‘El Cordobes’ and my missing book

In my last post I shared with you the difficulties I was having thinning out my book collection.  During that process I discovered books I had forgotten I had, but conversely one or two of my old favourites were nowhere to be found.  Had I lent these to people or had I disposed of them in a previous cull?  One such missing favourite which I was quite peeved about was ‘Or I’ll dress you in mourning’ by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  I’ve recommended this book to a few people in the past and it was very well received.  Let me tell you something about it…..

This is the story of Manuel Bènitez, later to become known as ‘El Cordobes’.  Perhaps one of the best biographies I have ever read, it’s a story of how a boy born into extreme poverty became a millionaire bullfighter and probably the greatest matador ever.  Published some 50 years ago, it is a gripping, and at times a brutal read.  Whatever your views on bull-fighting, you can enjoy this inspirational story about hardship, determination and success during 1950s and 60’s Spain. Yes, a few bulls get hurt along the way, but so do a few humans. The book doesn’t directly address the moral issue of bullfighting but neither does it glamorise the deadly aspects of the bullfighting tradition.  It’s a fascinating window into life in Spain under Franco and the dedication needed to become a successful bullfighter.

I was acquainted with some of the story of El Cordobes when I was age 14 on one of those early holiday package deals to Spain with my family.  I remember bringing home a souvenir ‘El Cordobes’ bullfight advertising poster with my own name printed in the listing of matadors.  Cool and exciting though bullfighting may have seemed, I never felt comfortable watching the televised bullfights shown in the hotel.

The book is not a plain biography.  It’s based on factual accounts, diaries and memories of family, friends and others involved.  What makes it so readable is that the chapters alternate between the tension and adrenaline of the bullfight and the story of his life and the history that has influenced it.

Benitez was born just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  As a youth, he was imprisoned for stealing food to help feed his family and later for unauthorized entry into bullrings. He remained illiterate until the period of his compulsory military service in the late 1950s.  He saw his father imprisoned for supporting the losing side in the Spanish Civil War and his mother die by the age of thirty six after having literally worn herself out trying to feed and maintain her family.

Benitez was destined to remain in the gutter until as a child he saw a film about a boy who beats all the odds to rise to a position of fame and fortune by becoming a bull fighter. Of course, this was long before the advent of ‘get rich quick’ pop stars and football stars.  Fame through the Corrida was the only dream of escape for many impoverished Spaniards. So, he follows his dream to dance the dance of death before the bulls, to risk a horrific injury or terrible death at the horns of a bull, because as he sees it, death is preferable to a life of poverty and struggle.

On the day of his first encounter with the brave bulls of Spain he tells his sister, “Don’t cry, Angelita. Tonight I’ll buy you a house, or I’ll dress you in mourning.”

The book provides a lot of detail about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War and the desperate plight of many Spaniards in Spain between the 1930’s and 50’s.  It’s a fascinating window into life in Spain under Franco and the dedication needed to become a successful bullfighter.

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