An Optimist in Andalucia
1999, Sort Of Books, London
My colleague Michele left this book in my work cubby. My first thought was “Nope, this isn’t for me.” Not sure if it was the title, or the cover design with its quoted promise: “A wonderful book – tuck it into your holiday luggage and dream”, or just book snobbery. Nonetheless, lacking reading material for the train ride home, I decided to give it the “first-few-pages test”. (Read a few pages, continue reading if you're interested, stop if you aren't.)
It passed the test. Before long I was delighting in the stories and crazy characters, and laughing out loud at the situations, sarcasm and self-derision of the narrator, Englishman Chris Stewart, who I even found myself comparing to a character from Tolstoy!
At the age of forty, Stewart moved with his wife Ana to an isolated, old farm in the mountains of Andalucia, made it home and commenced living off the land.
To be more precise:
isolated = no way to get across the river separating the property from the only road except by wading or driving through it
old farm = no electricity or running water
made it their home = literally built the house which was in ruins
live off the land = grow your own food and raise your own sheep.
In this first book (there are four) about Chris' life as an Andalucian farmer, you'll see the old farm transformed through sweat, tears, laughter and love, and, spoiler alert, maybe even the construction of a bridge. You'll see what it means to live off the land.
As for Tolstoy, I'm less sure if you'll see a clear resemblance between Chris Stewart and Levin, a character from Anna Karenin who is said to be modeled on the writer himself. Nonetheless, Levin it is who came to my mind while reading one of my favorite chapters, "Walking with the Water”, where Stewart describes the "watering", a labor-intensive process of preparing the land for the efficient irrigation of the surrounding farms using systems supported by ancient Roman aqueducts. He says there’s nothing quite like it: Building dams and channels of mud in the streams in the woods was my favourite occupation as a boy and I count myself lucky to be able to enjoy the same thing as an adult...I love the watering.
In his love and respect for this process of watering, he resembles Levin, who finds joy and the meaning of life through working in the fields, with the peasants.
See also Last Days of the Bus Club