The eccentric who put a tiny Andalusian town on the map

English writer Michael Jacobs has died at the age of 61

Ginés Donaire
Michael Jacobs: A magical mind.
Michael Jacobs: A magical mind. JOSÉ MANUEL PEDROSA

Factory of Light is the book I should have written... but that dastardly Michael Jacobs got there before me,” says Chris Stewart, author of the bestselling Driving Over Lemons. Stewart, the former drummer of Genesis, could not conceal his jealousy over the ingenious way in which his great friend and fellow Englishman had managed to describe the southern mountains of Jaén, in Andalusia.

In 1999, the writer and playwright Jacobs, who defined himself as “an eccentric Englishman,” discovered the small town of Frailes. In recognition of the magic realism in his book, the historian Paul Preston noted in the foreword to Factory of Light that Jacobs had turned the village “into a Spanish Macondo that Gabriel García Márquez would instantly recognize.”

Jacobs, considered by many to be one of the most talented pupils of writer and Hispanist Gerald Brenan, died of cancer in London on January 11, at age 61. Following his wishes, his ashes will return to Frailes.

Michael Jacobs was the son of an Italian actress and an Anglo-Irish lawyer. Although he graduated in art history, early on he discovered that travel writing was his real passion. And this passion was significantly fueled by his teenage travels to Spain, especially Andalusia, to learn Spanish.

His book 'Andalucía' destroyed many long-held clichés about southern Spain

His first book on the subject, Andalucía, came out in 1990 and destroyed many of the long-held clichés that held up traditionally romantic views of southern Spain. Instead, the book explored the cultural and historical complexity of the vast region.

Four years later he published Between hopes and memories: a Spanish journey, an atypical, very personal, very literary tale that cast an ironic look on Spain. Later still would come other publications commissioned by Andalusian cultural authorities and an iconoclast approach to the Alhambra.

The historian Ian Gibson defined Jacobs as having the funniest, most magical, impertinent and profoundly inquisitive mind.

Factory of Light describes the author’s love story with the small town that became his permanent home in 1999. With a blend of humor, magic and tenderness, Jacobs retells his experiences during the first five years of his stay in Frailes, where he lived above the local nightclub, demonstrated an interest in the local tradition of healers, and captured the wisdom of people such as his good friend Manuel Ruiz López, who died just a few months before Jacobs did.

One of the most moving chapters in the book recounts the restoration of the local movie theater, the Cinema España, which had been abandoned for 30 years. In June 2001, Jacobs managed to bring in Sara Montiel, an actress and singer who was very famous in the 1960s, to recreate the screening of her 1957 box office hit El último cuplé. Sara Montiel arrived in the village of 2,000 inhabitants in best Welcome Mister Marshall style, with Jacobs acting as her companion.

A tireless traveler, Jacobs turned Frailes into a necessary stop for prestigious writers such as the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom, who shared a passion for food with his English friend.

The many friends he left behind in Jaén testify to Jacobs’ good nature. He has been described as generous, shy, cheerful, romantic and cosmopolitan. Yet his death did not come as a surprise in Frailes. Last September he was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which soon spread to the rest of his body. He went to London for medical treatment, but in December decided to return to Frailes, perhaps to say goodbye to his friends and to the land that captured his imagination for over 15 years. The local authorities announced two days of mourning in his memory.

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