A humorous and affectionate look at modern Spain, and a celebration of the country's greatest book, from the pen of a brilliant young writer.
When in 1987 Miranda France spent a year living in Madrid, the post-dictatorship ebullience was at its height. Pornography and soft drugs were legalised alongside more basic freedoms, such as divorce, party-affiliation and kissing in the street. In 1998 she returned to make a journey through the great cities and towns of central Spain - Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Salamanca and others. With the new prosperity, much has changed.
But much has also endured, as she learns from the people she meets, who include a private detective, a shepherd, various nuns, two belly dancers and a Castilian separatist. She also discovers that Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE' published in 1605 and the most translated book after the Bible - is a work of genius which still helps to explain the Spanish character: today's Spaniards still suffer from Don Quixote's delusions, and are as stubborn, inflexible and unrealistic as they have always been.
Perhaps it is fitting that all is not what it appears to be in this travel ode to Spain and its best-loved fictional character, Don Quixote, the titular subject of Cervantes's 1605 novel. At first, France (Bad Times in Buenos Aires) seems poised to write about the continuing importance of Quixote in modern-day Spain. However, when the author sets up a return to Madrid after living there as a student in 1987, a time comparison looms large. Both themes crash in a very shaky beginning. When establishing her story, France repeats details that might be considered lurid (the brothel across the street, the junkies in the doorway) and forsakes essentials: Who is she and why is she so taken with Don Quixote and Spain? France drops hints, but they are wholly unsatisfying (e.g., "My university studies demanded that I spend a year in Spain and I had chosen the capital, where I knew no one"). "Things seemed not to have changed much in the intervening years," she writes, without revealing how many years had intervened. Two years? Twelve years? The first clue comes three pages later, in this ungainly sentence: "The house was a wreck when we lived in it, and ten years on it had become more desperate." France doesn't hit her stride until chapter six; from there on out, both style and substance shine. France reflects on a few highlights of Spain's political and social history; she cross-references these with various interpretations of Don Quixote. Spaced out over several chapters, France's overview of what is often cited as the world's first novel is excellent and functions equally well as a refresher or introduction. Throughout, France recalls life as a 20-year-old in Madrid amid a rich cast of characters, from her incredibly beautiful roommate, Carmen, to her lover, a Peruvian revolutionary. France's passion and curiosity for her subjects are contagious, and in the end she proves she is clearly up to the task.