POLITICAL ROUND UP BY MURIEL PILKINGTON – 21st January 2008

A portrait of the past Anyone interested in getting a better idea of what the “old” Spain – that is, Franco’s Spain – was really like needn’t go further than the nearest English-language bookstore, or Amazon.com, to buy “Or I’ll dress you in mourning”, the biography of Manuel Benitez, aka El Cordobés, written by an American, Larry Collins, and a Frenchman, Dominique Lapierre. It was written in 1968, just four years after the young man from Palma del Rio in Cordoba province took the bullfighting world by storm when he made his debut in Las Ventas bullring in Madrid on May 20th, 1964. It sometimes takes a bullfighter years as a novillero – an apprentice – before he attains the rank of matador de toros, which involves facing the highly critical crowd of aficionados in Las Ventas. El Cordobés’s debut that Sunday afternoon injected new life into what many saw as a dying art that had never recovered from the death of the last great bullfighter, Manolete, who had bled to death 17 years earlier in a minor bullring in Linares, Jaén province, for lack of a blood transfusion. That Sunday in 1964, the 2,300 hundred tickets – a tenth of the total – set aside by law to be sold on the day of the fight were snatched up in less than an hour. Factory workers pawned their watches and bank clerks spent the equivalent of three months’ salary to buy tickets at 15 times their face value from the scalpers who had queued up all night to make a killing. Even those who abhor bullfighting should read this book, which is much more than the tale of a poor illiterate peasant boy who became one of the richest men of his time. In between describing how the young Manuel risked jail to sneak onto the local bullbreeders lands to practice with the young bulls, Collins and Lapierre describe the historical, social, political and economic background against which it all took place. They describe a country that seems a million light years away from the Spain of today – a country locked behind the Pyrenees, which had fought to expel the Moorish invaders while the rest of Europe was spawning a Renaissance. Then while Europe began to invent modern capitalism, Spain took on the spiritual mission of Catholocizing the world and squandered an empire in the process. This “harsh forbidding land stood higher, bore less water, and exacted for each living thing it sustained a greater toll of human sweat and toil” than any other country in Europe. The result was a proud, fiery people, born to hardship, indifferent to suffering and with a fine disregard for death. Spain gave the world the quintessence of chivalry in Don Quixote as well the cruel Inquisition. In the words of the authors: “She was a land of dark and stormy contrasts, of violence and exquisite tenderness, of physical passion and religious repression, all summed up in the very division of the bullring itself, sol y sombre, sunshine and shadow.” To understand Spain, one historian said, you have to understand the corrida. Only Spain, “this land of sorrow and suffering with its cult of honour, courage and death” could have spawned such a ritual, a living portrayal of the values Spain most prized – physical courage and disdain of death. In the last couple of decades, foreigners have flocked to Spain seeking the sun and a cheaper way of life. But for those who knew Spain four or five decades back, this book may be painful to read. What has happened to that incredible Spanish stoicism, that ability to face any hardship life throws at you and to take pride in doing so? El Cordobés, unlike many of his generation, overcame it all and achieved his life’s dream. But in the process, he unwittingly set the tone for the new Spain and started to lead the country down the path that would make it just another European country. Retired matadors, rich bull breeders, and experienced critics all scorned El Cordobés for ignoring the canons of an art they held sacred, for substituting charlatanism for grace, ignorant courage for skill, a vulgar appeal to emotion for dignity. With his unkempt hair, his scornful laugh, his disdain for the rituals of the corrida, they saw him as the expression of a rapid rise of vulgarity and mediocrity that would overwhelm the graceful and rigid standards they had imposed. That’s the price you pay for democracy. Their criticisms were not without foundation. El Cordobés never mastered the art of killing the bull cleanly and his recklessness in the ring turned a serious ritual into a show and today’s bullfighters are a poor lot who spend more time recovering from gorings than in the ring.

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