An absolutely wonderful novel in the tradition of Spanish modernism. Set in the Pyrenees mountains in the 1930s, an aging schoolteacher recounts the events regarding a young man, Ramon - a shepherd from the peasant class, and Alba, the only daughter of the region’s most wealthy landowner. There is a strict hierarchy in this old village, so small it hardly appears on the map. It’s feudalism at its worst, where peasants and even old folk are resigned to a fate of servitude and poverty. And just lurking in the background is the specter of the soon to be Spanish Civil War, which in its own way, plays out as a microcosm in this tiny mountain village.
It’s “Romeo and Juliet”, set in remote Aragon, near the border with France. Alba’s father, Don Mariano and the rest of the village’s landowners as well as the peasants conspire to keep Alba way from Ramon and set about humiliating him and making him become an outcast. In a land where even the most minuscule slight can have the most damaging repercussions, Ramon sets off for the mountains on his own, dejected, defeated - or so the townsfolk believe. After spending the winter in a makeshift home in the mountain pass, he decides to sell his flock of sheep and use his money to buy a donkey, provisions and a shotgun and returns to the village to directly challenge Don Mariano, warning him that he will return in two years. That warning was heard loud and clear by everyone and in the mores of the town, very well understood what it meant.
Over the next two years Ramon becomes a smuggler, befriending another group of smugglers in his travels. At first it is only small goods he transports across the border between Spain and France, often to those merchants who usually had to wait until winter had passed before getting a hold of them. While Ramon’s friends indulge themselves in wine and women, Ramon remains focused, saving his money, having every intention of going back to the village to be with Alba. When he discovers that he is simply not making enough money, he resorts to smuggling arms.
Word gets out about his activities and soon the Guardia Civil are on his trail but the myth that surrounds him had become larger than life, putting everyone on edge and when the villagers realize he is on his way back to the village, all hell breaks loose.
It is a story one Federico Garcia Lorca, Perez de Ayala or any of the other Spanish modernist novelist/poets/playwrights would have written - and I mean that as a compliment. It is a simple folktale fused with political allegory and Mediano - known in Spain as an environmental writer - paints a picture portrait landscape of the novel’s time and place, allowing the reader to be “present” in the story itself. Wonderfully written. Anyone interested in Spanish literature and the history of the Spanish Civil War may want to give this a try. Highly recommended.