M. Descola chooses to see Spain “as a living person” and organizes his chapters in the image of personalities: the Cid, Ferdinand and Isabella, Charles V, Philip II, the ineffectual monarchs and militarists since 1788, and General Franco. Although he includes the most significant events, his book is not a formal interpretation of the structure of Spain’s history but, rather, a somewhat sensuous appreciation of her mysteries and frustrations.
Charles V is portrayed as a king for whom Spanish affairs were “merely an additional concern,” but the author demonstrates how thoroughly the emperor’s obsession with heresy permeated Spanish life until after the death of Philip II and how the resultant ideal of national Catholicism would reappear with the Carlists and with the last Civil War. Descola implicitly suggests a unifying thread of ambivalence, due largely to the subjugation of national principle to personal endeavor, in several leaders, including the Cid (“man with two, swords”), Cortés, Isabel II—of execrable memory, and Franco, everybody’s yet nobody’s ally. But as Stendhal is quoted (p. 453), the Spaniards are possibly “the last individuals left in Europe,” and Descola succeeds in convincing us that personal principle is at once their flaw and virtue.
Assets of this book are its dispassionate analyses of the Inquisition (shown to be of far greater evil in spirit than in physical fulfillment), of the reciprocally barbarous war of 1936-1939, and of the Napoleonic intervention. The significance for Spain of Napoleon’s ambitions, here observed by a Frenchman, are traditionally underestimated by Spanish historians. It is also fitting that a Frenchman should express the novel opinion that the 18th century was “one of the most brilliant periods in Spain’s history” (p. 334). In addition to Goya, there was improved commerce, definite tolerance, and a “fresh and salubrious wind” from France; and in restricting the clergy, Carlos III encouraged the dissemination of revolutionary philosophical thought in Spanish America.
Though he writes for the layman, some readers may find M. Descola’s bent for pageantry, color, and anecdote excessive. (Did Carlos V really eat thirty-course meals in his dying days at Yuste?) Also noticeable in his earlier book, The Conquistadors, a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer flavor is here most prevalent in the chapters on remote periods, where for relative scarcity of fact the imagination luxuriates. Only occasionally does travelogue lingo rear its ugly head later on, e.g., “We must now bid the Spain of Philip V farewell” (p. 334).