FICTION

Book review: Drought - as good as Graham Greene in parts

The story of a British expatriate, who in the late 1950s quits his job and escapes to the Andalusian mountain village of Benalamar, Drought offers a saga of colonialism and its discontents

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 11:55pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 August, 2015, 11:55pm
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Ronald Fraser's Drought is an uneven novel, but when it is good, it is very, very good - as in Graham Greene good.

The story of a British expatriate named John, who in the late 1950s quits his newspaper job and escapes to the Andalusian mountain village of Benalamar, Drought offers a saga of colonialism and its discontents. Benalamar is a degraded landscape; its farms have no water, and a generation later, it remains riven by the Spanish civil war's tensions.

"No one wants to come here; no one wants to stay," Fraser tells us. No one, that is, except John and his countryman Bob, a developer with a vision for the future: "large houses hidden by walls and eucalyptus, svelte lawns and swimming pools rapidly glimpsed, an 18-hole golf course ... something more like a country club estate."

For Bob, the key is the dam he is building, which will bring water to the farmers while also increasing the value of their land. What he is after, then, is opportunity, what Fraser calls "a new form of colonisation: mass tourism", although John understands this is a false faith, through which community and culture will be flattened. The transformation of the village, in other words, essentially spells its demise.

Fraser, who died in 2012 aged 81, was a former Reuters reporter who moved to Spain in 1957; his 1979 oral history Blood of Spain: A History of the Spanish Civil War is considered his definitive work. Drought, being published for the first time posthumously, reckons with many of the same issues as his historical work. It is a novel as oral history, but also as social statement and even, in a sense, memoir. John is his alter ego and stand-in, sharing not only his creator's biography but also his convictions: Fraser was a socialist who co-founded Britain's New Left Review in the '60s.

"Living vicariously, but more intensely than when his nose was plunged in a book, the collector of other people's lives? All this was comforting because it allowed him to deny his own problems."

That sensibility works as long as the novel keeps its focus wide.

Drought: A Novel  by Ronald Fraser  (Verso)

Los Angeles Times