Antonio Ferres was born in Madrid in 1924. The son of a landless Andalusian peasant imprisoned by the Nationalists after the war, he had a variety of jobs before becoming a writer. One of these, as commercial traveller, took him through the remote areas of Andalusia—one of the potentially richest and presently poorest parts of Spain, whose villages are rapidly becoming depopulated as landless peasants emigrate en masse for France and Germany. The mixture of rage and resignation with which the Andalusian peasant lives a life at the mercy of a few landlords cultivating a single crop—olives—which give work for only a few months a year, is the subject of his latest book, Tierra de Olivos. Like many of the young generation of Spanish writers, among them Juan Goytisolo and Armando Lopez Salinas with whom his name has been linked, Ferres has turned to reportage to give an account of contemporary Spanish reality. Through his job, Ferres was able to come into closer contact with Andalusian life than most outsiders; the commercial traveller, particularly if he is thought to be selling smuggled British goods from Gibraltar, is often the natural supplier of lingerie and other small luxuries among village women who are not only diffident of shops in the towns but rarely get to them anyway. The author’s detached, dispassionate tone serves to heighten the book’s intensity; it may also have helped the book past the Spanish censor. Tierra de Olivos, of which the following is an extract, is only his second book to be published in Spain. The first, La Piqueta, a novel, appeared in 1959. A second novel, Los Vencidos, has been published only in Italy, while two later novels remain unpublished.

I sat down on a bench in the square. The electric light of the street lanterns brought out the red of the oranges on the trees. When I wait in a small pueblo of Andalusia, just as when I wake up in pension, I can hardly remember where I am. So many squares look alike, so many rooms are the same: the light-switch hanging over the head of the bed, the little night-table where the chamber pot is kept, the wash-stand, the prints of the Virgin, the wardrobe with its long mirror, the iron-grilled window.

When I passed through Lucena a couple of years ago there was hardly any trade. The olive picking had been delayed because of the rain and partly for that reason no day-labourers had been taken on that winter. I was carrying my suitcases full of the nylon underwear I was trying to sell. I spent a whole day going round the shops. At last I gave up in despair. It was already dusk when I reached the most isolated part of the village. Night fell almost immediately: Lucena became white. In the light of a crescent moon the whitewash shone, and the town suddenly appeared large. True, it had neither as many hills nor was it as beautiful as Cabra; its streets were narrow and muddy. Not a soul was in sight. I stopped in the same little square through which I’d first come on arriving in the town, and it seemed as though everyone had shut themselves up in their houses. I felt dulled, drained. Far off a church bell rang. I went on walking slowly through the narrow passages between the white-washed houses, along streets overlooking the silent countryside and the rising slopes of olive groves. For a time I leant against a street corner not knowing what to do. A small street lantern gave out a weak light, a sad, pale light like a taper for the dead. With the palm of my hand I struck the wall. Then I realized that the whitewash was hollow underneath and was crumbling away. Under its whiteness the building was old and dirty.

It seemed to me that this was the only thing I had managed to discover about the town. I sat down on the same bench as now. It was here I met Manuel. He came across the square, dragging his feet, to ask for a cigarette. He was an ungainly man of about 40, who made a grimace of disgust, repulsion, each time he spoke as though he had been through too much in his life. His face was lined and his eyes shone in the half light.

‘There’s no work here. Nothing but olives and olives,’ he said.

Chatting with him it occurred to me to try to sell my wares to the day-labourers picking the olives.

‘They won’t buy much off you,’ he said.