Literary Gems

Journey to the Alcarria ‘ Camilo Jose Cela

In an age before travel writing imposed self-made obstacles and it was possible to explore the world without strapping a fridge to your leg or unicycling blindfolded across the Andes, there lived little classics like this one.

Cela (real name an incredible Don Camilo Jose Manuel Juan Ramon Francisco de Jeronimo Cela-Trulock) was a native of Galicia and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989. He fought for the Nationalists in the Civil War and, in old age, seemed intent on offending every liberal mind in Spain. He died in 2002, an unlikeable man with likeable stories.

Journey to the Alcarria is a book that is always described with the word picaresque. The book and phrase were made for each other. Cela preferred writing novels and rarely dipped his toe into non-fiction. When he did, the results were striking. It’s a slim read, almost novella length, but there isn’t a loose word. Set in 1946, the author walks his way through the Alcarria, a rural district, northeast of Madrid. Spain was limping from the civil war, the tourist explosion was years away and the country was swimming in poverty.

Cela visits villages unchanged in centuries and meets a people stunned by the war and frightened of the dictatorship. This is the Spain of long ago, of isolated communities, of sowing and tilling in the baking sun.

Nothing of note happens, set pieces are rare and the tone is detached and even, written in the third person. Yet after the last page is turned, the impression of the Alcarria smoulders away. The appeal is partly because the descriptions of life do not tally anymore. This region has been encroached by the expanding urbanisation of the capital, its rusticity swallowed up and paved over.

It’s a story without a storyline and it shouldn’t work. I read it about once a year and it dazzles every time.