Andalusia, a region of southern Spain, is a land of contrasts. Its dusty summer days seethe with intense heat and gradually fade into balmy, scented, star-filled nights. The silent, hot Andalusian afternoons, especially in the gypsy towns of Sevilla and Granada, tremble with the whispers of shimmering sun. The streets and cafes brim with the staccato rhythms and incendiary cries of flamenco dance and song. Jason Webster captures the essence of this culture in his passionate new memoir, Duende: A Journey into the Heart of Flamenco. Choked by the bleak drabness of an academic life in Oxford, he succumbs to the mesmerizing flame of the flamenco life. Unsure of his ultimate direction but starved for life experience, he escapes to Spain, to the eastern coastal city of Alicante, where he studies flamenco guitar and begins an earnest quest to understand duende, that elusive, organic essence of soul connection and emotion conjured by the power of flamenco.
After an intense, destructive love affair with a married flamenco dancer, the author flees to Madrid, friendless and broken-hearted. There he ingratiates himself with outlaw circles of gypsy flamenco musicians. Practicing the guitar endlessly and performing for hours with bleeding fingers, Webster leads a life that is manic and raw, ravaged by drugs, alcohol, crime and poverty. After his treacherous compatriots abandon him, he is bewildered and no closer to grasping duende. Webster goes next to Granada where he recalls a friend's first words upon his arrival in Spain, "You will go there one day . . . and it will change you forever." In the magical serenity of the Alhambra's Generalife gardens he meets an eccentric, older British woman who, ironically, brings him closer to the grail of duende than his gypsy teachers ever could.
Soul odysseys often demand that we lose our way before finding any important truths, and it is a bit painful following the author on his dangerous travels toward self-awakening. But Webster's evocative descriptions of place blended with his wry, honest, inner narrative seduce readers, as do his exotic glimpses of gypsy ethos and flamenco culture. As for enlightenment achieved, Webster returned, after a five-year absence, to settle in Valencia with a flamenco dancer, still in thrall to the mystery of duende, still "fascinated by Spain, perhaps the only country, as Hemingway suggested." Alison Hood writes from San Rafael, California.