Review of Michael Aaron Rockland’s An American Diplomat in Franco Spain

“Friends on both sides of the Atlantic have wondered how someone with my politics and interest could have wanted to serve in the United States government. The answer is simple: when John Kennedy, in his inaugural address, said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” I took him quite literally…” 

from the Introduction

Michael Aaron Rockland, author of several novels and books and a professor of American Studies at Rutgers University, takes us back to a time of optimism and hope with his newest work, a memoir of his time as a member of the American diplomatic delegation to Spain in the mid-1960’s, with a wonderful panorama of scenes that are truly the ‘behind the scenes’ of life as a cultural attache. An American Diplomat in Franco Spain, published by Hansen Publishing Group, is really part history and cultural commentary but with the personal touch of a memoir and Rockland does a wonderful job of blending these three genres together.

Written in a simple but engaging first person voice that invites the reader to follow along, Rockland tells some incredible stories along the way: how he avoided shaking hands with the Spanish dictator General Franco while standing in a diplomatic receiving line; how his son, Jeffery, won the role of Sasha Zhivago in Dr Zhivago; his time with the late Senator Ted Kennedy during a visit to Spain; and the intense search for a hydrogen bomb lost in the Atlantic off the Spanish coast (and the on-going environmental issues) after a tragic mid-air collision of two American warplanes.

But Rockland’s love of Spain shines through it all as he recalls revisiting places several years later with his family and then noting how much the landscape and the nation of Spain has changed (especially in recent visits) since his days in Spain, Franco Spain. And again along the way, he combines personal reflection with cultural commentary on subjects such as tipping;

“Another thing that would make the United States a happier country, I think, would be to rethink the whole issue of tipping. In Spain, tipping is something casual, just leaving the change from one’s meal or bar tab on the table or counter. Waiters make most of their money through salary; if they make a little extra that’s fine, but they’re not especially dependent on tips for their livelihood. In the United States waiters are paid little or no salary. Their livelihoods are entirely dependent on tips.”

and also the issue of language, notably how within Hispanic cultures certain words are responded to differently, for example in Argentina where the author served prior to his time in Spain,  one Spanish word would be interpreted in a different way; as well as how they are translated into English and the everyday meaning of a word in a cultural context that might get you slapped! And he addresses the issue of religion and religious freedom as he shares about the challenges of being Protestant (and, in his case, Jewish) in that day and age when Spain was very much a Catholic country.

There are several reasons I liked  this book: 1. Rockland shares his views and perspectives in a manner that is refreshingly respectful without becoming partisan. 2. His training as a humanities scholar brings a fresh perspective to world of politics and international relations. 3. His writing drew me in and easily had me walking alongside him as he wrote – very descriptive and conversational.

On my rating scale, I rate this book a ‘great’ read!

Note: I received a galley copy of this book via Net Galley in exchange for a review. I was not required to write a positive review.

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