Gerald Brenan is one of the best known interpreters of
Spain and Spanish life as well as being an inspiring commentator on the country’s literature. His writing has many facets and ranges from the analysis of the social background to the Civil War in The Spanish Labyrinth, his reporting on the state of Spain after the war in The Face of Spain, to a biography of Saint John of the Cross.

And Gerald Brenan’s name will always be linked with the
village of Yegen. In a life full of the most varied adventures, perhaps amongst the most surprising of them were the years he spent there, in a poor, backward village in the remote mountains of the Alpujarra.

This was partly in reaction against his comfortable middle class background. His father was a Major in the British army who wanted his son to follow in his military footsteps and in 1915, when he was twenty one, Gerald went to the front in the First World War. However, while he was in the trenches his mind was far away, full of exotic walks in faraway countries. This tendency to live in the world of dreams had already appeared during his years at Radley public school, where he was bullied and found refuge in reading and writing poetry. After the war, feeling oppressed by his school and family background, especially by his authoritarian father, all he wanted to do was to travel and educate himself through reading. His idea was to take time off in
Spain and then go on to Greece or Italy, or live with the Tuareg in the desert.

When Gerald first arrived,
Spain was not a promising place to settle in. He found a primitive country, with no roads to speak of, only mule tracks covered in mud, dirty posadas (inns) full of insects and bugs, and oily food that gave him dysentery. He crossed Spain and reached Andalucia. After inspecting the region, he went to a mountainous area scattered with minute "pueblos", the Alpujarra. He heard it was a cheap place to live, so after an attempt at renting a house in the village of Mairena he finally arrived at Yegen, where he rented a big house belonging to a local cacique or landlord for six pounds a year.

At first sight, the place did not seem attractive. Located one thousand two hundred meters above sea level, the pueblo lay on the hillside looking like a cluster of small brown boxes stuck together. The houses were not whitewashed and were left the natural colour of stone and mud; only those of the rich people were white. It was divided into two parts or barrios, the Barrio de Arriba and the Barrio de Abajo. Brenan lived in the first one, which started below the road and ended at the church. This division, though strange in a place with hardly a thousand inhabitants, created a strong feeling of belonging. Each barrio was ruled by a landlord, the rivalry was fierce and people only related to the others in their own barrio.

Here, living in small farming community and surrounded by the beauty of the Alpujarra, life seemed more real to him. But life was not easy from the point of view of modern comforts. The houses had neither electricity, running water or glazed windows. After renting the house, one of the first things Brenan had to go through was the inevitable building work (obra) to adapt the huge house to his necessities. He suffered the idiosyncrasies of local builders who were always promising to turn up “mañana”. The house had to accommodate the two thousand books that were waiting in
Almeria, ready to be brought to Yegen on mule back. Also, during the following years, he would receive important visitors: Virgina Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Augustus John, amongst others.

It was a great event for the locals to have a foreigner or forastero living with them. Although Brenan wanted a quiet life, he ended up participating in the pueblo's activities, such as helping at the harvest, organizing bailes or dances at his house, or occasionally going to church. The village had a fixed social structure made up of caciques, the farm workers and the poor, but everyone was on familiar terms with everyone else. As Gerald lived in the Cacique's house, he was treated as somebody of importance and wealth and greeted as "Don Geraldo". But the villagers also treated him with spontaneous human warmth which he felt for them in return.

His main occupations were reading, writing letters and taking long walks in the mountains.
Reading and writing formed the imaginative currents of his life in Yegen, and were of prime importance to him during the rest of his life. He started reading the two thousand books, which included Virgil, Cervantes, Gibbon and St. John of the Cross. The text had to be explored and gone into deeply. Reading was a matter of discovery, and an important stage before writing. With an incredible capacity for concentration he would often spend ten hours reading non-stop. After that, he would get up full of energy and, in a kind of ecstasy, start walking in the mountains at full speed to the village of Mecina Bombaron where he would swim in a mountain pond to cool off

At Yegen, he started to note down the village customs, the coplas or songs that he heard, and descriptions of its inhabitants. He also made notes of the books he was reading, as well as writing poetry and extensive letters to his friends, especially the painter Dora Carrington. His imagination was stimulated by the view of mountains, trees and streams, and the surrounding solitude and silence. The rest of the world did not seem to exist.

There was only one other foreigner in the district at that time, a Scotsman who lived in a farm called “Cortijo del Inglés”, located near the village of Murtas at about nine miles from Yegen, on the other side of the mountain. Gerald paid him a visit and found a man full of resentment and prejudice against the Alpujarreños. He spent his days locked up in his room drinking whiskey and was obviously very relieved when his visitor left.

Gerald Brenan moved to Yegen in 1920 and it was his home until 1924, although he visited it regularly until 1934. In this little village left behind by time, he found what he needed at that particular moment in his life. By setting there he rebelled against conventional middle-class standards, its quietness allowed him to catch up on his education and it also gave him an understanding of Spanish life which inspired his later books.

In 1934, he left Yegen and moved to Churriana a village close to
Malaga with his new wife, the American poet Gamel Woolsey. Using his memories and notebooks he wrote South from Granada, the record of life in the Alpujarra as lived by a romantic-realist. Brenan always lived on the boundaries between poetry and reality, trying to draw together the best of both worlds. At Yegen, combining instinct and observation, he got to know the measure of things.

Published by Carlos Pranger in The Olive Press, Issue 12, 22nd November 2006.

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