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In Ronald Fraser’s ‘Drought,’ outsider gets in path of village’s future

Author Ronald Fraser and his book 'Drought.'

Author Ronald Fraser and his book ‘Drought.’

(Verso)
Los Angeles Times Book Critic

Ronald Fraser’s “Drought” is an uneven novel, but when it is good, it is very, very good — as in Graham Greene good. The story of a British expatriate named John, who in the late 1950s quits his newspaper job and escapes to the Andalusian mountain village of Benalamar, “Drought” offers a saga of colonialism and its discontents. Benalamar is a degraded landscape; its farms have no water, and a generation later it remains riven by the tensions of the Spanish Civil War.

“No one wants to come here, no one wants to stay,” Fraser tells us. No one, that is, except for John and his countryman Bob, a developer with a vision for the future: "[l]arge houses hidden by walls and eucalyptus, svelte lawns and swimming pools rapidly glimpsed, an eighteen-hole golf course … something more like a country club estate.”

For Bob, the key is the dam he is building, which will bring water to the farmers while also increasing the value of their land. What he is after, then, is opportunity, what Fraser calls “a new form of colonization: mass tourism,” although John understands this is a false faith, through which community and culture will be flattened, not in the name of equality but exploitation. The transformation of the village, in other words, essentially spells its demise.

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Fraser, who died in 2012 at age 81, was a former Reuters reporter who moved to Spain in 1957; his 1979 oral history “Blood of Spain: A History of the Spanish Civil War” is considered definitive.

“Drought,” being published for the first time posthumously, reckons with many of the same issues as his historical work. It is a novel as oral history — much of the action involves Fraser’s protagonist talking to people, collecting their stories — but also as social statement and even, in a sense, memoir. John is alter ego and also stand-in, sharing not only his creator’s biography but also his convictions; Fraser was a socialist who helped found Britain’s New Left Review in the 1960s.

For John, this means a commitment to the villagers but equally a sense of himself as apart. “The feeling that he was living through and for these stories,” Fraser writes of the character’s intentions, “denying his existence except as a recipient of others’ stories? Living vicariously, but more intensely than when his nose was plunged in a book, the collector of other people’s lives? Ah yes, all this was comforting because it allowed him to deny his own problems, his guilt, in the name of a superior objective.”

That sensibility, that double vision, works as long as the novel keeps its focus wide. What Fraser is tracing, after all, are the inevitable tensions of class, of wealth, of the outsider who discovers a place with its own history and heritage, of which he or she knows little, not enough.

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John is enlightened enough to recognize this and to try to keep his distance, although by virtue of his position, he can’t help but be drawn in. “Can one believe,” he asks, “that by the mere fact of existing one can make land prices rise? … That doing nothing, just being, could have such undreamt-of consequences?”

In “Drought,” those consequences are specific: They involve the suicide of a sharecropper named Miguel, who drowns himself in a sluice channel, death by water at the very moment water has become most scarce. It would be ironic if Fraser didn’t reject such labels. “Irony, they say, is the soul of modernism,” he insists, “though I think of it rather as the hidden tension between the thing before and after it’s known.”

And yet, if this is the tension that drives “Drought” — a tension marked by competing worldviews, by the inability of the villagers and the outsiders to speak the same language, of either the tongue or the heart — the novel loses its shape when Fraser zeroes in on Miguel, sending John on what is a futile inquiry into the causes of his death.

As if aping the author’s oral history experience, John talks to a variety of villagers, including Miguel’s treacherous landlady, his sister and his betrothed. But the thing about suicide is that we can never know why, which means these attempts at resolution must be contrived.

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Fraser seems aware of these difficulties; throughout the novel, he moves from first to third person as a way of expanding the point-of-view. Still, in the end it leaves us unsure of where we stand.

Is “Drought” a novel of class and resources, of interlopers remaking a community in their own image for better and for worse? In part, it is, and this is the compelling story, one with deep resonances to global economics (I kept thinking about Greece and the European Union as I was reading) and also the politics of water closer at home.

The book grows vibrant when Fraser addresses such issues, dramatizing them through the filter of his characters. Miguel, however, is a cipher, less a human in his own right than a symbol of the cost of development. Or perhaps it’s that his life, his concerns, remain too small.

“No one here commits suicide for lack of water,” John argues late in the novel. It’s a simple statement, but it suggests a complexity, a web of conflicting motivations and values, on which “Drought,” for all its vivid observations, never fully capitalizes.

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Drought
A Novel

Ronald Fraser
Verso: 244 pp., $19.95 paper

david.ulin@latimes.com

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