In 1842, a nobody called George Borrow wrote a detailed, 550-pages long account of his day job. Sounds boring? It isn’t: Borrow’s day job was to sell Bibles in war-torn, Catholic Spain. The Bible in Spain is a book I cannot recommend enough; it’s a travelogue, an adventure story and comedy all in one. If you want to know more, you can read my review here.
Today’s quote is rather lengthier than usual but gives you a flavour of Borrow’s style of writing. Enjoy this excerpt about his run-in with the famous Spanish bureaucracy:
By far the most clever member of this government was Galiano, whose acquaintance I had formed shortly after my arrival. He was a man of considerable literature, and particularly well versed in that of his own country. He was, moreover, a fluent, elegant, and forcible speaker… Why he was made minister of marine is difficult to say, as Spain did not possess any; perhaps, however, from his knowledge of the English language, which he spoke and wrote nearly as well as his own tongue, having, indeed, during his sojourn in England, chiefly supported himself by writing for reviews and journals,—an honourable occupation, but to which few foreign exiles in England would be qualified to devote themselves.
[…] Galiano forthwith gave me a letter to his colleague, the Duke of Rivas, in whose department he told me was vested the power either of giving or refusing the permission to print the book in question. The duke was a very handsome young man, of about thirty, an Andalusian by birth, like his two colleagues. He had published several works—tragedies, I believe—and enjoyed a certain kind of literary reputation. He received me with the greatest affability; and having heard what I had to say, he replied with a most captivating bow, and a genuine Andalusian grimace: “Go to my secretary; go to my secretary—el hará por usted el gusto.”
So I went to the secretary, whose name was Oliban, an Aragonese, who was not handsome, and whose manners were neither elegant nor affable.
“You want permission to print the Testament?”
“I do,” said I.
“And you have come to his Excellency about it?” continued Oliban.
“Very true,” I replied.
“I suppose you intend to print it without notes?”
“Then his Excellency cannot give you permission,” said the Aragonese secretary. “It was determined by the Council of Trent that no part of the Scripture should be printed in any Christian country without the notes of the church.”
“How many years was that ago?” I demanded.
“I do not know how many years ago it was,” said Oliban; “but such was the decree of the Council of Trent.”
“Is Spain at present governed according to the decrees of the Council of Trent?” I inquired.
“In some points she is,” answered the Aragonese, “and this is one. But tell me, who are you?Are you known to the British minister?”
“Oh yes, and he takes a great interest in the matter.”
“Does he?” said Oliban; “that indeed alters the case: if you can show me that his Excellency takes an interest in this business, I certainly shall not oppose myself to it.”
The British minister performed all I could wish, and much more than I could expect. He had an interview with the Duke of Rivas, with whom he had much discourse upon my affair: the duke was all smiles and courtesy. He moreover wrote a private letter to the duke, which he advised me to present when I next paid him a visit; and, to crown all, he wrote a letter directed to myself, in which he did me the honour to say, that he had a regard for me, and that nothing would afford him greater pleasure than to hear that I had obtained the permission which I was seeking. So I went to the duke, and delivered the letter. He was ten times more kind and affable than before: he read the letter, smiled most sweetly, and then, as if seized with sudden enthusiasm, he extended his arms in a manner almost theatrical, exclaiming, “Al secretario, el hará por usted el gusto.”
Away I hurried to the secretary, who received me with all the coolness of an icicle. I related to him the words of his principal, and then put into his hand the letter of the British minister to myself. The secretary read it very deliberately, and then said that it was evident his Excellency “did take an interest in the matter.” He then asked me my name, and, taking a sheet of paper, sat down as if for the purpose of writing the permission. I was in ecstasy. All of a sudden, however, he stopped, lifted up his head, seemed to consider a moment, and then, putting his pen behind his ear, he said, “Amongst the decrees of the Council of Trent is one to the effect . . .”
“Oh dear!” said I.
“A singular person is this Oliban,” said I to Galiano; “you cannot imagine what trouble he gives me; he is continually talking about the Council of Trent.”
“I wish he was in the Trent up to the middle,” said Galiano, who, as I have observed already, spoke excellent English; “I wish he was there for talking such nonsense. However,” said he, “we must not offend Oliban—he is one of us, and has done us much service; he is, moreover, a very clever man, but he is an Aragonese, and when one of that nation once gets an idea into his head, it is the most difficult thing in the world to dislodge it. However, we will go to him. He is an old friend of mine, and I have no doubt but that we shall be able to make him listen to reason.”
So the next day I called upon Galiano, at his marine or admiralty office (what shall I call it?), and from thence we proceeded to the bureau of the interior, a magnificent edifice, which had formerly been the casa of the Inquisition, where we had an interview with Oliban, whom Galiano took aside to the window, and there held with him a long conversation, which, as they spoke in whispers, and the room was immensely large, I did not hear. At length Galiano came to me, and said, “There is some difficulty with respect to this business of yours, but I have told Oliban that you are a friend of mine, and he says that that is sufficient; remain with him now, and he will do anything to oblige you. Your affair is settled—farewell.” Whereupon he departed, and I remained with Oliban, who proceeded forthwith to write something, which having concluded, he took out a box of cigars, and having lighted one and offered me another, which I declined, as I do not smoke, he placed his feet against the table, and thus proceeded to address me, speaking in the French language.
“It is with great pleasure that I see you in this capital, and, I may say, upon this business. I consider it a disgrace to Spain that there is no edition of the Gospel in circulation, at least such a one as would be within the reach of all classes of society, the highest or poorest; one unencumbered with notes and commentaries, human devices, swelling it to an unwieldy bulk. I have no doubt that such an edition as you propose to print would have a most beneficial influence on the minds of the people, who, between ourselves, know nothing of pure religion; how should they? seeing that the Gospel has always been sedulously kept from them, just as if civilization could exist where the light of the Gospel beameth not. The moral regeneration of Spain depends upon the free circulation of the Scriptures; to which alone England, your own happy country, is indebted for its high state of civilization and the unmatched prosperity which it at present enjoys. All this I admit, in fact reason compels me to do so, but—”
“Now for it,” thought I.
“Bu—” And then he began to talk once more of the wearisome Council of Trent and I found that his writing in the paper, the offer of the cigar, and the long and prosy harangue were—what shall I call it?—mere φλυαρία.
(George Borrow: The Bible in Spain)