This is probably the most obviously autobiographical novel by the late Ronald Fraser.
The founder of New Left Books, which includes the Verso imprint, was a renowned and sympathetic writer on Spain and in particular the Spanish Civil War. Drought is set in a remote hillside village a couple of decades after the defeat of the Republican government and its replacement by Franco’s smothering tyranny. Through the eyes of John Black, a very Fraser-esque character, it tells of the unforeseen impact of efforts to build a new dam, the pet project of a thrusting, monomaniac ex-pat Englishman.
In its closely and minutely observed accounts of the sufferings and indignities of the largely impoverished community of sharecroppers, especially the seemingly impenetrable Miguel, which is mirrored in the worsening lack of water, there are echoes of both Hemingway and Laurence Durrell. Yet the closest literary equivalent is probably that of Ilya Ehrenburg’s The Thaw. Whilst Drought is certainly the very particular story of Miguel who commits suicide in despair at the thwarting of his hopes for respectability through both the acquisition of land and a wife, it is also an extended metaphor for a Spain in the midst of an uneasy and unstable transition.
The drought of the arid, cruel and repressive clericalism and landlordism of Francoist social structures are beginning to crack and fissure in the face of an increasingly globalised capitalism that is threatening many whilst also offering opportunities of enrichment for the few. John himself, by dint of his mere presence in the village, is a confusing and confused harbinger of change and indeed destruction impacting upon the lives of Miguel, his sister Ana, and Juana his novia or betrothed.
The latter third of the book is John’s literary re-imagining of Miguel’s life from his youth in the Civil War where he sees the family split between the idealistic brother and the conservative, calculating father. His later experiences of being a shepherd in the hills and encountering bandits – many of whom are ex-Republican soldiers – confirms in Miguel’s mind the need for personal economic independence. But having to give half of his yearly crop to the ghastly ultra-montane Maria Burgos, who refuses to allow a watercourse from the dam to cross her land and irrigate his dying crops, showing that his aspirations are unachievable, either under Francoism or capitalism.
As a minor character observes drily “Casa Colorada would never be his”.
The cataclysmic ending suggests that it is not only Miguel but many others who will continue to mourn the lost dreams of the 1936-39 Republic and suffering the depredations of the ruling classes.
This is an edited version of a review which first appeared in the Morning Star.