A short essay on
Norman Lewis: Voices of the Old Sea
by Megan Ratner

Books: The Essential Insider's Guide
(Fang Duff Kahn, 2009)
Mark Strand, Editor

First-rate travel writing requires near-anonymity.  Norman Lewis, whose natural gifts were no doubt intensified by a stint in the British intelligence service, knew how to weave himself into a community yet remain virtually undercover.  A combination of fearlessness and bottomless curiosity often led him to societies on the verge of modernizing, of collapse, or even war, from post-war Europe to South America and Asia. Graham Greene termed him “one of the best writers, not of any particular decade, but of our century."

It’s tough to choose just one among Lewis’s excellent books but Voices of the Old Sea is my favorite (with Naples ’44 and The Honored Society very close seconds).  This seamless chronicle, published in 1984, details the three summers Lewis spent in Farol, along Spain’s Costa Brava, just after World War II.  A tiny fishing village chosen, he alleges, for lack of access, though more likely Lewis’s own invention: it appears on no map.   Through individual encounters, he outlines the relatively rapid loss of long-standing traditions, as Farol’s fishing-based economy gives way to developers and vacationers.

Lewis clearly has little use for the changes he witnesses.  His reporterly detachment portrays the slide into modern homogeneity – beginning with the food, which Muga, a former Farol black-marketeer, insists will appeal to tourists only if made “tasteless” – as poignantly unavoidable.   Yet Lewis seems virtually to disappear in the narrative, his elegant, deceptively straightforward prose  personal without a trace of confession.

Of his approach, Lewis said: “I am looking for the people who have always been there, and belong to the places they live. The others I do not wish to see."  By temporarily belonging to Farol, he captured in Voices of the Old Sea, the moment, repeated all around Europe, when distinctions began to blur and tourism became the only game in town.