Voices of the Old Sea

Voices of the Old Sea

by Norman Lewis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781906011611
Publisher: Eland Publishing Ltd
Publication date: 11/04/2013
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,159,059
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Norman Lewis was one of the greatest travel writers in the English language. He is the author of thirteen novels and fourteen works of nonfiction, including The Tomb in Seville and Naples '44 (both published by Carroll & Graf). His other books include A Dragon Apparent; Golden Earth; and The Honoured Society, a nonfiction study of the Sicilian Mafia. Norman Lewis died in 2003 at age ninety-three.

Read an Excerpt

Voices of the Old Sea

By Norman Lewis


Copyright © 1984 Norman Lewis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-3327-4


When I went to live in Farol the grandmother who owned the house gave me a cat. 'Don't feed it,' she said. 'Don't take any notice of it. It can sleep in the shed and it'll keep the rats away.' Farol was full of cats, for which reason it was often called Pueblo de los Gatos—'cat village'. There were several hundred of them living in whatever accommodation they could find in the village, and in caves in the hill behind it. They were an ugly breed, skinny with long legs and small, pointed heads. You saw little of them in the daytime, but after dark they were everywhere. The story was that Don Alberto, the local landowner who was also a bit of an historian, claimed that they had always been there and produced a fanciful theory, based on some reference made to them by an early traveller, that they had some connection with the sacred cats of Ancient Egypt. Mentioning this, the fishermen of Farol would screw their fingers into their temples and roll their eyes in derision as if to say, what will he come up with next? Their story was that the cats had been imported in the old days to clean up the mess left when they degutted fish on the spot before packing them up to be sent away. No one in this part of the world would ever kill a domestic animal, so their numbers soon got out of control. In addition to scavenging round the boats, they hunted lizards, frogs, anything that they deemed edible, including fat-bodied moths attracted to the oleanders on summer evenings, which they snatched out of the air with their paws. Whenever the cat became too old or sick to have about the place it would be put in a bag and taken to the cork forest and there abandoned. The people who owned this part of the forest lived in the village of Sort, about five kilometres away. They had no cats but were overrun by dogs, and as they, too, were squeamish about taking life they brought down unwanted animals, borrowed a boat, and left them to die of hunger and thirst on an island a hundred yards or so off-shore.

It soon became clear that the Grandmother was a person of exceptional power and influence in the village. All the domestic aspects of life—and largely the financial ones too—came under the control here of the women, 'dominated', to use the local word, by the Grandmother, just as the males were dominated by the five senior fishermen owning the major shares in the big boats. In each case the domination was subtle and indirect, a matter rather of leadership accorded to experience and vision.

The Grandmother had garnered a little respect in deference to her money but most of it was based on sheer spiritual qualities. She was large, dignified and slow-moving, dressed perpetually in black, with the face of a Borgia pope, a majestic nose and a defiant chin, sprouting an occasional bristle. A muscular slackening of an eyelid had left one eye half-closed, so that she appeared at all times to be on the verge of a wink. Her voice was husky and confiding, although in a moment of impatience she was likely to burst into an authoritarian bellow. Everything she said carried instant conviction, and the villagers said that she was inclined to make God's mind up for him, because whenever people left a loophole of doubt about future intentions by adding the pious formula 'if God is willing', she would decide the matter there and then with a shout of 'Si que quiere'— of course he's willing.

As a matter of course the Grandmother meddled in family affairs of others. She provided instruction on the mechanics of family planning, investigated the household budgets of newly married couples to decide when they could hope (if ever) to afford a child, and put forward a suitable name as soon as it was born. All the names suggested for male children were taken from a book she possessed on the generals of antiquity, and the village was full of inoffensive little boys called Julio César, Carlos Magna (Charlemagne), Mambró (Marlborough) and Napoleón. And one luckless child was doomed to go through life bearing the name Esprit de Cor (esprit de corps), who, someone had assured the Grandmother, was the greatest commander of them all.

Above all the Grandmother was an expert on herbal remedies, and the villagers saved on the doctor's fees by prescriptions provided after a scrutiny of their faeces and urine. 'Mear claro y cagar duro' (clear piss and hard shit), she claimed—quoting a saying attributed to Lope de Vega—were at the base of health and prosperity. She also offered a sporadic supply of the urine of a woman who had recently given birth, locally regarded as effective in the treatment of conjunctivitis and certain skin ailments—although in a village where the birth-rate must have been one of the lowest in the world, it was rare for a donor to be available.

My room in the Grandmother's house was odd-shaped and full of sharp edges, with a ceiling slanting up in four triangles to a centre point, and dormer windows throwing segments of light and shade across walls and floor. In Farol they were nervous of the use of colour, so it was all stark white, and living in this room was rather like living inside a crystal, in which the Grandmother, when she came on the scene, appeared as a black, geometrical shape.

A tiny cubicle contained a charcoal-burning stove, and another a floor of ceramic tiles. It was a feature of the house that illuminated a nook in the Grandmother's mind inhabited by poetic fancies, for the tiles' pattern—made to the Grandmother's own design—depicted flowers on intertwining stems, growing from a central hole beside which a powerful disinfectant in an amphora-shaped container had been placed.

I was taken into the garden to admire another feature of the accommodation: three strands of barbed-wire twisted together round the top of the wall, cut from a roll the Grandmother had bought as an extravagance. Beyond the wall a rampart of sunflowers besieged by goldfinches hung their heads, and through their stalks I could see the beach with glossy, translucent pebbles glittering among the coarse limestone chips, and a rank of purple and yellow fishing boats leaning on it. I asked the price, and the Grandmother's eyes became misted with introspection. She passed her tongue very slowly in a clockwise direction round her teeth inside the lips, and said five pesetas a day. 'Here,' she said, 'you will enjoy great tranquillity.'

This proved true, and to find the place had been an immense stroke of luck. I spent my first week in Farol, to which I had been drawn by its reputation of being the least accessible coastal village in north-east Spain, in the fonda—the village inn—being driven out largely by the smell of cats. The fonda was run by two shy, silent brothers I never saw except at mealtimes when one or other of them would bring the food, drop the plate on the table, head averted, and scuttle away. The food was always tinned sardines—a luxury in this place where they sometimes caught fresh sardines by the ton—and hard-boiled eggs. The brothers kept sixteen cats in their cellar, and had taken four more away and left them in the cork forest only the week before I arrived.

My room in the Grandmother's house had been occupied until a few days before my arrival by the Grandmother's eldest daughter, her son-in-law and their two small children, who—as I was later told—had been hugely relieved, after some years of living in the shadow of the Grandmother's personality, to be able finally to make their escape. There were fifty or more such houses in Farol, built in an irregular and misaligned fashion into a narrow zig-zag of streets, and a few more squeezed where space could be found among the semicircle of massive rocks almost enclosing the village. Standing aloof were several mansions originally belonging to rich cork merchants who came here for their holidays at the end of the last century, all in varying states of decrepitude, and decorated with stone coats of arms to which their owners had not been entitled. Farol catered for the basic needs with a small, decayed church, a ship-chandler's, a butcher's shop, a general store selling a wide range of goods from moustache wax to hard black chocolate kept in a sack, that had to be broken up with a hammer, and a single book—Alonso Barros' Eight Thousand Familiar Sayings and Moral Proverbs, published in 1598—of which almost every house possessed a copy, and by which people regulated their lives. There was a bar, too, which offered a thin, acidulous wine from the barrel at a half-peseta a glass, or a bottled wine called Inocente, claimed on its label to contain calming vitamins. The bar was notable for its display of the mummified corpse of a dugong, known locally as 'the mermaid'. This grotesquely patched and repaired object with its mournful glass eyes, sewn-on leather breasts and a flap covering its sexual parts was believed to vary its expression—whether pensive, sceptical or malicious—according to the weather, and it was noticeable that strangers who took refuge in the bar from the horrors of the fonda where they were obliged to put up—generally agreed to be the worst in Spain—seated themselves so as not to be depressed by the sight of this macabre trophy.

It was at a long table placed under the mermaid that the principal fishermen met in the early evening to discuss the events and the adventures of the day. This they did in blank verse, for although the people of Farol were indifferent to music, to painting, indeed to art forms of all kinds, they were profoundly ensnared by the power of words.

Catalan, their workaday language, was put aside at such sessions in favour of Castillian, its cadences esteemed by the fishermen as more suited to poetic expression. The men of Farol hoarded words as their children collected the coloured pebbles on the beach. Their versifying seemed to be spontaneous. When one man had had his say, another would leap into the pause that followed with an opening line, then wait for nods or grunts of approval to continue. Thus:

Ayer los chubascos me agarráron, pen hoy ... [a murmur of 'Sigue, sigue'—'go on, go on']

    Yesterday the storms clawed at me, but today ...
    La suerte me corrió.
    Luck ran at my side.
    Al amanacer visité la marea
    At dawn I visited the tide
    Y viendo que el día no llevaba malicia—
    And seeing that the day bore no malice—
    Cogí la barca, y me fuí—
    I took the boat, and I went—
    Pa' dentro del mar, donde las grandes olas se movían. ('Sigue, sigue.')
    Into the deep sea, where the great waves moved.
    Y allí en la claridad del agua, solo, aislado,
    There in the clarity of water, alone, alone,
    Vi tantos fantasmas vivaces,
    I saw many lively ghosts,
    No de las sin habla, que comen las almas,
    Not of the kind without tongues, eaters of souls,
    Pero de los que cantan con voces dulces del alba.
    But those that sing with the sweet voices of the dawn.

It was impermissible to eavesdrop on these sessions, unthinkable to be seen taking notes, and at the approach of someone, like myself, outside the bardic circle the noble flow of Castillian came to an end to be replaced by the disjointed rhythms of Catalan. So engrained had the habit of speaking in blank verse become, that it often asserted itself in the most mundane of discussions, and a fisherman found it hard to discard metrical rhythm even when ordering his necessities at the ship-chandler's, or buying a round of drinks.

In a village enjoying the brand of democracy, the absence of status-seeking imposed by a manageable, shared-out poverty, a few notables emerged in addition to the Grandmother.

The formal head of the community, the Alcalde, an outsider who had been imposed on the village, had been almost forgiven for what he was by convincing the villagers that he had been a Nationalist not by choice, but by the geographical accident of having been born in Nationalist-occupied territory. Shopkeepers in Farol acted as bankers, supplying goods on credit throughout the winter in anticipation of sardines and tunny to be caught in summer, and were therefore entitled to some grudging respect. Inevitably the butcher wielded power through his control of the rare meat supplies—more importantly of the blood hot from the veins of slaughtered animals, given to sickly children. My next-door neighbour attracted attention to himself in a community that hardly understood the usages of property through his marriage to a rich peasant girl, who had brought him some fields and trees he had never seen. The five senior fishermen expected to be listened to when any matter relating to the village weal came under discussion. Don Ignacio, the priest, in so far as he could be considered a villager, was well thought of on the whole, largely because he had lived with a mistress quite openly, and had learned to mind his own business.

The other person of consequence would have been seen by most outsiders as a prostitute although a villager might have pretended, or even felt surprise at such a suggestion. Sa Cordovesa, possessor of a delicate beauty and charm, had arrived as a child refugee from Andalusia, and now conducted multiple affairs with discretion, even dignity, behind the cover of making up cheap dresses. By common consent the community put on blinkers in this matter, a posture of self-defence adopted to cope as painlessly as possible with a situation in which most men could expect to reach the age of thirty before they could afford to marry. Taking refuge in self-deception, Farol invested Sa Cordovesa with a kind of subjective virtue. She had allies—such as the Grandmother—by the dozen, and was made welcome in any house. It was not long before I discovered that there had been a succession of Sa Cordovesas in the past. Farol had solved a social problem in its own unobtrusive way.

This was the view of Farol, cut off more by secret human design than by the accidents of nature and, by reason of its continuing isolation, a repository of past custom and attitudes of mind. Life had been always hard—an existence pared to the bone—and local opinion was that it was getting harder, purely because mysterious changes in the sea were directing the fish elsewhere. In most years catches were a little sparser than the year before, but there were optimists who believed that the decline was not necessarily irreversible, and they awaited in hope the end of the cycle of lean years.

The fishermen were totally absorbed by the sea, oblivious almost of the activities of those who lived by the land, wholly ignorant of the fact that only a few miles away a catastrophe was in the making. Three miles back from the shore the cork-oak forest began—hundreds of thousands of majestic trees, spreading their quilt of foliage into the foothills, and up and over the slopes into the low peaks of the sierra. The great wealth of cork belonged to the days before the invention of the metal bottle top, but even now, with slumped sales and low prices, the oaks provided a livelihood for hundreds of tree-owning peasant cultivators from Sort, the neighbouring village of dogs, and many other forest hamlets.

In the year before my arrival in 1948, people in Sort began to notice that something was happening to the trees, that the early spring foliage had changed colour and was withering. Word of their neighbours' alarm reached Farol, but the fishermen shrugged their shoulders and went on preparing their lines or mending their nets. It was impossible for them to understand that their destiny could be in any way linked with that of peasants with whom they had little contact and from whom they were separated by huge differences of temperament and tradition. For the fishermen of Farol the peasants of Sort might have been the inhabitants of a distant planet rather than of a village five kilometres away, and they found it difficult to interest themselves in their fate, whatever misfortune might have befallen them.


Excerpted from Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis. Copyright © 1984 Norman Lewis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Voices of the Old Sea 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
joseph_spucklerJS More than 1 year ago
Voices of the Old Sea by Norman Lewis is an account of his time in village of Farol on the Costa Brava in Spain during the 1950s. Lewis is the author of many travel books and was particularly fascinated by primitive cultures in the modern world. He wrote on Indonesia, tribes in India, and the effect of missionary work in Latin America. Lewis spends three summers in Farol and documents his time there. Usually it is fiction that requires you to suspend your disbelief; here it is non-fiction. The reader almost feels like he or she is in a Spanish version of Tortilla Flator Cannery Row. Farol is a town that struggles to make a living by fishing. Superstition abounds in the town. No leather was allowed anywhere the fishing fleet, which in itself is barely functional. Motorized boats have been cannibalized to the point that the few boats that run barely do. The boats are named with pagan references that government officials make the fishermen cover up and rename. Farol is a single commodity town and fishing in itself is at subsistence level. So important is the fishing that locals turn to a magician who can smell out the tuna. Animals are not killed unless there is good reason. A man shooting rats because they might carry the plague is told to stop and told once there is plague then the rats could be killed. Killing them for no reason would not be tolerated, but sending a message is different though. When dolphins are snagged in fishing nets, they are not killed; they are wounded and released to show the other dolphins what would happen to them if they decided to get snagged in the fisher's nets. Cats have the run of Farol, and it is know as the cat village. Sort is an adjoining town, known as the dog town. Sort is on its own hard times with the decline of the cork industry and relies on subsistence agriculture. The two villages have their own feud. Life is further complicated by Muga who want to bring tourism to the Farol. Villagers fear that the foreigners staring out at the water from the shore would ruin the fishing. Voices of the Old Sea is a fun read. It reads like fiction with nearly unbelievable events and characters so colorful that they seem they could they could only come from the authors imagination. Lewis' growing attachment to the village and the process of his acceptance makes for an interesting read. A very good book for all.