streets and the trams were still running.

Eugene, keen to meet up with the Liberation Army in a local village, persuaded Lewis to accompany him. They survived an attack by the Assault Guards, but Lewis tore his leg badly on barbed wire and needed hospital treatment. So, their stay in Madrid was prolonged and, as things quietened down, they went to a bullfight in the old bullring. Lewis's description of this is as short as it is fascinating, but it is graphic, and one can well understand Lewis's revulsion and his avoidance of "such spectacles" ever after.

Eventually, the two men left Madrid on a battered local bus bound for Salamanca. From there, following local advice, they travelled to Portugal and, after a brief detour to a village where a which had recently been burned, they made an illegal crossing of the border back into Spain and, finally, reached Seville.

The final chapters of A Tomb in Seville sum up the results of the quest for family memorials and describe the lasting effects that the journey had on Eugene Corvaja. He was "amongst the first from England to enlist in the International Brigade" and participate in the Spanish Civil War and, as Lewis notes in a Postscript, although he escaped injury, "ill-health through periods of semi-starvation throughout the campaign... abruptly shortened his life."

The effect on the journey on Lewis, too, was significant. His marriage to Ernesto Corvaja's daughter did not last, but his love affair with Spain did. A Tomb in Seville is a fine expression of Lewis's life-long fascination with Spain.

 

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