Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

In Hiding: The Life of Manuel CortÚs

Jonathan Blitzer


At age twenty-seven, in 1957, Ronald Fraser moved to a tiny Spanish pueblo twenty miles west of Malaga to write a novel he called A Hollow Man—a self-deprecation meant to echo Bellow's Dangling Man, which he admired. The novel never came to fruition, but his residency in the town of Mijas would later provide the background and contacts for the first of his many books about contemporary Spanish history. Manuel CortÚs, who was Mijas's mayor before the war, came out of hiding in 1969 under the amnesty granted to anyone with past "leftist," or Republican, affiliations. Fraser, who was then back in England, read about CortÚs in a news report and returned to Mijas to meet him, as well as his wife and daughter, who'd kept him from being discovered all those years.

In 1972, Fraser published In Hiding, his oral history of CortÚs's life. It captured how the events of the Spanish Civil War "were lived by working-class Spaniards," as he then wrote in a preface. Recently reissued with a new introduction, the book bears his trademark style, a kind of literary anthropology that tells sweeping stories with a pointillist logic. Because Fraser is scrupulous about structure and detail, his tales are unfailingly readable—from his depiction of a Spanish village in Tajos (1973) to his oral history of the civil war, The Blood of Spain (1979).

With In Hiding, Fraser recounts how CortÚs, a barber by trade and a Socialist, rode the coattails of the Popular Front's national victory in February 1936 to become mayor of his small town. Four months later, civil war broke out. "There was so little time," CortÚs bemoans with a mixture of exasperation and longing. It is one of the sad refrains of the Socialist's life that there was neither the time nor the means to enact sweeping reform. Without the money or connections to flee the country, CortÚs had no option but to hide. By the war's end, Mijas was overrun by the civil guard and populated by disgruntled rightists intent on reprisals. Crazed nationalists and self-anointed Francoists were determined to find him. Turning himself in would have surely meant death.

For thirty years, beginning when he was only thirty-four, CortÚs barely set foot outside his home. He had several hiding places, the worst in his foster father's house, where for two years he hid by day in a hole as wide as a "child's chair." The combined traumas—"times when I wished I were dead," the depressive episodes, the daily frights—could have led to resignation, but instead they bred constant uncertainty and the hope of impending freedom. "I don't know what I would have done if I had known that [it would be so long]," CortÚs told Fraser. On the day in 1969 when he emerged once again, CortÚs had trouble walking in ordinary shoes, having worn slippers for more than a quarter century. His wife, the story's other hero, worked grueling hours to support the family. It was at her request that Fraser's book did not originally appear in Spain.

Today, historical reconciliation in Spain is highly politicized, and more openness has engendered more contention. Against this backdrop, In Hiding becomes more valuable, not less. While the political battles rage, what remains, Fraser tells us, are the "subjective feelings demonstrating how historic events were experienced." The CortÚs family story testifies to the cataclysmic violence and desperation of the times—and also to ingenious, and now legendary, escapes.

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