Sacred Sierra by Jason Webster
Several years ago, I came across Jason Webster when I stumbled across his Spanish Civil War tome entitled Guerra! A writer and journalist who had been living in Spain for several years, he was making a name for himself as the expat who made genuine discoveries about the Spanish past, and did so with a style of presentation that made his musings attractive to the lay reader.
I was loaned a copy of his later work Sacred Sierra: A year on a Spanish Mountain. My immediate reaction was to suspect this had a whiff of that rapidly-growing-stale genre of writing by expats abroad…..sometimes referred to as ‘hybrid literature’. The greatest exponent of this genre, and usually head and shoulders above his contemporaries, is Bill Bryson…..some would say he is the ‘gold standard’. Within the context of Spain, I imagine Chris Stewart is probably the best known and most read, with his Driving over lemons and Parrot in a pepper tree.
Over the last 15 years or so, there has been a rush by expats to publish their memoirs, usually recounting a ‘year in the life of’, thus providing rich fodder for future sequels, in the hope that a growing faithful fan-base will provide a continuing readership…..and a continuing income. I know I’m being a bit cynical here……but not all of it is good. Some of it is rendered in a copied, formulaic style and, chapter by chapter, you can nearly predict the ingredients that will be dished up by the author……….problems with the local language, challenges connecting with neighbours, taming a few acres to produce some home-grown food, negotiating with builders and planning authorities and raging about the amount of red-tape deliberately put there to thwart foreigners from achieving their goals. And much more……
Sacred Sierra, however, gains my respect. Nevertheless, after the first few chapters, I was ready to throw in the towel. Then I flicked to the back, before definitively deciding to shelve it, and found an appendix explaining the history and significance of all the trees he had planted on his mountainside farm. For some reason, it harnessed my attention……enough to prompt me to go back and resume my reading. And I was not to be disappointed.
You see, Webster has lived in Spain for more than 20 years. He is married to a Valencian actress and flamenco dancer. He is well nigh a native (in linguistic and cultural terms), but moving to an isolated farm house on the side of a mountain in the Maestrazgo (a remote area of eastern Spain that I happen to know myself), he rapidly found he was little more than a ‘novillero’ (a bullfighting term meaning ‘novice’), and had to rely on locals who embodied generations of wisdom and folklore, to help him through his first shaky year.
If you like the expat genre of writing, you will find this one of the better volumes on offer.