True Grit

In Hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes

by Ronald Fraser
Pantheon, 238 pp., $6.95

This book has a very remarkable story to tell. It describes how the socialist mayor of a small Spanish pueblo near Malaga went into hiding at the end of the Civil War and remained hidden for thirty years until the government published an amnesty. Had he not done this he would have been denounced by his enemies and shot. But although these enemies were keenly on the lookout for him, and the houses in which he was at various times hidden were all in the middle of the village, he was never discovered thanks to his wife’s devotion and vigilance. To anyone who knows Spain and its tightly packed villages where everyone is watching everyone else this seems almost incredible.

The book is written in the form of a documentary. The ex-mayor, his wife, and daughter each speak in turn, describing from their different points of view the experiences they went through. What helps to make it so lively to read are the characters of Manuel Cortes and his wife, Juliana. He was a Social Democrat with strong convictions about economic justice, a man of conscience and humanity with a steady fund of optimism. His wife, on the other hand, detested politics and thought only of her family and of how to make enough money to support it. Yet though she was a pessimist who always expected the worst to happen, it was she who bore most of the strain of these years, and her loyalty and spirit as well as her skill and energy in making money rouse one’s admiration.

The fact that their characters are so openly contrasted gives a certain piquancy to the narrative, especially during the period of Manuel’s hiding when his wife came to the front and became the breadwinner. This has been well brought out by Ronald Fraser. The tape recordings of their narratives have been admirably edited by him and convey their original flavor so closely that I can almost hear their Andalusian villagers’ voices and turns of speech in his English translation.

Manuel’s early life was that of any poor boy in a Spanish pueblo except that since his mother had died while he was still a baby he was adopted by a man who kept a barber’s shop. He was intelligent and did well at school. In those days the classes were so large that few children learned to read or write, but Manuel made such progress that though he had to leave at thirteen to work in the barber’s shop, he was able to start giving private lessons to other boys in the evenings. From his early years he had felt himself to be a leader and teacher so that it was typical of him that when he joined the football club he should take the role of referee. Two years of military service followed and then at the age of twenty-two, disgusted by the injustice and oppression he saw around him, he joined …

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