Saturday, December 4, 2010

Book Review: 'Or I'll Dress You In Mourning' by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre

Or I'll Dress You in Mourning: The Story of El Cordobés and the New Spain He Stands For (1968)
Larry Collins (1929-2005) and Dominique Lapierre (1931- )

349 pages

"Don't cry, Angelita. Tonight I'll buy you a house, or I'll dress you in mourning."
- Manuel Benítez, "El Cordobés," to his sister on the day of his first encounter with the brave bulls of Spain
With this quote as epigraph (and in part title), Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre open a history of the rise of the Spanish matador Manuel Benítez,known as "El Cordobés." The book's subtitle, "The Story of El Cordobés and the New Spain He Stands For," points, however, to the authors' larger purpose.  The book is written in 1966, shortly after El Cordobés' rise to fame as a matador and during a time of significant change in Spain, as the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was reluctantly opening up his country to the outside world.

The authors use the story of El Cordobés' unlikely rise out of grinding, anonymous poverty to become the most well-known celebrity in Spain in the early 1960's, as a framework for telling a kind of 'people's history' of Spain, from the doomed 2nd Republic of the 1930's, through the horrors of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, the early years of the Franco dictatorship which saw Spain isolated and impoverished, to the early 1960's, a time of significant change in Spain, as the Spanish people became more aware of how far behind they had fallen relative to the rest of Europe and the developed world, forcing Franco to begin to loosen a bit the tight hold he had on the country. Along the way a brief history of bullfighting in Spain is included, in order to make clearer the impact the brash and risk-seeking El Cordobés had on Spanish bullfighting tradition.

[In the book, Collins and LaPierre do not directly address the moral issue of bullfighting, but neither do they shy away from the bloody, deadly aspects of the tradition. Having attended several bullfights myself, there is clearly no logical, rational argument that can justify bullfighting. That it is a violent and bloody event (for the bulls, always, and often also for the matadors) is inescapable.  A typical bullfighting event actually consists of six bullfights, as three matadors alternate to fight six bulls, and the one certainty is that by the end of the evening six bulls will be dead and dragged from the bullring and into the slaughter house.  But the continued popularity of bullfighting in Spain over the last several hundred years owes much to a savage beauty and power that can mesmerize the spectator; it is telling that the Spanish themselves consider it an art, and not a sporting event --- it's in the cultural section of newspapers, not the sports section.]

The authors construct the book as two parallel histories organized into alternating chapters. One set of  chapters describes a highly anticipated bullfight of El Cordobés in the spring of 1964, in Madrid, in Las Ventas bullring, at the Plaza de Toros; a bullfight is naturally divided into several 'acts', and the authors use these natural divisions to break up the bullfight described into different chapters. Alternating with these chapters on the bullfight that day are chapters that re-count the story of El Cordobés from his birth around the start of the Spanish Civil War to when he finally became a bullfighter in the summer of 1960. The approach works wonderfully, as the tension of the bullfight is heightened for the reader both by the slow revelation of the action, and dangers, of the particular bullfight, as well as by the readers growing understanding for El Cordobés' character, the lessons he has learned and the struggle that has shaped him into the matador that stands before a half-ton bull in a packed bullring in early 1964.

Another technique the authors use is to devote significant sections of each chapter to the voices of family, friends and others involved in El Cordobés' history. Thus, a section of a chapter will be headed, for example, 'Angelita Benítez's Story', and that section will contain an extended, first-person account from El Cordobés' sister, describing her memories of the events the authors describe in that chapter. Using these voices directly, instead of translating them into prose, brings to the story an intimacy that changes what could have been a dry history or biography, to a colorful and varied look at both El Cordobés and the Spain he grew up in. His rise out of the anonymous poverty of central Andalusia allowed and continues today to allow for his story to take on aspects of a legend, where it is difficult to know the truth from the fiction. The authors have tied themselves to the memories of the people with whose voices they populate their story, and in the surrounding text they do not question the statements made. (For example, El Cordobés' birth date in these accounts is said to be shortly before the beginning of the Civil War, though I've since read that there is some dispute about whether he was born before or during the Civil War.) It seems a fair trade: the accuracy of the specific details of the history of El Cordobés' rise is not the focus for the authors; they set-up and succeed at telling a great story about a bull-fighter, and providing an intimate look into life in Spain during the middle third of the last century.

The bullfight described by Collins and Lapierre took place during the annual San Isidro feria, or festival, to its patron saint; for the roughly three weeks of the festival each May, there is a bullfighting event each evening in Madrid. By the start of this particular bullfight on the evening of the 20th of May 1964, it had become a highly anticipated event in Spain: an estimated 2 of 3 Spaniards watched it on television, and the bullring itself had sold out, with most of the tickets sold as part of a 'season-pass', the first time in the history of Madrid's San Isidro feria that all of the available season passes had sold out. All of this attention was focused on El Cordobés, the new star on the Spanish bullfighting scene, who's style was loved by some, hated by others, but who everyone wanted to see. For El Cordobés this particular bullfight "represented the official confirmation of his 'alternativa,' his formal entry into the archives of the 'fiesta brava' [bullfight] as a 'matador de toros'." (A young bullfighter begins as an 'apprentice,' fighting younger, smaller bulls. Once he is ready, he has the opportunity to fight a mature bull --- a so-called 'toro bravo' or 'brave bull.' That bullfight is referred to as his 'alternativa,' an event at which an older, established bullfighter defers on one of his bulls to the apprentice to perform the kill; once the kill is made, the apprentice has passed his 'alternativa'.  Then, by tradition, he must fight a bull in the main bullring in Madrid, to confirm his 'alternativa', and officially become a matador.)

For the reader, the writing style the authors use to describe the bullfight creates the feeling of the action unfolding in real time, like reading the press wire reports of an event as it is happening; that the authors use both their own words to describe the fight, and the direct accounts of others watching it, expands this effect to having multiple, parallel windows into the same live event. The effect is intoxicating, accelerating the reader forward into the story to find out what will happen next. El Cordobés fought the first bull of the evening, a bull named Impulsivo. Rain had come to Madrid in the hours before the start of the bullfight and continued on and off during it, making the sands of the bullring a slippery and dangerous place for the matador and his assistants as they struggled to maintain their footing as the bull passed within inches of their bodies. Early in the bullfight they also realized that the bull was blind in his left eye, making him unpredictable in his movements --- a bull with problems seeing in one eye has a tendency to swing his head sideways as he passes by a bullfighter, slashing his horns to search for what he cannot see properly. To describe more of the events of the bullfight would be to take away the pleasure of discovering the dramatic and exciting story that Collins and Lapierre weave for the reader.

The four chapters that alternate with those describing the bullfight re-count the years from El Cordobés' birth, as Manuel Benítez, a few months before the start of the Spanish Civil War to when he finally became a bullfighter in the summer of 1960. These chapters describe the birth of El Cordobés into a poor laborer family in the region of Andalusia in southern Spain, his early childhood during the Spanish Civil War and the poverty and hunger that he was determined to be rid of by becoming a famous matador.

His father was a day laborer, working on the farms of the few large landowners in the area around his small hometown of Palma del Río. It was a hardscrabble existence, only made worse by the onset of the Civil War, and one that El Cordobés vowed to escape. In 1950 he watched a movie in the small theater in his home town, a movie that told the legend of a poor boy leaving his poverty behind by showing his courage before the bulls, and El Cordobés was hooked. He went off at night with a friend into the pastures of the wealthiest land owner of Palma del Río to practice on the bulls. (This is not only extremely dangerous, but illegal, in particular because a bull will learn very quickly, and, when later it is in the ring, in a true bullfight, it will know to go for the man, and not the cape.) El Cordobés would be caught several times in the pastures by the Civil Guard, and eventually was driven from town, along with his friend. For several years after that, they wandered the Spanish countryside, living a hand-to-mouth existence, training at night on bulls in whatever pastures they would come across. Eventually, by now on his own, he would sometimes settle into day labor jobs for a short period, but always with his mind on how to become a bullfighter.

As the authors point out, "the world [El Cordobés] was trying to enter was one of the most inbred, most closed societies in existence. Courage and ambition alone were not enough to buy admission to its ranks. Friendship was needed, and the aid of someone already inside." Such friendships gradually, finally, opened up to El Cordobés, although at best in a 'three-steps forward, two steps back' path, that took him many years of hardship to follow. In the early 60's, he finally had a true bullfight, and from there several seasons of fights that steadily increased his fame. He was not a classical bullfighter in the artistic sense preferred by traditionalists of bullfighting, but rather a brash and risk-taking bullfighter, appealing directly to the mass of spectators who wanted a show and the adrenalin of danger. His recklessness drew more and more fans to him, and his growing popularity, after a few seasons of bullfighting led him into the ring in Madrid, where the two paths of the history come together in the spring of 1964.

Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre wrote this history just a couple of years after the famous bullfight in 1964. Their approach of using first hand accounts from the principals in El Cordobés' life and including them at face value, and of using the natural, rising tension in the bullfight to pull the reader forward into the story, give a kind of breathless feel to the book, like riding on a small, fast boat across choppy water (or, ultimately, similar to the feeling of watching a bullfight). At first it feels strange, because one normally expects a history to be slow, and if anything plodding, focused on finding and reporting the facts. But, after a few pages, the style seems appropriate, well-tuned to the topic, since so much of the book revolves around the tension and emotion of bullfighting, and, a particular bullfight. The approach also provides a fascinating window into life in Spain under Franco; admittedly it is not a statistically significant sample of people, but the stories they tell, and what those stories reveal about their lives, their hopes and their concerns are powerful to read.

Other reviews / information:

In LIFE magazine

(This is worth the visit both for the interesting review, and the look back at LIFE magazine in 1968...)

An obituary for Larry Collins, describing his background and writing style, in The Times of London.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

For more reviews of books on Spain and its history, click a link to my bookshelf of:
Spain and Spanish History

or click one of the following links to my complete bookshelves of:
Fiction or Non-Fiction

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