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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 the socialist party.

The first time I saw social injustice was at school. Of course it was around me all the time, it was the air we breathed. But when I saw the favoritism the schoolmaster showed to the sons of the rich, it stank to heaven, it made me more rebellious than ever.”

Gradually the state of affairs that prevailed in his village was borne in on him. The cacique or boss ruled the place with his camarilla of clients and dealt out his favors as he pleased. If he was also the mayor he might “eat” the village revenues. The day laborers or the sharecropping peasants who worked a small plot for the landlord had to kowtow to him if they wanted to avoid trouble. Manuel’s account of Andalusian village life in those days, with its age-old poverty and injustice, shows very well how things appeared to a small peasant, and his village was by no means the poorest. So he became a revolutionary, but one with moderate views.

Thus he favored land reform—that is, some redivision of the arable land with fair compensation to the landlords—but believed in peasant ownership with cooperatives and land banks rather than in collectives. He strongly supported the right of everyone to express his own opinions, but like Besteiro thought that there was too much backwardness among the peasants to make a socialist revolution immediately desirable. Education and land reform must come first. So when the Republic came in in 1931 he was elected councilor by the socialist majority in his pueblo, and after the Popular Front elections of February, 1936, he became mayor.

Manuel Cortes’s account of his office of mayor during the days of the Popular Front and the Civil War down to the capture of Malaga by the nationalists in February, 1937, is a document of the first importance, for it is an account made from inside, from village level, of that twelve months’ revolutionary period. His long seclusion from the world had left him with a remarkable memory. I can speak for its general accuracy because I was at that time living in a village halfway between Mijas and Malaga and was acting as a correspondent for The Manchester Guardian. I also kept a full diary I can therefore testify that Manuel gives a fair and balanced picture of what happened in his district and of the problems he had to contend with.

One of the greatest of these was to prevent the exaltados or extremists among the land workers from massacring the landlords they disliked. As a humane man he was strongly opposed to all unauthorized violence, but he could not entirely prevent it. On one occasion a band of anarcho-syndicalists arrived from the next pueblo during his absence and carried off three men whom they afterward shot. This was how most of the “bumpings off” occurred. On another occasion the church and the previous mayor’s house were looted, again during his absence.

The end came in February, 1937. As the Italian troops and the Falangist militia were closing in on Malaga, Manuel set off like tens of thousands of others on that long 140-mile trek along the coast road to Almeria, bombed and machine-gunned all the way from the air. Once in Valencia he joined the Republican forces as a medical orderly, but this part of the narrative has less interest. He is only good on his home ground. Then when Madrid surrendered he was rounded up and sent back by train to Malaga. Arriving at his foster father’s house after dark and unobserved, with the intention of surrendering to the police and serving what he imagined would be a short term of imprisonment, he learned that if he did this he would certainly be shot. So he decided to hide.

The mechanism of the repression that followed the Civil War should here be explained. The nationalist government had no simple means of sorting out “the good” from “the bad,” so they set up summary courts-martial in the provincial capitals which acted on denunciations sent in from the villages. Three denunciations were enough to find a man guilty and no defense was allowed, so if one of the leading men in a village wished to denounce someone, he would always be able to find two of his cronies to support him. Even in quiet times Spanish pueblos are full of envies and hatreds, and after the Civil War this was naturally still more the case. One of those who denounced Manuel was a man whose life he had saved.

I now come to Manuel’s years of hiding, which, as they form the most remarkable part of his story, are given first in the book. His first hiding place was in a small, walled-up cupboard in his foster father’s house. A hole was made in the partition so that he could get in and out, and a picture was hung over it. The house was a posada or inn so that he had to keep completely quiet until the last client had left and the street door was locked. After two and a half years in this dark, cramped cupboard he moved to a house which his wife had rented on the other side of the village. To get there he dressed up as an old woman and hobbled through the streets on a rainy night. In his new refuge he could sit in the upper rooms and only retire to his hiding place under the stairs when it was necessary. Ten years later his wife bought a house in the same street which was more commodious. There he could not only listen to foreign radio stations but watch television and play with his grandchildren.

But although the general climate of Manuel’s life was boredom and frustration, there were frequent alarms and dangers. During the first years of his hiding, the Civil Guard, egged on by his enemies in the village, put pressure on his wife to reveal where her husband was and threatened to put her in prison if she did not tell. They did not search his foster father’s house because, since it was filled all day with people, it seemed impossible that he could be there. Then when his wife rented another house she allowed friends of the family to make visits and every year had a woman in to give it a cleaning. Even the Civil Guard were invited in. This was a wise policy because it killed the rumors that he was hiding there, but it needed endless vigilance.

The most dangerous moment occurred when some straw in the yard caught fire and seemed about to spread to the house, and all the neighbors flocked in with buckets to put it out. Then Manuel developed an acute pain in his left side. Something had to be done about it so his daughter went to bed and pretended to have the same symptoms. The doctor came and prescribed and within two days the pain was gone. Then he had a toothache and to cure it gradually worked on his back teeth till they were loose enough to be pulled out. He also gave up smoking because it made him cough and, though he greatly wanted more children, had to take precautions so that they did not have them. These were not his only trials and alarms, and he and his wife’s accounts of them keep the reader in a continual state of suspense.

Meanwhile money had to be earned. Starting with a capital of 50 pesetas Manuel’s wife Juliana had become a recovera, buying eggs on the farms and taking them on foot to Malaga, which was some eighteen miles away, and there selling them to private houses. She had to travel by night to escape paying the customs duty. By sheer hard work and pinching, living on bread, olive oil, and vegetables, she gradually accumulated a small capital. With this she went into the esparto business, buying cheaply from the men who collected the grass on the mountains, plaiting it into ropes, and selling it in Malaga.

This was a black market traffic, as there was a monopoly in esparto, and she had to fight the Civil Guard over it. She did so well that in time she was able to buy first one then another taxi for her son-in-law as well as a house of her own. After that she bought a truck and started to deal in building materials. Although she could barely read, she had a good head for business as well as drive and energy, and her husband helped her with the accounts. In this way she got her family through the bad years when the working classes were starving, but she had to leave Manuel locked up in her house with only her small daughter in charge of it when she went to Malaga, and this was a constant anxiety to her.

In March, 1969, the amnesty was published and Manuel was free. He had been thirty-three when he went into hiding and was sixty-three when he walked out. He found himself confronted by a new world. Huge apartment blocks rose from the small town below, poverty had ceased to exist, the peasants no longer had to toil on their land. The foreign tourists who had taken over the village had changed everything. Much of this of course was good, but second thoughts made him wonder. The tourist boom, he felt, was artificial and arbitrary and did not extend inland, and then he was disappointed with the young who, though far better educated than before, seemed to have neither political nor religious idealism, but lived only to have a good time.

Such then is Manuel Cortes’s story. To those who once felt the passions of the Spanish Civil War its interest is obvious. But it has surely a far wider fascination as a human document. Manuel and Juliana reveal their personalities and their life together with a rare frankness, and then it is the story of a very admirable man. Persecuted for crimes he had never committed, he bore his trials with calm and patience. Not a word of rancor or bitterness passes his lips and he comes out as full of good feeling and political idealism as he went in.

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