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Books on Ibiza

Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

John Mercer

Four-legged friends often play an important role in children's books. So far in this series we have considered fishes in trees and a mule, leaving for today's article two of the most emblematic Pityusan creatures - lizards and dogs. Cat-maniacs do not despair - your turn will come presently - but following strict seniority, let us first take the Pityusic lizard (Podarcis pityusensis), the oldest inhabitant by far of the archipelago. This fascinating creature exists in numerous subspecies on the outlying islets, some on the very brink of extinction. Over much of the previous century their numbers have dwindled as collectors packed them off to northern terraria to end their days (few even survived the journey); one such culprit was the grandson of Paul Gauguin, who arrived on the island in 1933 and stayed for three years; another was a sculptor called Jokisch, who was living in Stuttgart in 1922 when he heard a programme about Ibiza on the radio. He ended up living with two 'nieces' in a casa payesa in San José until at least the outbreak of the Civil War, and when the fashion for lizards had run its sorry course, became a fisherman and possibly a spy for the German Navy.

Lizard Island Expedition (1965) offers up the classic Boy's Own combination of physical challenge and archaeological mystery. The author, John Mercer, was born in the Canary Islands, attended school in Spain and England, worked as a chartered accountant in Paris and lived for a winter amidst the ruins of Carthage. This was followed by four years underwater fishing and fossil-hunting in the Balearics before he retired to the Scottish Island of Jura to dye wool and weave rugs. A close ethnographic cousin, you might say, of Indiana Jones.

His tale of underwater daring-do is set off the deserted cape of a fictitious Mediterranean isle called 'Puertoviejo'. The smaller eponymous island stands slightly offshore and it is there, with nothing but huge inquisitive lizards for company, that two plucky English lads pitch their tent. Their main interests are underwater fishing and fossils, and it is while hunting for grouper that they come across the remains of two enormous sunken harbours dating back several millennia. The jetties for hundreds of triremes bear a close resemblance to the twin commercial-military port of Carthage itself. The island's name is thus given a definitive explanation, even though no local archaeologist has ever had the slightest inkling about the awesome truth.


Near the back of the book a map of 'Puertoviejo' reveals that Formentera (whose name was once thought to come from the Latin frumentaria - 'wheat-fields') provided the underlying inspiration: there is a 'Barbary Cape' (complete with imposing cliffs), separated from the rest of the island by pinewoods, a long north-south road which connects it with the port of 'Cabrera' (La Savina) and two 'villages' marked just about where San Francisco Javier and San Fernando lie. The eastern part of the island, including La Mola and the flat isthmus in between, has vanished beneath the waves to complete the topographical disguise, but otherwise it looks exactly like the western part of Formentera - there is even an inlet corresponding to Cala Saona. The sole addition is little offshore 'Lizard Island' and its sunken Carthaginian harbours, plonked down just west of the Cap de Barbaria lighthouse. Although in reality there is no island in this spot, those familiar with Espalmador to the north of Formentera might like to reflect that its two natural harbours have been used by mariners since very ancient times. Moreover the only Phoenician remains from the entire Formentera group have come from tiny Illa de s'Alga ('Seaweed Island'), which lies just offshore. Espalmador's name also has a nautical origin, despalmar being an old Catalan word meaning to get rid of the barnacles and algae which grow on the hulks of ships, prior to caulking. Turning now to the etymology of Formentera itself, it seems likely that the 'bread-basket' theory formed the starting-point of this book, although in actual fact few if any Carthaginians remains have ever been found on Formentera (the Romans were the first proper settlers after the Iron Age). Most experts are now agreed that its name derives from the Latin promontoria (singular promontorium), referring to the two prominent headlands - La Mola ('The Millstone') and the 'Barbary Cape'.

Is it so far-fetched that the Pityuses might still harbour astonishing secrets from the distant past? What, for instance, about the libri Punici, ancient papyrus scrolls or volumina (from the Latin volvere - 'to roll') which were hastily smuggled out of Carthage around the time of its destruction in 146 BC. Could such treasure be awaiting a latter-day Howard Carter in a buried Dalt Vila cellar or the inmost recesses of a forgotten smugglers' cave in San Vicente? ('The Millstone' too is said to be riddled with unexplored cavities.) There is a passage in B.H. Warmington's Carthage (1960) which should strike a chord for all armchair archaeologists: "The Romans handed over to the Numidian kings the contents of the libraries of Carthage, which fell into their hands at the sack; it is to be presumed that there were many books, like that of Mago [an expert on agriculture], of immediate practical use in the backward territories." Pliny is the source here, and one is tempted to ask, What about the advanced territories like Ibiza, whose citizens could actually read? Mago's twenty-eight books were in fact translated into both Latin and Greek before vanishing completely from sight during the course of the Dark Ages. Plutarch too speaks of sacred parchments hidden underground before Carthage's destruction. If only they'd been engraved on stone or clay. In recent years the decipherment of tablets from the buried archives of Ebla (a landlocked city half way between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean) is greatly advancing our knowledge of the proto-Phoenician civilization known as Canaanite. Could Ibiza or Formentera hold the key to Carthage?

From lizards to man's best friend: the ca eivissenc, podenco ibicenco or Ibizan hound needs no introduction. Their svelte Egyptian looks and beguiling pointy ears are admired the length and breadth of the globe - they even have their very own kennel clubs in America and Sweden (see http://hem.passagen.se/komhund/E7_ibizan.htm). Voyage to the Island of Bes (1996) by Belgian architect-illustrator Valérie Gevers, takes the reader on an unusual odyssey into the island's rural heart. The tale starts when Petra, a girl holidaying in Cala Tarida is paddling offshore and sights a mysterious podenco atop a nearby headland. On regaining the shore, she has dressed and is gathering up her belongings when the mysterious hound suddenly bounds up and grabs her bright red bum-bag. She gives chase, but with no luck and after an exhausting climb collapses in the shade of a magnificent fig tree. In the subsequent extended dream (which occupies the rest of the book), the dog reappears and the chase is resumed. She stops to chat with an old payesa who tells her of a mysterious well in the centre of the island, whose interior is decorated with magical symbols. Soon after she receives a lift from a group of children in a cart on their way to a dance in front of the ancient well just mentioned. After dancing by the light of the full moon she is taken to rest in a nearby farmhouse and unrolls her little mattress on the upper porch beneath drying tomatoes and star-spangled heavens. She is awakened from her dream (itself within a dream) by a 'small green being with a long tail' - a barruguet - summoned by a little rhyme she earlier composed and recited. The funny little creature shows her how the traditional houses are built, and still within the dream she witnesses the gradual erection of an entire building. She stays with her Ibicenco hosts over the course of an agricultural year, seeing numerous other traditional activities and at the end is woken by her younger brother who says that everyone is waiting for her on the beach. The bum-bag is dug up by the dog and Petra returns to her family, not quite sure what has been going on. Just like the reader.

Front and back covers of Voyage to the Island of Bes by Valérie Gevers

But if this plot has left you a little dazed, then the illustrations more than compensate. They are magnificent, some of the most beautiful drawings ever made of the old Ibicenco way of life. There is the dappled light and shade of a fig-tree with sun-drenched cornfields and terraces beyond; a cutaway of the island showing woods, terraces, farms, haystacks and orchards, leading down to sheltered coves with miniature boathouses; there are kitchen gardens and orange groves, a splendid double-page panorama depicting the moonlit dance in front of the well, house-building, whitewashing and a cutaway of an old kitchen at night with pig-tailed payesas and great parafums or chimney-hoods. Although this is supposedly a children's book, it is in fact a simplified explanation for adults of Ibiza's traditional architecture. The pièce de résistance is a bird's-eye view of a magnificent old finca (Can Nadal de Baix, right next to the Cala Vedella road), with the roof removed to allow you to roam about inside. For anyone wishing to gain further insights into Ibicenco architecture, this little book is an excellent place to begin and children will have plenty of fun poring over the illustrations. It is available in either English, French or Spanish from the publishers at piacruz@airtel.net.

Shortly after I acquired my copy at the book launch in 1996, I took it to show local-history maestro Emily Kaufman at her annual Christmas party. One of the guests put it down too close to a large candle and the book's cover and first three leaves caught fire. As the culprit neither apologised nor offered to make good the damage -serious omissions indeed for any booklover - she has since been dubbed 'the Book Burner'. But there was also a bizarre and particularly Ibicenco side to the incident: the first half of Gevers' dedication (in French) was destroyed, leaving only a prophetic warning: 'it is best to pay attention to the barruguets'. Although the author-illustrator lives in Belgium, she was still on the island to add a further observation two days later: 'Peut-être les barruguets ont peur de feu? Qui sait? Le livre reste un peu plus unique...' On a happier note, the editor, Pia de la Cruz, recently provided a replacement copy free of charge. It goes without saying that she and her architect partner Philippe Rotthier are outstanding bibliomaniacs.

And now all you feline fans, thank you for your patience. Crazy for Cats (1990) is an album of thirty-six animal portraits painted by yet another highly talented Belgian illustrator, Claudine Titeca, in which Ibiza's landscape, architecture and flora form an idyllic backdrop (see illustration below). The text is by Italian resident, Orietta Sala, who is not only an amusing and knowledgeable commentator on our whiskered friends, but also a world authority on the subject of roses - having written several important books. Among the volume's numerous rich pickings are famous sayings, ploys to keep your master/mistress royally entertained (The Snake Game), tips for cat birthday parties (a red rose, two lobsters and a pheasant are recommended), unusual medical lore and a miniature exposition on the 'Language of the Tail'. The drawings are exquisite, depicting the protagonists romping in almond blossom, masquerading as oranges on trees, nibbling on herbs at dusk or playing 'catch' with Mummy Cat's tail. It was originally published in Italian, and is (or was) also available in French. My younger sister was delighted with a copy she received at Christmas - a perfect coming together of two of her favourite things (Ibiza and cats). Today's closing message - by Aldous Huxley - comes from the section of famous sayings:''If you want to write, keep cats.'

Illustration by Claudine Titeca from Crazy For Cats by Orietta Sala

Martin Davies



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