Bethan James reviews The Road to Zarauz, an autobiographical novella from Welsh literary grandee Sam Adams.
The Road to Zarauz begins with a meteor shower. Humans have long ascribed significance to hard, bright celestial objects, especially those that scream through the sky, like perfect symbols of impermanence and portent. And yet, while The Road to Zarauz begins with a meteor shower, it’s the darkness of the sky that troubles its narrator, that jolts his conscience and sets about the unspooling of memory in Sam Adams’ latest novel. It follows a group of four friends who meet at university and, in their summer vacation of 1954, decide to take a road-trip down through France and into Franco’s Spain. This journey culminates an event that continues to disturb the narrator more than sixty years on.
The dynamics of friendship between the quartet are central to the tensions that propel the narrative and keep readers guessing at the nature of the incident, that we are told, bleakly and cryptically, will alter everything. Our narrator remains unnamed and a glimpse of his life at present as a father and grandfather is effective in highlighting the stark contrast between the embittered hindsight that seeps into his retelling of the story, and the naive and blinkered young man who sets out towards Europe unburdened by caution and experience. Closest to our narrator is the character of Richie, who is ‘mercurial’ and whose enigmatic characterisation is typified by his ‘straight dark hair swept in a wing across his forehead.’ Gwyn is, unlike Richie, sheltered and easily contented with the promise of his girlfriend’s companionship and a stable job upon his return to Wales, and so his cautiousness and reticence grounds the group and acts as a foil to the other three, more adventurous characters. Ultimately however, it is the character of Alan who emerges as the most interesting and complex of the group. Adams incrementally reveals Alan’s experiences as lieutenant and, briefly, major in the 53rd Welsh Infantry Division during the Second World War throughout the progression of this novel, and explains his uniquely responsible and empathetic reaction to the event at the novel’s conclusion.
The pace at the novel’s beginning lags at times and it takes over thirty pages for the four men to procure the car that will take them to Europe, which can make for impatient reading when frequent allusions by our narrator to the ‘first independent commitment of my life, and the one I have most regretted’, promise drama and tragedy in the coming pages. Likewise, the occasionally heavy-handed fatalism that shrouds the introduction of Richie’s character is explored with increasing sympathy and nuance over the course of the novel, as Richie’s anxieties about religion, sex and existential purpose are teased out. But Adams takes time to render the characters intricately, and in this novel’s opening pages, permits us glimpses of the expressive scenic writing that is to come through rich descriptions of the Welsh valleys. Our narrator visits Richie’s valley, where terraced houses ‘[run] along the flank of the mountain.’ The men visit the village’s Band Club, ‘popular with miners,’ where pints are bought, cards are played, and later walk home along the steep, darkened streets.
The novel quickens and animates upon embarking on the road trip as the fragmentary nature of our narrator’s memory proffers up the most interesting encounters and landscapes of the trip, omitting much of the quotidian liminalities of travel, or at least passing over them briefly. Adams’ precise descriptions of the simmering landscapes of France and Spain are at once spare and evocative. On the drive to Limoges, the car traverses a ‘tree-lined ribbon of asphalt […] straight and true into the hazy distance,’ while the deserted village of Llo is ‘another world, remote, medieval.’ Our narrator is at his most fluent and engaging in descriptive passages like these, which expertly conjure the sound of cicadas and the smell of baked earth. It is marvellous to feel as if one is also surveying these landscapes through the open windows of a black 1932 Morris, which Adams’ transportive prose conjures with ease.
There are glimpses of the political landscape, as well as the scenic in The Road to Zarauz. Our narrator’s deeply personal reason for recounting his memories, and youthful ignorance of Spain’s recent history, keep this novel from becoming overtly political. And yet, the hard realities of life under Franco’s regime are woven inextricably throughout. Some concerned family question whether the men will even be allowed access to Spain as tourists, and when they arrive there they find little traffic but for local mule drawn wagons. Most notably in Burgos, the men are confronted with the lived experience of poor and migrant workers under Franco’s regime, where Adams’ descriptions of ‘ragged people [moving] slowly between the low dwellings’ uncomfortably recalls the present and ongoing migrant crisis throughout Europe. The poverty the four men witness here is clearly unlike any they have witnessed or experienced in the south Wales valleys. Such descriptive episodes are subtly contextualised, for those who might need it, through Alan’s exegeses of political and military history to the rest of his party, which deftly avoid condescending didacticism by dint of our narrator’s almost total ignorance on the subject.
In contrast to the diligent scene setting and characterisation at the beginning of the novel, its conclusion seems curiously rushed. After our narrator recounts the pivotal event that has so disillusioned his memories of this road-trip, there is barely a handful of pages of reflection on its effect on his life. Nonetheless, in what he does reflect, our narrator concisely expresses a profound self-awareness: ‘What do you call that mixture of regard, affection, esteem (and a little envy) that you sometimes feel, unexpectedly, for another […]?’ It is, he concludes, ‘fraternal communion’, a particular strain of love, and the reason our narrator’s journey across Europe in The Road to Zarauz is so painful to recount.